I think that Chef Shunji Nakao must be the unofficial “journeyman” of the Los Angeles Japanese dining scene. He’s worked at The Hump, Asanebo, and more recently at his eponymous restaurant, Shunji’s on Melrose Avenue. When it was announced that he had departed from Shunji’s on Melrose, I almost knew that Chef Shunji had something new planned.
Therefore, I wasn’t too surprised when I heard about Shunji’s re-opening, but instead of Melrose Avenue, this incarnation was located squarely in the Westside. He has taken the space previously occupied by Cecil’s Ribs (a BBQ joint), and transformed it into a warm, kaiseki-friendly dining room, complete with a patron-friendly L-shaped bar. I was pleasantly surprised when Chef Shunji recognized me from my visits to Shunji’s on Melrose and Asanebo, and greeted me warmly. The restaurant is now called Shunji Japanese Cuisine.
Without hesitation, let’s talk food (*** denotes a highlight of the meal), and please forgive my crappy photography:
Chef Shunji’s strong suit is his kaiseki (set meal). In fact, that’s all he’s serving for now. And, with the L-shaped open bar at Shunji’s, it’s a lot of fun to watch the chef at work, cooking away.
Course #1 - Amuse Bouche: Jellyfish, turnip, cucumber... Served cold, this was extremely refreshing!
***Course #2 – Appetizer: Medley of seasonal vegetables: Okra, baby golden squash, beet, kabocha (Japanese pumpkin), baby turnip, haricot vert, marinated celery hearts... Chef Shunji really takes pride in his vegetables! This was great! One would expect a meat dish as a first course in a meal such as this, but Chef Shunji throws us a curve ball, and it works.
***Course #3 - Trio of appetizers: Whipped ankimo (monkfish liver) with caviar & ponzu, yuba (tofu skin) with chilled homemade tofu & soy milk, and purple yam & bleu cheese ball with dried persimmon... The whipped ankimo (monkfish liver) with transmontanus caviar & ponzu was superb! Chef Shunji says he has has a secret technique for making these so fluffy and airy, yet so flavorful! Perfectly paired, the yuba naturally complemented the tofu. Last but not least, the purple yam & bleu cheese ball with dried persimmon was so good! It's like having the entire cheese tray in one gorgeous bite!
Course #4 - Mango & carrot gazpacho, kani (crab), with shaved foie gras, garnished with black pepper... Utterly fantastic, with huge chunks of crab meat in this gazpacho!
Course #5 - Marinated tako (octopus) with bell peppers, heirloom tomatoes & zucchini... So simple, so good!
***Course #6 – Steamed takenoko (young bamboo shoot) sprinkled with furikake (Japanese rice condiment), with fava beans, salted ginnan (ginkgo nuts)... The bamboo was so tender! Note that this is the first warm dish to be served. I suppose I shouldn't be surprised by this man's proficiency with vegetables, but I am amazed by the delicacy and umami of Chef Shunji's non-meat dishes so far.
Course #7 - Marinated akami (lean tuna) carpaccio, with daikon... The quality of the tuna was outstanding.
Course #8 - Black cod soup, with shiitake mushroom, enoki mushroom, and shiso leaf in light dashi broth... Perfect for a cool night.
***Course #9 - "Squid ink pasta" with seared kanpachi (amberjack) & peanut miso... “Squid ink pasta" is actually thinly cut strips of ika (squid), sepia (ink), black truffle, and uni (sea urchin roe), all topped by an uzura no tamago (quail egg)... Luscious. Meanwhile, the seared kanpachi (amberjack) with peanut miso was out of this world!
***Course #10 – Tempura of zucchini blossoms stuffed with ebi (shrimp) paste and yamaimo (Japanese mountain yam), served with tempura sauce... Phenomenal. The ebi (shrimp) paste was delicate and cooked to perfection! This brought back fond memories of Raku, the now-defunct Japanese-Korean izakaya located not too far from Shunji’s.
Course #11 - Nasu soboro, (stewed Japanese eggplant, with ground chicken & cilantro chicken sauce)... Terrific!
And now, we begin with the sushi portion of the meal…
Course #12 - Seared aji (horse mackerel)... Nice!
***Course #13 - Teba saki (grilled pre-marinated chicken wings)... OK, so this isn't sushi, BUT it went really, really well with my cold draft beer!
Course #14 - Akami (lean tuna, bluefin)...
***Course #15 - Chu-toro (medium fatty tuna, bluefin)...
Course #16 - Marinated sake (salmon)... Wow, marinating the salmon beforehand DOES make it taste even better!
Course #17 - Ikura (salmon roe)... Excellent.
Course #18 - Seared saba (mackerel)... Super oishi!
***Course #19 - Uni (sea urchin roe) & kanpyo (pickled gourd) maki (cut roll) sushi... This combination of tastes is unbelievable!
At this point I was completely full & satisfied. What a wonderful kaiseki! I asked the chef why he chose to relocate, and he explained that Melrose was a rather awkward commute for many of his regular clients. Accordingly, the Westside location may allow for more frequent and repeat customers.
With his emphasis on fresh, seasonal ingredients and especially his skills with vegetables, I hope that Chef Shunji is at the end of his wanderings, and with the opening of Shunji Japanese Cuisine, that he is here to stay!