While most of the Japanese restaurants in Los Angeles specialize in raw fish, there are a lot of other Japanese food cultures worthy of export.
One very important Japanese cuisine that Angelenos don’t often see is the Kaiseki cuisine. There are a few Kaiseki restaurants in Little Tokyo, and perhaps one or two in Beverly Hills, but I believe that Shunji Japanese Cuisine is the first in the Santa Monica area.
Kaiseki style is traditional Japanese seasonal cuisine emphasizing fresh local ingredients in an artistic setting. This is the premier Japanese cuisine, historically what the upper 1 percent ate.
We started with an appetizer in a cup, with yuba (curded milk skin of soybean, something like tofu, and considered very healthy) incorrectly described by the waiter as tofu, dashi broth made from dried bonita flakes, komu seaweed, and spinach — a typical dish served as a greeting.
Next was a refined glass filled with crab meat, yamaimo mountain potato, and four kinds of mushrooms. This is a simple, refreshing, healthy dish.
Then came the centerpiece of Kaisaki cuisine, a long, white plate filled with about a dozen beautifully presented small bites. There was a noodle dish with a piece of red snapper; a small piece of lightly salted, cooked yellowtail; a persimmons shell with pieces of persimmons inside coated with a sweet tofu sauce; a small piece of murasakimo (purple potato); and a small mound of ankimo monkfish liver with diced negi green onions with red caviar on top — one of the most delicious bites of the evening.
Next was a famous dish of fish roe cut into little rectangles with kombu seaweed between two slices. Then there were a few slices of the famous gobo burdock root, followed by a piece of white fish. Finally there was a piece of shrimp with gingko nuts, next to a cooked quail egg. The overall sensation was that of an artist decorating a plate with delicious little bites of foods well known in Japan, but less known here.
After the Kaiseke plate came a plate of sashimi — various pieces of raw fish. I’ve read in other reviews how head chef Shunji Nakao has his fish flown in fresh from Japan, but I didn’t find this fish as good as that in some of the other high end local restaurants.
That was followed by one of the best dishes served to us, the chawan mushi egg custard with dashi broth, shrimp, flavorful matfutake mushroom and gingko nuts. The dish was much lighter than usual, and the exceptionally well-made dashi made the dish exceptional. This was the best chawan mushi we’ve ever had.
Grilled local whitefish was served next, but no one seemed to know the name of it either in English or in Japanese. The fish itself didn’t have much flavor. And then pieces of sushi were served, which we found fairly ordinary. The toro, often the highlight of the raw fish course, was not that good.
And so we came to the end of the meal. The three of us had gone through two excellent bottles of sake, one of which, the “born gold” was the best, plus a glass each of the house sake, which was also very good. The bill came to $750, which was about what we expected. The drinks had cost $150.
Looking back at it, it was a nice experience. I ate some dishes I had never had before, and experienced a different Japanese cuisine. Of course, in Japan in the old days, like the 19th century, the plates would have been served one at a time, by a lovely geisha. But who has time for that in today’s world?
We talked to the chef after dinner, a lovely man. And the service staff was very nice. All of the fish seemed very fresh, and the kaiseki dishes were an interesting experience. But because my two boys that were with me are Japanese speaking, and one is used to eating in Japan, the meal was slightly flawed for us because of the attitude of the chef serving us. This is not uncommon in Japanese restaurants. We’ve all heard of “sushi Nazi” chefs in high-end Japanese sushi bars. Some Japanese chefs take offense at the slightest suggestion from customers, and in fact show a bit of prejudice toward non-Japanese customers.
Although it’s not a raw fish restaurant, for $200 a person one is entitled to expect every dish to be top quality. And it was fortunate for me that I was with my two sons, who speak Japanese, and that I was raised for a while, as a child, by Japanese people, or I would not have appreciated the foods nor known what I was eating.
In a Japanese restaurant different cultural rules apply. The customer is not king, and is not always right. The servers are the royalty and you are the servant. This is not limited to Japanese culture. French chefs are notorious, but they seem to change their attitudes to satisfy American diners. The Japanese seem to take longer to adapt. But perhaps one should look at that as part of the charm of dining in a different cultural space.
When we go back to Shunji we will ask to sit at Mr. Shunji’s station. But at these prices, we will not go back for awhile.
If you go
Shunji Japanese Cuisine
12244 W. Pico Blvd.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.