When it’s time to go out for lunch or dinner, I usually think that anything I would want I can find in Santa Monica. So when the PR people from Sashi invited me to their restaurant in Manhattan Beach, I was skeptical. And then they mentioned their selection of 60 different types of sake, so that was enough to encourage me to go.
Our number two son Dr. Spencer (with his doctorate in medieval Japanese literature) was visiting from his home in Tokyo, so it was the perfect place to take him. Since he is our resident expert in Japanese food, here is his report:
Going into the bar and lounge area as we first arrived, I was impressed with the spacious, comfortable atmosphere, including the two big TVs showing sports. They offer excellent beer on tap. I ordered a Stella Artois, one of my favorites, as it is the custom in Japan to start with a beer.
Although it was a Thursday night, every seat at the sushi bar was occupied for some time before two seats became available. In general, the restaurant was almost full, so it’s clear that reservations would always be required on a weekend, and probably most nights. When we sat down, the sushi chef Makoto Okuwa greeted us, and was very professional from the start.
The first piece of sushi — an excellent, high-quality Atlantic honmaguro akami (red) tuna — was followed by something quite unique, in that instead of the traditional toro, or chu-toro (medium fatty) tuna often accompanying the akami tuna in the beginning of a sushi meal, the chef produced sushi made of baby tuna from Mexico, which was only slightly fatty, without the same heavy, forceful richness of true toro.
After that came some very well-marinated saba (mackerel) that was better than most in terms of its tenderness, freshness and flavor.
Next the Aji (Spanish mackerel) from Japan, that was also excellent because it was extremely fresh and clean tasting. It was also very well-seasoned in the traditional Japanese way, with a hint of ginger and negi (green onion) on top. The tai (red snapper), also from Japan, was the same: high-quality, very fresh and clean.
Then a long and thin razor clam from the East Coast arrived at the table. It’s very reminiscent of mirugai (horse clam, which I love). Also fresh, it was a bit different than the fish you normally eat in a sushi bar. Unfortunately, a little East Coast sand also got into the dish, so that wasn’t perfect.
The uni from Santa Barbara, on the other hand, was perfect. It was extremely fresh and tasty, and the chef gave us a pretty big portion. We also had a nice piece of Japanese hamachi from Kyushu, cut from the belly, that was rich and delicious.
Finally, we had a piece of anago which was good, but not as good as one eats at Kiriko (on Olympic and Sawtelle). It was not served with the sweet sauce many associate with eel dishes, but rather seasoned with yuzu (a special Japanese citrus) and salt.
For those who can afford it (up to $100 per platter) there are big platters of sashimi available. The ones we saw going by looked beautiful, and included lots of tuna and uni in attractive settings.
From the kitchen we also ate a great dish of kurobuta (black Japanese pork belly). It was rich and well-simmered for an extended time, rendering the meat very tender and delicious. It came on a bed of rice porridge (okayu), making it a pretty filling dish, even though the portion was quite small by American standards.
Finally I must mention the rice: the sushi rice (shari), the chef told us, was of paramount importance to his philosophy of sushi in general. He uses a grain somewhere in-between brown and white rice, so the shari is a bit harder than usual, and he also blends it with super-premium special Japanese sugar and vinegar, to create an unusual sushi rice. It is not well-suited to the normal Japanese palate, but I think it could go over well with the local Manhattan Beach crowd and California health enthusiasts.
Although we didn’t have dessert, the list was intriguing, and the people next to us at the bar ordered a chocolate soufflé that looked as good as any I’ve ever seen, in France or in the states.
That’s Spencer’s report. My report is simpler: I looked eagerly at the sake list, and then a lovely young Japanese lady, Yuno Hayashi-Swanson, appeared and offered to answer any questions about it. After some discussion with Spencer in Japanese that went over my head, she offered to bring me a sake sampler of four very different types of sake. When they came, she came over again and gave me an excellent description of each one, with some history. One was very dry, one was fruitier, one was milky colored, with a banana taste, and one was pretty bland. The variety made for a very enjoyable tasting.
Overall the evening was wonderful. I learned a lot about fish, and a lot about sake. The restaurant was full of very attractive people, and everyone, including us, had a good time and ate and drank extremely well. Well, it’s not cheap, but top quality product never is. There’s nothing like it in Santa Monica.
Sashi: 451 Manhattan Beach Blvd., (310) 545-0400, www.sashimb.com.
Merv Hecht, the food and wine critic for the Santa Monica Daily Press, is a wine buyer and consultant to a number of national and international food and wine companies. He can be reached at email@example.com