To say that 2020 was a tough year would be an understatement. The world is still in the midst of a global pandemic, but slowly recovering. Locally, numerous businesses were broken into, burned down, etc., last year when riots broke out during protests. While it may seem like a distant memory, all these things came back to light when we arrived at Mori Sushi for the first time in 2 years, since before COVID-19.
Walking up to the entrance, we noticed all of the windows and the door was boarded up:
Once inside, we were relieved to see everything immaculate and with no damage.
We were greeted by the ever welcoming Chef-Owner Masanori “Maru” Nagano. Concerned about the boarding up, Maru-san explained that Mori Sushi was also a victim of rioting and vandalism during 2020. The restaurant was broken into, windows smashed (as were neighboring stores as well). Maru-san explained that 2020 was a tough year for Mori Sushi, as unlike other top Sushi restaurants locally, they decided not to do any takeout (except for a brief period, but ultimately decided that they couldn’t keep up their standards with to-go options, so they stopped).
Thankfully the breaking in and vandalism, along with zero income didn’t defeat Maru-san and Mori Sushi. They persevered and now with the state officially re-opening, they survived the lockdown and 2020, and are now re-open!
Currently, Mori Sushi is running on a skeleton crew of Chef-Owner Maru-san and 1 front of the house staff. That’s it. They are 100% vaccinated, and only doing 2 seatings a night, socially distanced at the Sushi Bar. For this dinner, we were the only party, so this was almost like a private dining event just for us.
Mori Sushi has been the pinnacle of Omakase Sushi in L.A. for many years. From the time of original Owner and Chef Morihiro Onodera (during the Chowhound days), to when he sold his eponymous restaurant to his protégé, Chef Masanori “Maru” Nagano and beyond, Mori Sushi has always represented the best in L.A. In fact the last few dinners we had with Maru-san prior to the pandemic just reinforced how the student has surpassed the master; he’s been nothing short of fantastic.
First, it was time for a celebration: A celebration of surviving 2020, of welcoming back one of L.A.'s great treasures (Maru-san and Mori Sushi), supporting the Sake industry again, and just enjoying some darn good Sake.
Kokuryu - Shizuku - Daiginjo Special Limited Sake (Fukui, Japan):
We have always enjoyed Kokuryu (“Black Dragon”) Sake, but this Shizuku Limited Edition bottling is on another level. Per the name, this particular Sake release is done by the Shizuku method, gravity-pressed, instead of hand-pressed. I’ve had Shizuku-style Sake before, but this Kokuryu Shizuku Limited is stunning:
The opening course was beautifully presented. Maru-san de-shells Kegani (Japanese Hairy Crab), whips it with finely ground Okra(!) to create a similar mouthfeel to mixing Beef Tartare with an Egg Yolk, but here, it’s combined with his special Shoyu (Soy Sauce), Housemade Dashi, and topped with Ikura (Salmon Roe). Outstanding!
(Zensai Course) Hanasaki Crab; Mentaiko (Spicy Cod Roe) with Yama Imo (Grated Mountain Yam); Shishamo (Sweet Smelt); Toro to Takuan no Kunsei (Smoked Fatty Tuna Belly, Smoked Pickled Daikon); Umaki (Fresh Water Eel with Egg); Tomato & Baby Peach:
The Zensai Course is a signature highlight for Mori Sushi. Maru-san continues to celebrate the season and delight with this beautiful presentation. More importantly is the taste…
Hanasaki Crab (Hokkaido, Japan):
Maru-san explains that Hanasaki Crab is a very limited type of Crab each season (especially trying to get it outside of Japan). It’s sort of like a King Crab (in size), but different. I’ve never had this type of Crab before and was so excited to try this!
The first bite:
First, this tastes super fresh. I have a feeling Maru-san flew this one live from Japan, because the Hanasaki Crab meat is so sweet and bright and fresh! It has the sweetness of Dungeness Crab, but has better texture! It’s better than King Crab and Kegani (Japanese Hairy Crab). A real treat, and one of the Highlights of the Meal!
Mentaiko to Yama Imo (Spicy Cod Roe with Freshly Grated Mountain Yam):
Outstanding! Normally consuming a nice mouthful of Mentaiko straight up (with no Rice, Noodles, etc.) might be overwhelming, but here it’s masterfully tempered by freshly grated Mountain Yam, which quells and balances the entire bite. It’s got the gorgeous oceanic salinity and flavors, but melded and smoothed out by the sticky, silky Grated Mountain Yam.
