Glowing softly in the highest firmament of LA’s estimable sushi-only scene (as opposed to also serving cooked dishes, a whole other ball of fish), Sushi Zo has been the subject of acrimonious debate between connoisseurs who feel that an inviting atmosphere and chatty itamae (chef) comprise an important part of the sushi experience, and those who would prefer to contemplate, Zen-like, on the texture of each glistening morsel as its meditatively savored. In this latter school, one can find chef/owner Keizo Seki, and his loyal subjects. These same devotees are also enamored of the warm rice style of sushi Keizo serves with few words and fewer smiles. As with several other hard-line LA sushi temples, rumors abound of less initiated customers tossed out for offenses ranging from requesting California rolls to polluting the air with cell phone blather. Sufficed to say, Keizo takes the art of delivering pristine sushi in an uncluttered mental and physical space with the utmost seriousness, and expects his customers to do the same.
Sharing this singularity of purpose, but taking it into lofty spheres in which even Keizo would tread lightly, is eighty-seven-year-old Jiro Ono, considered by many to be the greatest sushi chef in the world, and the subject of David Gelb’s sushi-lust inducing 2011 documentary, Jiro Dreams of Sushi, referred to coyly by the LA times as nigiri-porn. Despite Jiro’s three Michelin stars for his Sukiyabashi Jiro restaurant and a fan base comprising the top chefs on the planet, he modestly claims “that he hasn’t reached perfection” — this from a man who forced one of his apprentices to make tamago (a deceptively simple, custard-like egg cake) two hundred times before he deemed it approaching acceptable.
So, what does one of the most rarefied sushi shrines in the universe have in common with the humbler Sushi Zo? Well, for one, both of their locations do little to suggest the heights within. Sukiyabashi is located in a Tokyo subway station, and Sushi Zo is nestled against the side of a generic strip mall (a phrase synonymous with Los Angeles dining) whose most prominent feature is the huge parking lot of a Von’s supermarket. Aside from less than promising exteriors, they also share small, sparsely adorned quarters, which channels diners’ focus to the sushi. Lastly, both itamaes expect their customers to enjoy the sushi the moment it’s made and with little or no additional adornment other than the dab of shoyu (soy sauce) provided, which, in establishments as airy as these, they’ve made themselves. This quick consumption policy is designed to provide the customer with sushi at the peak of its taste and texture, but also can result in cognitive dissonance for those who equate the amount of money they spend with luxuriating for hours with their food.
If, however, enjoying an ephemeral meal of a wide variety of the freshest, most seasonal fish, with few accents, but in an atmosphere of restraint and quiet devotion, appeals to your inner ascetic, than few Los Angeles sushi institutions do it better than Sushi Zo. For maximum enjoyment, we recommend going solo or with a friend, right after an afternoon viewing of the hypnotizing Jiro Dreams of Sushi, to still the mind for the pleasures to come. And, if you are a truly grateful disciple, Keizo might reward you at the end of your meal with a lush, cold shot of ambrosial nectar: house made honey-yuzu juice. It’s worth shutting up and eating just for that.
Cold heaven for sushi purists.
An uninspiring strip mall exterior leads into a clean, bright, boxy room that focuses attention on the artistry in front of you.
Efficient and focused, as opposed to warm and chatty. It’s all about the fish.
A low, contented hum.
9824 National Blvd Los Angeles, CA 90034 (310) 842-3977.
Mon-Fri 12pm-2pm, Mon-Sat 5:30pm-9pm. Credit cards accepted. Street parking. Reservations accepted.
JIRO DREAMS OF SUSHI (2012). Directed by David Gelb. Starring Jiro Ono, Masuhiro Yamamato, Daisuke Nakazama.