The next stop on my culinary tour of Santa Monica Place is the first place I tried to enter but was rejected because it was “too close to closing time.” But we went back, and this time we brought our secret weapon, number two son Spencer-san, a professor of Japanese poetry at Yokohama U. We sat at the sushi bar in the main dining room, and Spencer quickly bonded with the only Japanese person in sight, Toshi-san, who seemed to be in charge of the sushi bar. Our server was a pleasant young man born in Mongolia. Various other serving people came and went.
We were impressed with the beauty of the main dining room which includes the sushi bar. With beautiful wood themes and stylish Japanese accents it’s just what one would expect from a high-end designer asked to create a Japanese effect. The only problem is that when business is slow the back room is closed and customers are relegated to a small, uncomfortable table in the front room, around the sake bar. Had they hired me instead to organize the restaurant, I would have put the sushi bar in the front room, and the sake bar in the back room. That way you could grab a seat at the sushi bar and chat up the people there during a quick lunch, but linger in the soft light of the dining room, or at the sake bar in the evenings.
The salads are moderately Japanese, but I guess “contemporary” means “western influenced.” There’s a Caesar salad, an asparagus salad, a tomato salad, all with Asian accents, most notably the seaweed salad, plus some other common Japanese dishes like miso soup.
Also available is a selection of various tempura dishes in the $9 to $13 range. I was too suspicious of the tempura nasu, described as “crispy fried eggplant served in soy dashi broth,” because typically the breading on tempura doesn’t do well in broth.
The sushi menu, abbreviated on the regular dinner menu, features special creations, which generally run in the $4 to $5 range per piece, about twice the price of a lot of fine sushi houses in the area.
The menu certainly has something for everyone. There are a half-dozen seafood dishes, a half-dozen vegetarian dishes, grilled fish and grilled meats. The two “hotpots,” sukiyaki and Shabu-Shabu, round out the traditional offerings and I’ll be back to try those. And there are various menus, some lunch, some dinner, some sushi, some with noodles and bento boxes. I had a bento box recently, and it was quite good. The bento boxes are perhaps the best values on the menu.
There is an extensive sake menu for those who love trying different sakes, and a long wine list, but the prices of the wines are so overpriced that I would always choose to drink a beer and sake. The draft Kirin beer is particularly good there.
One lunch there consisted of two very beautiful plates, a tuna and crab sushi roll cut into eight pieces and served on and long plate, and the hanabi dish, slices of yellowtail and avocado in a ponzu sauce. We finished by splitting an order of shrimp tempura, which was nicely battered with a touch of spice added. We each had a beer. Everything was delicious and well presented by knowledgeable waiters. The bill with tax and a generous tip came to $100. That was a lot less per person than when Spencer-san, my wife and I had eaten there the time before. On the other hand, I had lunch there recently, on a Friday when the main room was well occupied, and two of us had bento boxes and beers, with a total check of $60 with tip.
I really like Ozumo, but I’m worried about it. The sushi craze is ending, and what people look for in a sushi bar is an informal setting with a “hero” behind the bar giving a personality to the place, recognizing the regulars, and dishing up something unique each time you come in. Ozumo really doesn’t have much personality or any personal touch; it’s the typical corporate clone restaurant with a couple of local cuties at the door and a California bartender behind the bar. The Japanese-looking guy behind the sushi bar (working with the young man from Mongolia) turned out to be from Ohio, born of parents from Beijing.
The wide-ranging eclectic menu is a plus, but it makes it hard for the restaurant to establish itself as a unique place that one thinks of when one thinks about where to go to dinner. It’s not a seafood restaurant, nor a meat specialty place. Yes it’s Japanese, but much more expensive than so many other Japanese places in town.
But the location is good, the food is good, and it’s a beautiful, relaxing atmosphere (when the main room is open). We wish it good luck, and we intend to include it in our regular places for dining.
If You Go
Third Floor, 395 Santa Monica Place
Open for lunch and dinner every day, happy hour 4 p.m. to 7 p.m.
(424) 214-5130 or (424) 214-4560.
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.