The Kokuryu Shizuku Daiginjo Sake pairs beautifully with each bite in this Zensai Course.
Shishamo Age (Deep Fried Sweet Smelt Fish) (Hokkaido, Japan):
Delicious. Perfectly fried, not greasy, Shishamo (Sweet Smelt Fish) are always a treat when cooked right, and Maru-san shows off great frying skills here.
Toro to Takuan no Kunsei (Smoked Fatty Tuna Belly with Smoked Pickled Daikon Radish):
Maru-san uses Apple Wood to smoke some Toro (Fatty Tuna Belly) and Takuan (Pickled Daikon Radish) in-house. This bite of Toro no Kunsei has an amazing deep smokiness that doesn’t overwhelm the palate, and it retains a real pleasing fattiness in each bite. It is incredible!
The Takuan no Kunsei is also really enjoyable, deeply smoky but taking on a fun texture (still some of that signature crunch), but softer and meatier.
Umaki (Unagi Tamago Maki) (Fresh Water Eel with Japanese Egg Omelet):
This Umaki was a fun little bite: You get the almost creamy, rich Unagi (Fresh Water Eel) flavor, but complemented quite nicely by Maru-san’s Tamago (Egg).
Farmers Market Cherry Tomato with Wakamomo (Japanese Baby Peach):
And to finish things off, it might seem like a simple bite, but it celebrates the season: The Farmers Market Cherry Tomato is perfectly ripe. True, in-season, ripe Tomatoes are such a beautiful bite to eat (nothing like the mass-produced, tasteless, watery Tomatoes seen year round). This bite is sweet, tart, real umami flavor coming through. and the Wakamomo (Japanese Baby Peach) is also quite sweet and tasty.
(Osuimono Course) Amaebi Shinjo (Sweet Shrimp Cake in Housemade Clear Dashi Broth):
While a standard Ebi Shinjo (Shrimp Meatball) is tasty and a common occurrence, Maru-san decides to take fresh Amaebi (Sweet Shrimp) from Japan, grinds it up to make his own Housemade “Amaebi Shinjo” (or Sweet Shrimp Meatball), topping it with Sakura Zuke (Pickled Japanese Cherry Blossoms) in a glorious crystal clear Housemade Dashi Broth with Avocado (to reflect local seasonal produce). The result?
The Amaebi Shinjo is super fluffy, genuinely inherently sweet(ish) (from the fresh Sweet Shrimp from Japan), the Sakura Zuke (Pickled Japanese Cherry Blossom) is a beautiful touch visually, but more importantly, has a lovely pop of floral, piquant flavor, reflecting the Sakura (Cherry Blossom) season that just wrapped up in Japan. The Broth is incredible, super light but complementing each bite and the fresh, ripe Avocado slices work: It may not be “traditional” in Japan, but this is reflecting California’s in-season produce and it really works. It adds this lovely creaminess.
What’s this? We’re out of Sake already?!
We’re only on the opening appetizer courses and we’ve killed the outstanding Kokuryu Shizuku Sake already. I think we did a little too much celebrating. What to do?
Tatsuriki - Akitsu - Junmai Daiginjo Sake (Hyogo, Japan):
I had remembered @ColinMorey’s recommendation for other stellar Tatsuriki Sake offerings after their Nihon no Sakura (Cherry Blossoms of Japan) Sake blew me away a few years ago! They were sold out of Tatsuriki’s Yokawa Yoneda Sake (darn), but it was time for celebrating! Let’s just go one step up with the Akitsu.
The box and presentation alone is ridiculous. You can tell Tatsuriki cares about each of their bottles. The wooden box that this comes in is beautifully sanded down, soft on the touch, but humble at the same time.
Maru-san also pointed out the Sanada Himo strings that were used to tie this Sake box together. He mentioned it has cultural and historical significance and it’s not just for looks and to throw away later. We kept the box and Sanada Himo strings.
Gorgeous packaging, bottle and label, but thankfully the taste was even better! Using 100% Yamada Nishiki Rice, this is quite a bit more complex, floral and dry compared to the Kokuryu Shizuku Daiginjo we just had. The finish is gorgeous and this is one of the best Sake I’ve ever had in my life! Thanks @ColinMorey. Do not miss this all you Sake lovers out there! (@ipsedixit @A5KOBE @Porthos @attran99 and all.)
