Monday, February 28, 2011

Satisfying but not soulful: SUGARFISH by Nozawa

SUGARFISH, the chainlet of sushi restaurants owned and created by Chef Nozawa, the infamous sushi nazi of Sushi Nozawa.  Nozawa is known for his warm rice style sushi, his fanatical following, as well as being well ahead of the curve on refusing substitutions and modifications.

Unlike his flagship on Ventura Blvd, the SUGARFISH chain, with outlets in Downtown LA, Marina Del Rey, Brentwood and Santa Monica, does not have a sushi bar.  All the preparation is done in the kitchen.  The menu is simple with three pre-set combinations accounting for most of the menu, which reads "Almost everyone orders one of the three Trust Me’s; however, you are welcome to order a la carte."  The three combinations are known as Trust Me, Trust Me Lite and The Nozawa, which are the medium, small and large of the menu.

I opted for the Trust Me, which included Edamame, Tuna Sashimi, Albacore & Salmon sushi, Yellowtail and Halibut sushi, Toro hand roll, Yellowtail hand roll (subbed for a crab hand roll).  The items came out in 5 courses, beginning with the edamame and the tuna sashimi (above).  The sashimi was in a sauce and was a nice start to the meal.

The nigiri portion of the meal began with the albacore and salmon sushi (above).  The albacore was sauced with ponzu and the salmon had sesame seeds on top.  The salmon was especially good.

The second nigiri course was yellowtail and halibut.  (above)  These like the previous fish were of good quality but did not elicit the joy of exceptional sushi.  The final courses were the toro roll and the yellowtail roll.  The waiter initially suggested forgoing the toro roll in favor of the yellowtail, but when I told him I couldn't eat the crab roll, I got to try both of the previously mentioned rolls and the toro was superior.

SUGARFISH is handy if you are looking for a quick meal or with indecisive people, as the menu makes most of the decisions for you.  They were flexible about my not eating shellfish, happily substituting the yellowtail roll for the crab hand roll.  They served the nigiri two orders at a time, so you could eat them while the rice was still warm, which I appreciated as so many restaurants serve the entire order of sushi at once to patrons seated at tables.  The pricing was fair for what was delivered, with the Trust Me priced at $28.50.

The drawback to SUGARFISH is that the fish is good but not exceptional.  There is also no opportunity for the interaction and subtle (or not so subtle) feedback with the sushi chef, so your meal can evolve to your taste.  It is impossible to build up a relationship with a sushi chef over several visits, as the sushi chefs are in the kitchen.  I enjoy seeing the fish in the case, seeing the chef make the sushi as well as getting to speak with the chef; at a sushi bar for me these are all essential parts of the experience.  There is something sanitized about the experience at SUGARFISH, which likely appeals to many, but not me.  This lack of soul doesn't make me want to go back and put it in my rotation.  If I am in the neighborhood and need a quick sushi fix, then I can see stopping in at SUGARFISH, but I would not go out of my way to return.

There is a mandatory 16% service charge, which is unusual in the US, except for large parties.  I am not sure why they do this; perhaps it is part of their drive to simplicity and removing yet another decision from the diners.  This is less than I normally tip, but if that is what they want, then so be it.  SUGARFISH is not the place for diners who wish to be in the driver's seat.

SUGARFISH: 1325 2nd Street, Santa Monica (& 3 other locations).  Phone: (310) 393-3338.  Website:

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