Despite at least ten years of intent, I never once made it to the original Nozawa in Studio City before its founder, Chef Kazunori Nozawa, retired in February of this year. Folks I knew who had been there, including some who had previously lived in Japan, would get this beatific look on their faces as they described the sheer perfection of its simple, elegant preparations of unbelievably high-quality seafood. But inevitably they would warn that sitting at the bar meant was “omakase” (chef’s choice) with an iron fist. “Don’t try to order anything. They pu tfood in front of you and you eat it. And for God’s sake, whatever you do, do not utter the words ‘California Roll’ within earshot of the chef. He’ll have you…. removed.”
Eyes darkening, they would tell tales of hapless diners who had been escorted from the premises, the greatest meal of their life interrupted, for accidentally offending Nozawa’s delicate sensibilities with seemingly inocuous requests for Spider Rolls and Spicy Tuna. “Trust Me” read the signs on the walls. Evidently, display of anything else was an invitation to be dissed and dismissed, and everyone seemed to have a story about it.
I suspect some of those tales were exaggerated, that these people wanted it to be known that they were in on a hidden agenda. Among its fans, The Fear was clearly one of the drawing points. I was curious about it myself. Would Chef Nozawa find me fit to patronize his establishment? Was I worthy of a nice dinner?
That borderline-S&M level of required audience participation is nowhere in sight upon entering Sugarfish’s Santa Monica location. The staff is friendly and young, the bar spacious and inviting, with the sushi chefs positioned in a kitchen behind another window. They now offer a menu at the bar, at which you can ask anything you like, without fear.
My server informs me that Chef Nozawa still selects the fish for all the Sugarfish locations each morning, and that they follow his recipes and traditions precisely. Asked about what’s changed from the Studio City location, I don’t have to mention the place’s chill-inducing reputation before she does. “We don’t really kick people out here, unless someone is being really disrespectful.”
Sugarfish presents its sushi unconventionally for California tastes, using warm, freshly-cooked rice loosely packed beneath the fish, cut small enough to be taken in a single bite. Each piece is seasoned with such subtlety that my bowl of wasabi, soy sauce and ginger – which I’m sure were amazingly high quality as well, and which I’d usually use up completely – sat unused for the entire meal. The bites being set in front of me were each so gorgeously flavored, I had no interest in altering them.
While Chef Nozawa is no longer there personally, the place still has a very strong personality behind it. Requests for substitutions and even things like “extra rice” or “salt” will now be politely instead of furiously declined. California Rolls, tempura and cream cheese are still nowhere in sight. Hand rolls are on the menu but don’t expect one of those ice-cream-cone like contraptions usually served in LA . These are wrapped about the size of a nice cigar, within nori so fresh it crackles and splits between the teeth, giving way to the most perfect balance of rice, seasoning and fish. I had blue crab and toro rollls, each one a revelation and a perfect bite.
The daily special when I visited was a scallop with what I believe to be yuzu, another skillfull combination in which the acidity of the sauce perfectly offset the rich sweetness of the meat. Salmon sushi arrived with toasted sesame seeds, an unexpected combination that worked incredibly well.
While Sugarfish isn’t cheap, they make it easy to set your own price limit by offering three different prix-fixe meals that follow the progression of what Chef Nozawa would probably be cutting for you if he were there to do it. I was about full after finishing the “Nozawa” special at $34, but lighter appetites can get away with the $17 “Trust Me-Lite” selection. A 16% tip is automatically added to your bill, noting “no further gratuity is expected”, which helps alleviate anxiety over whether you should tip the sushi bar guy separate from the wait staff or what.
While the atmosphere of Sugarfish appears to be substantially different from Nozawa as originally run, it’s nice to know that his most important traditions are carrying on. I’m happy I finally got to eat his food, even if he wasn’t there to make it for me. And rewarded with food this sublime, I don’t really mind that I’ll never have to face the Fear of being served by one of LA’s most notoriously uncompromising chefs.