Time for Sushi!
Tai no Kobujime - Wild Red Snapper wrapped in Konbu - Kochi, Japan:
A favorite starter for Mori Sushi, the Tai is lightly meaty, delicate, clean, but also there’s a pleasing rich flavor backnote coming through.
But more importantly, from the very first piece of Sushi, the strength of Mori Sushi appears loud and clear:
The Shari (Sushi Rice) is stunning! Maru-san uses Sasanishiki Rice from Japan for his Shari. It is toothsome, there’s real structure, it’s not overly mushy, nor too dry. You can taste the individual grains of Rice. It is considered the most important part of Sushi for a reason and Maru-san’s Sushi Rice is easily the best in L.A.
Hotate - Scallop - Hokkaido, Japan:
There’s nostalgia, there’s happiness, a feeling of gratitude that we got through 2020 and are fortunate enough to enjoy this absolutely stunning, silky, flawless Hotategai (Scallop) from Hokkaido. It is one of the best Hotate offerings that I can remember. Another highlight of the evening!
Mizu Tako - Mizu Octopus - Hokkaido, Japan:
Maru-san shares that he spent about 40 minutes straight tenderizing the Mizu Tako (Mizu Octopus) from Hokkaido in preparation of this piece of Sushi. It is soft and tender, with only a slight meaty chew. Pleasant.
Aji - Horse Mackerel - Kyushu, Japan:
Inherently oily (but not overwhelmingly so), rich, lovely flavor. Loved this!
Amadai - Tilefish - Ehime, Japan:
Beautiful texture and mouthfeel. It’s got a little bit of fattiness but remains on the leaner side.
Hata - Grouper - Kyushu, Japan:
There’s a bit of meatiness and slight chew, leading to some tenderness but a nice deep flavor as well (not oiliness).
Kanpachi - Great Amberjack - Kyushu, Japan:
Robust flavor, some fattiness with lean, lovely. Another highlight of the evening!
Maguro Zuke - Marinated Bluefin Tuna - North Carolina, U.S.A.:
Stellar! Maru-san transforms this Maguro (Tuna) with the in-house marination, creating a deeply savory bite.
Masu - Ocean Trout - Tasmania:
Just look at the gorgeous color (above)! Fatty, creamy, but not overwhelmingly so.
At this point, our server gently mentions that we were out of Sake. What the… ?! How did a 2nd bottle of Sake disappear this fast?
It was really pleasant to catch up with Maru-san and hear about how Mori Sushi was doing, what he did to overcome 2020 and just chat about various topics on Fish, Sushi and beyond. Well, I guess we still had more Sushi and more celebrating to do so…
Tatsuriki - Nihon no Sakura (Cherry Blossoms of Japan) - Junmai Daiginjo Sake (Hyogo, Japan):
One of our favorite Sake, this is the bottle that made us fall in love with Tatsuriki Sake in the first place. Nihon no Sakura features 24k Gold Sakura-shaped flowers that are hand cut and placed into each bottle(!). Obviously overlooking the bling factor, the Sake itself is wonderful. But having it back-to-back-to-back with 2 very good Sake, and I’d have to say our beloved Nihon no Sakura might be in 3rd place (but still SO tasty!).
The immediate mouthfeel is smooth and round, but it’s richer, a bit more floral and punchier than both the Kokuryu Shizuku Daiginjo Limited, and the Tatsuriki Akitsu. It was still lovely to drink, but then we tried it with the Sushi coming next and it paired beautifully! It fit this next section so well…
Nodoguro - Blackthroat Sea Perch - Shimane, Japan:
One of Maru-san’s favorite Fish, it was thanks to Maru-san years ago that we got introduced to Nodoguro and fell in love with it as well. I had very high expectations. Taking a bite:
Truly luscious. Fatty, creamy, absolutely beautiful and beyond the best bite I’ve ever had for Nodoguro! #1 Highlight of the Evening! (@paranoidgarliclover @foodshutterbug @ColinMorey @ipsedixit and all!) Do not miss this.
Maru-san said he sourced a hyper seasonal offering for this Nodoguro (it’s a special type that’s very hard to get). And given the taste, I can believe it. Wow.
