From the moment you walk in the door to the seemingly unpretentious little restaurant Sushi Zo, located in a shopping mall near a Vons in Palms, you know you are in for a singular sushi experience.

From the exterior, however, one would never realize that such an unassuming spot serves up the very finest and freshest fish in all of Los Angeles.

This Michelin-starred restaurant, with its highly attentive, quality service, is a bit like a Japanese Zen temple in the seriousness with which the itamae san (sushi chefs) regard the art of serving only the very best seafood to an enthusiastic, yet very reverent following of hard-core sushi aficionados who crowd the place nightly. And at approximately $200 or more per head with drinks, this is no small feat.

The absolutely exquisite meal begins here with a small bowl of miso soup. The remarkable quality of the dashi, or fish stock, is what sets Sushi Zo’s soup apart from the ordinary run-of-the-mill.

Next comes a small, premium quality Kumamoto oyster from Washington state, served with a perfect ponzu sauce accompaniment in the shell. To describe this opener as merely excellent would not do justice to the chefs.

Then the reticent (and somewhat surly, until you get on his good side) owner-chef quietly dishes out the stuff that any real sushi hand knows to be the heart and soul of a true sushi experience: the blue-fin tuna. Sushi Zo’s generous plate of the akami, or red meat blue-fin tuna, hailed from the East Coast, near Boston, and was served sashimi style, already seasoned with soy sauce.

Next came another sashimi delight of super fresh California awabi (abalone) delicately draped in a yuzu (Japanese citrus) sea salt and served sliced in the shell. Remarkably extravagant by anyone’s standards, this hallmark of the Japanese sushi experience also impressed.

The next fish was a super fresh, truly great piece of halibut (hirame) with lemon and salt. The chef tells you not to add soy sauce (an instruction that will become very familiar as the night progresses), partially because of the range of highly refined seasonings that the itamae san add before serving the fish. Another characteristic point about the halibut and all the pieces of fish was the small size of the neta, or fish itself, and the paucity of shari (sushi rice) upon which the fish rest. While this could put some big eaters off, actually this is a real plus. The quality-over-quantity philosophy of Sushi Zo is one the best things about the place.

And because they only serve one piece of each kind of fish instead of the traditional two pieces, it allows the customers to enjoy a wider range of seafood. Indeed, the sheer variety of seafood one enjoys here is incredible.

After the hirame came a wonderful, rich piece of ankimo (monkfish liver) with ponzu sauce, which was so fresh it almost seemed like another dish when compared with the usual fare one gets at a lesser establishment. Then another delicious piece of shiromaguro (albacore), interestingly seasoned with an ponzu sauce that included a hint of orange. Out of this world.

After all these amazing pieces (there’s more, but better to let you be surprised), one would imagine the meal might be winding down. Not at Sushi Zo. More delectable sushi delights would follow, such as a divine piece of cod served with warm vinegared miso sauce, a great black snapper seasoned with truffle salt, a wonderful piece of yellowtail from Japan, squid superbly seasoned with ginger, a superior piece of crunchy giant clam served with sea salt, a sweet shrimp from Santa Barbara that was practically a religious experience to eat it was so good, and a piece of sea perch from Japan that is rarely seen at other Japanese restaurants.

To finish off this incredible feast, the sushi chef served up a spectacular medium fatty tuna roll, also seasoned lightly with vinegar, as well as a sweet egg that was a nice way to end the perfect meal.

I cannot recommend Sushi Zo highly enough. After visiting the restaurant four times over the last couple of months, I am beginning to think if I can afford $200 for dinner, I might not bother going to any other sushi restaurants in town. Just don’t expect too much friendly banter with your sushi chef when you go; these guys are all about the fish, don t particularly like small talk, and really mean business when it comes to serving you only the very best fresh fish possible.

If you go

Sushi Zo

9824 National Blvd.

Los Angeles

90064

(310) 842-3977

This column was written by Daily Press food critic Merv Hecht’s son, Spencer Hecht, who resides in Tokyo and knows a thing or two about sushi. 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 mervynhecht@yahoo.com

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