I’ve walked by the Hikari Sake House on the corner of Fourth Street and Santa Monica Boulevard hundreds of times. I just assumed it was another typical overpriced sushi place run by another sushi-Gestapo-chef who would order me to leave if I ordered the wrong thing. Finally, I went in with my friend John and, boy, was I wrong!
As soon as we sat down, Stephanie, a psychology major at Santa Monica College, brought us a refreshing bowl of miso soup with a big smile. A bus boy brought us a glass of water, the lunch menu and the drink menu.
The décor was industrial tech. The restaurant is small, but the tables are well spaced apart, with floral dividers between them. There’s a comfortable bar with three television sets behind it, each showing a different sporting event. The music playing softly in the background, Stephanie informed us, was “electronic tech” music. Overall the low noise level is a welcome change compared to most local restaurants.
The lunch menu was organized primarily in “lunch special” boxes. The specials run from $9.95 to $16.95. All of the boxes come with five pieces of sushi, so the price difference has to do with which roll you order. Below, the specials were a number of other dishes, some of which I haven’t seen before in a Japanese restaurant. The extensive menu includes just about any Japanese sushi house dish you can think of. One nice feature was the number of small dishes that go well with beer. More about that below.
Among the unexpected dishes on the menu are the Kurobuta sausages described as “Japanese black swine sausage” and an unusual tofu dish — both of which we ordered along with the special lunches. John ordered the lunch with the fresh water eel roll, and I ordered the more expensive one with the “BLT.” I don’t know what BLT stands for, but the description was a California roll with baked lobster on top. As some of you might recall, I wrote a column on that particular dish a few months ago.
The drink menu is also quite extensive, with an excellent selection of cold sake in bottles at very reasonable prices — from about $10 to $30 for a bottle serving two people. We drank green tea.
The sausages came first. They were just like the ones I eat at breakfast when I’m in London. Served with a little pot of mustard, they would be perfect with a beer during happy hour. They arrived very quickly with another seldom seen specialty — battered soft tofu. This turned out to be quite a vegetarian treat that consisted of about eight large coconut colored squares and a dipping sauce served on the side, with a number of chopped vegetables to put into the sauce to enhance its flavor. The sides are necessary because the tofu didn’t have much flavor. But the combination of the soft tofu texture and the flavorful sauce enhanced with the fresh onions and grated radish in the dashi broth makes for an interesting taste.
Next came a nice selection of the five pieces of sushi including tuna, seared tuna, halibut, whitefish and albacore. Each one was delicious, although I would have preferred the halibut to have the edges better trimmed. The rice, while not warm as I prefer, was room temperature and the right texture.
Then came John’s eel roll, served on a long plate. There were eight good sized pieces, with the foot-long eel resting on top of a California roll, with a sweet sauce on top. While we were sampling that, my order arrived. This was the least appetizing in appearance, but the most delicious of all. In a round deep dish there was a California roll at the bottom, with pieces of lobster, chopped tomato and mushrooms on top, all with a lobster sauce baked and crispy noodles sprinkled over it. It looked like a big jumble of unidentifiable objects, and I could have done without the crispy noodles, but it tasted great.
While everything was delicious, it was way too much for two people to eat, and we could have been satisfied with splitting one of the specials. We certainly didn’t need the appetizers. On the other hand, we did get to taste a nice selection of the menu.
Now comes the best part (which you’ve already guessed). As far as I can recall, this is the most reasonably-priced Japanese restaurant I’ve visited in the Santa Monica area. And they are right in the high-priced center of the business district! But at these prices, there are people chop-sticking away throughout the day and night. In fact, this small little space is the second largest distributor of Sapporo draft beer in Los Angeles County! That might be because during happy hour a nice glass of draft beer is $2, and the 32 oz. size is only $4. And during happy hour is when the little sausages ($5.95) and the small dishes (“Zensai”) such as the sizzling asparagus and mushroom at $8.95, or the albacore tartar at $2.95 can best be appreciated with a glass of draft.
The Hikari Sake House is owned by Kevin and Kayla Koo, from Korea. Kevin trained at Sushi Roku and a number of other top-notch Japanese restaurants for 15 years before opening his own place. While his English still needs some improvement, his friendliness and desire to serve his customers comes through loud and clear.
The Hikari Sake house is open every day from 11:30 a.m. to midnight, 401 Santa Monica Blvd., (310) 576-7011.
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