Friday, March 2, 2012

So Long, Sushi Nozawa

One of my favorite places to eat shuttered its door this week: Sushi Nozawa.  If the name of the 25-year-old Los Angeles restaurant sounds familiar to you, then you’ve probably heard the stories of the small sushi eatery in the nondescript Studio City strip mall, how celebrities flock there, how the chef is so temperamental that he sometimes throws customers he doesn’t like out of the place.  I can’t add much more to these stories of the celebrities, but I can say something about how much I enjoyed the food. 

The sushi restaurant was quite tiny, in fact (it seems strange to refer to it in the past tense), with room enough for only six or seven tables and about a dozen seats at the bar.  Because of this, especially during the restaurant’s height of popularity about a decade ago, the line to get in would stretch out the door and take up most of the room on the outside sidewalk.  Newspaper reports say that some customers would wait in line for two and a half hours for a 45-minute meal. 

I liked to go to Sushi Nozawa quite often because it was within walking distance of my apartment.  I moved to Studio City a year after the restaurant opened, and I remember the adventure of becoming familiar with places to eat near my new digs and was delighted to see so many sushi places nearby.  Since Sushi Nozawa’s reputation wasn’t established at the time, checking the place out wasn’t a high priority.

When I finally got around to going there, I was unimpressed by its lack of atmosphere and ambiance.  But that was okay with me.  I often eat alone and take something with me to read, so the bright lighting made it easier for me to scan my books and magazines. 

At the time, the place was largely a two-handed operation, with the taciturn chef Kazunori Nozawa slicing away solo behind the sushi bar and his soft-spoken and very charming wife Yumiko acting as host-cum-waitress (there might have also been a busman at the time, but I don’t remember).  I had no trouble getting a seat at the bar. 

Not until my second time there did I truly take notice of the food.  Perhaps I was distracted by what I was reading, but it only gradually dawned on me that the sliced fish I had popped into my mouth had a buttery consistency that I hadn’t tasted in sushi before.  Also the fish — yellowtail, I think it was — had a gentle flavor that didn’t seem fishy at all but still smacked of the sea.  And most impressive of all — the rice was warm!  I was so struck by this experience that as soon as I swallowed, I said out loud at the bar, in a soft but pleasantly surprised tone of voice, “That’s really good.”  I put down my reading material and concentrated on the parade of fish that the unsmiling chef behind the bar handed to me.  Each piece was as good as the last.  Before I left, I told the chef how much I enjoyed what I had just eaten.  I remember him only nodding in reply, as though he expected nothing less.  Fortunately, the ever-smiling woman at the cash register was there to thank me and wish me a good night. 

I noticed that the restaurant only served sushi, sashimi, miso soup, and beverages — nothing else.  Given this epicurean austerity, I concluded that so little thought had gone into the restaurant’s atmospherics because so much thought went into the fish it served.  I quickly made Sushi Nozawa a regular part of my evening meals.  I became acquainted with and would occasionally make conversation with Chef Nozawa and Yumiko.  Yumiko seemed impressed that I knew as much as I did about Japanese culture (maybe she was just being polite).  I would even practice my faulty grasp of the Japanese language with them. 

Once, when the chef asked me if I wanted any more sushi, I said, declining, “Iie, kekk├┤ desu.”  Yumiko, who was standing just to the side of my chair, had a wide-eyed look of surprise on her face.  Thinking I might have put my foot in it, I asked her, “That is polite, isn’t it?”  Still with a look of surprise, she answered, “Very polite.”  I think I impressed her.  Chef Nozawa didn’t say anything.  For a time, before leaving, I would say to the chef, complimenting him, “Nozawa-sensei, totemo oishkatta desu.  Go chis├┤-sama deshita.”  Poker-faced, he would quickly nod and then go back to his fish.  To Yumiko, I would say, wishing her a good night, “Oyasumi nasai.”  She would pleasantly smile and repeat the phrase back to me. 

Chef Kazunori Nozawa and Yumiko

Although it was also open for lunch, I didn’t like eating my midday meals there — the sushi was so good that I didn’t want to go back to my workaday world afterwards.  In fact, when I would walk into the restaurant and the couple were within earshot, I would wish them a good evening: “Konban-wa.”  I got so used to saying this to them that when I bumped into Yumiko in town one sunlit day, I automatically said to her, “Konban-wa.”  Always smiling, she corrected me, “Not konban-wakonnichi-wa.”  Not good evening — but good day.  Yes, I thought to my embarrassed self, I knew that.  I’m sure that wasn’t the only Nihongo faux pas I made. 

I was also something of a show-off about matters Japanese.  One evening in my early years eating at the restaurant, my check total came to $16.03.  I added a tip of $2.50 to bring the total to $18.53.  After I wrote down the figure, I was struck by a coincidence: two very important years in Japanese history are 1603, when Ieyasu Tokugawa became supreme shogun and created a ruling order in Japan that would last for the next 250 years, and 1853, when Commodore Matthew Perry of the U.S. sailed to Japan and began the opening of the then-insular country to the rest of the world.  I thought this coincidence was too amusing not to show to Yumiko, but she seemed to be less impressed by it than I was. 

However, word of this restaurant must have gotten out because (no surprise there), before too long, I found it increasingly difficult to get a seat at either the bar or a table.  I also started to realize that there were some house rules: when you sat at a table, you could order anything you wanted from the small sushi menu, but when you sat at the bar, you had to eat whatever Chef Nozawa served you. 