Saba - Mackerel - Nagasaki, Japan:
Naturally oily, rich, oceanic, lovely! And this paired beautifully with the Tatsuriki Nihon no Sakura Sake. I couldn’t believe how well this tasted!
Ohtoro - Fattiest Tuna Belly - North Carolina, U.S.A.:
Ultra fatty and luscious.
Iwashi - Sardine - Hokkaido, Japan:
Maru-san’s Iwashi (Sardine) offerings are legendary. He manages to source great quality Iwashi but also manages to coax ridiculous flavor from them as well. Today’s Iwashi was outstanding: Deep flavor, inherently oily, but less pungent than Saba (Mackerel). It’s got some fattiness and is SO good!
It can never be overstated, but Maru-san’s Shari (Rice) continues to do the heavy lifting in the background, elevating each piece of Sushi and really allowing you to enjoy each bite even more.
Kamasu - Barracuda - Oita, Japan:
Beautiful smokiness, tender, creamy within.
Amaebi - Sweet Shrimp - Kagoshima, Japan:
Plump, meaty, firm but yielding. How I missed Amaebi!
Kinmedai - Splendid Alfonsino - Chiba, Japan:
Maru-san does a quick grill to impart some gentle smokiness, but keeps it intact otherwise. The Kinmedai has some nice meatiness, but tender and has some richness.
Kurodai - Black Snapper - Seattle, U.S.A.:
It is at once meaty, but still lush tender. It is incredible.
Bafun Uni to Yama Imo - Bafun Sea Urchin with Fresh Grated Mountain Yam - Hokkaido, Japan:
The Bafun Uni is flawless. Sweet, vibrant, zero bad oceanic aftertaste that comes with Uni that’s not fresh (which plagues far too many Uni offerings out there)). The Yama Imo (Freshly Grated Mountain Yam) adds more silky creaminess, the Shiso Leaf is gorgeous and fragrant, but it’s the special Nori (Seaweed) that Maru-san gets from Saga, Japan that needs to be celebrated.
Seriously, it is the BEST Nori out of any Sushi-ya in town. It’s not even close. Crispy, crunchy it is absurd! Another highlight of the evening!
We reached the normal end of the Omakase meal, but we still had more conversations and celebrating to do so, time for the bonus round!
Hotate - Scallop - Hokkaido, Japan:
As great as the 1st round. Silky, tender, it was no fluke.
Iwashi - Sardine - Hokkaido, Japan:
I kept thinking, “How could this be even better than the 1st round Iwashi?!” Incredible! Oily, fatty, SO GOOD!
Nodoguro - Blackthroat Sea Perch - Shimane, Japan:
And of course we had to get one more round of the best piece of the night: Nodoguro (Blackthroat Sea Pearch). It was just as luxurious, creamy, fatty and flawless as the first time!
Warabi Mochi - Pounded Bracken Flour Dessert with Sweet Matcha:
Maru-san makes his Warabi Mochi by hand, pounding Warabiko (Bracken Starch) to create a tender, lightly chewy, but yielding dessert covered in a fragrant sweet and earthy Matcha Green Tea powder. A nice way to finish the evening.
The pandemic saw the closure of countless restaurants around the world. Mori Sushi could’ve been one of the casualties, not only because they weren’t offering any takeout (given the quality standards Maru-san wanted to maintain), but also because the restaurant got broken into and vandalized during the rioting. But Chef-Owner Masanori “Maru” Nagano perservered, and Mori Sushi survived and is now back, and we are all the better for it.
Dining with Maru-san is like taking a master class in Sushi, but without the pressure of taking finals. You are treated to outstanding knife skills, excellent quality seafood, and the best Shari (Sushi Rice) in town. The Sake list is outstanding and we had some of the best Sake we’ve ever had on this evening. But more importantly, beyond that, you’re treated to an affable, inviting Sushi Chef in Maru-san, who is more than happy to chat with you about Sushi, various seasonal patterns of Fish, or just life in general. Here’s to many more wonderful dinners in the future.
11500 W. Pico Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90064
Tel: (310) 479-3939
Update 1: A Return Visit in early 2022. Spectacular!
Update 2: More wonderful eats for start of Spring 2022.
Update 3: The best Aji I’ve ever had; Jikinme, Albacore Belly and more - Summer 2022!