Also, there were certain things that the chef wouldn’t serve.  At first, two signs adorned the wall behind the sushi bar — “Today’s special: no California roll, no spicy tuna roll” and “Today’s special: Trust me.”  Allowing the sushi chef to serve you whatever is the best catch of the day is a traditional Japanese way of eating sushi called omakase.  And the patrons who sat at the bar, including myself on occasion, would often talk among themselves about how good the food was. 

Soon, the stories started to spread about Chef Nozawa throwing patrons out of his restaurant who insisted on ordering items that he did not serve.  The stories were true; I was in the restaurant on one such occasion.  I spotted a number of celebrities at Nozawa’s — it’s the sushi restaurant where I encountered Johnny Clegg.  Artists from nearby animation studios would leave drawings and small paintings for Nozawa to display on the wall, works of art all on the theme of “trust me.” 

And when Nozawa handed his sushi to the customers at the bar, he would often tell them how to eat it.  “No soy sauce.” “No wasabi.”  “One bite.”  For customers having trouble wielding their chopsticks or mastering how to dip the sushi into the soy sauce lightly and quickly, Yumiko would come up to the bar and show them.  (But the sushi rice was packed so loosely — a trademark of Nozawa’s — mine often fell into the soy-sauce dish on its way to my mouth.)  The restaurant didn’t take reservations. 

One kind of reservation the restaurant did make: Chef Nozawa reserved certain kinds of fish — all of which he bought himself at the downtown L.A. fishmarket at 5:00 in the morning — for certain patrons.  My first taste of the chef’s discretionary powers came before the restaurant got extremely popular.  One of my favorite kinds of sushi is mackerel — or saba, as it’s called in Japanese — a delightfully salty fish that I never saw on Nozawa’s menu, despite Spanish mackerel (aji) being a restaurant staple.  One evening, when virtually the only other patrons in the restaurant were a group of Japanese businessmen, making animated conversation with the chef, I heard the word saba in their otherwise unintelligible speech.  I asked Yumiko if saba was being served that night.  She said yes, so I ordered some.  Word soon got back to me that Chef Nozawa wouldn’t serve it to me because he didn’t think that I would like it. 

This was something that I never experienced before: a restaurant item was available, and I was willing to pay for it, but the chef wouldn’t give it to me.  I could feel a quizzical, scowling “what the hell?” expression forming on my face.  Apparently, he was reserving the saba for the Japanese customers.  I stopped eating and reading to ponder what was going down.  Eventually, Nozawa relented and gave me some mackerel.  It wasn’t salty like sushi-bar saba usually is — maybe that’s why Nozawa didn’t think that I would like it.  But I still thought it was rude for him to refuse serving me an available item. 

And not everything that Nozawa served was always on the menu.  One of my favorite offerings of his was his monkfish-liver handroll.  Monkfish liver, or ankimo, is usually served in Japanese restaurants as an appetizer: the sausage-like liver is sliced and served in ponzu sauce.  Instead, Chef Nozawa would put his ankimo in a creamy sauce and wrap it with rice in nori seaweed.  The flavor was delightfully tangy, and the richness of the sauce contrasted nicely with the thinner consistencies of the soy sauce and ponzu sauce served in the other dishes.  But I only discovered this delicacy when a customer eating at a nearby table (he must have been a V.I.P.) was too full to eat the ankimo handroll that Nozawa served him, so he offered it to me.  If this fluke of fate hadn’t happened, I might never have learned about this outstanding menu item. 

Once, I took a sushi-loving friend from Baltimore to Nozawa’s.  He liked the food there so much that he couldn’t eat sushi in Baltimore for the next six months because it couldn’t measure up.  (Don’t get angry, Maryland — Nozawa used crabmeat from the Chesapeake Bay for his delicious crab handrolls.)  I took friends to Sushi Nozawa whenever I could.  In fact, I even had a few small birthday gatherings there, for which I brought slices of my own birthday cake, since the restaurant didn’t serve desert.  I always made sure to bring a slice for Yumiko to ward off any official disapproval of outside food. 

However, as the years went by, my fondness for Sushi Nozawa waned.  The biggest intervention into my enjoyment of the restaurant was the paralysis of half my face after my surgery: because one side of my mouth no longer closes completely when chewing, and because half of the inside of my mouth is numb, this made eating sushi in one bite rather difficult.  Also the prices got increasingly expensive so that it was hard for one lone individual to ingest a decent amount of sushi and sake without generating a three-figure check.  And the restaurant seemed to grow less welcoming.  One evening, I sat down at my usual well-lit table by myself but was asked to move to another where the lighting wasn’t as good, probably so that the table could be put together with another if a large crowd came in.  I quietly decided to eat elsewhere that night.  (To be fair, I was only asked to move again one more time, for understandable reasons.) 

My visits became less frequent, and the visits I did make became more expensive.  With no real opportunity to speak it anywhere else, my Japanese got rusty, so I stopped trying it out on the Nozawas.  But by then, Yumiko all but stopped waiting on tables, leaving most of that task to the growing number of Latino busmen, and largely confined herself to working behind the cash register.  Some nights, she wasn’t at the restaurant at all.  But despite these changes, the sushi was always spectacularly good. 

The last time I ate at Sushi Nozawa was two weeks ago, after hearing of its impending closing.  I savored the food that night in case it was to be my last night eating there.  Sure enough, I showed up on its last night, but the line out the door was very long, and the night was very cold.  Since I was by myself, I decided just to hold onto my memories of the restaurant, especially in its early years.  In some important way, Sushi Nozawa on its last night was different from the restaurant whose food my taste buds fell in love with so long ago.  I decided to go somewhere else.  

Sushi Nozawa - Kazunori Nozawa's final day at restaurant