New Neighborhood Sushi Bar Striving for Volume Arrives - The Lunch Specials and Dinner Omakase at Sushi Kisen [Thoughts + Pics]

It was our turn to drive over and visit our friends in Pasadena, and it had been since before the pandemic that we had seen them. They ended up recommending a new Sushi Bar that opened up nearby, Sushi Kisen.

It turns out Sushi Kisen is helmed by Sushi Chef Hiro Yamada, who previously worked at local spots Sushi Gen and Shiki (Beverly Hills). Walking in, it’s a massive Sushi Bar, powered by 4(!) Sushi Chefs, in addition to a large area for tables.

For Lunch, they offer a variety of Small Plates, Tempura, Lunch Specials, and Sushi by the piece, rolls, etc.

Nidako (Simmered, Seared Tender Octopus):

Wow. There’s a reason our waitress recommended this dish, saying it was it was a house specialty. Surprisingly tender, flavorful bites of Simmered Octopus, definitely a very good dish.

Sushi Lunch:

The Sushi Lunch Combo arrives with 3 small bites: Housemade Pickles, Ohitashi (Simmered Spinach) and Housemade Tofu. All 3 small bites were solid and well-made. No issues.

The Sushi Lunch Combo was… very reminiscent of Sushi Gen (the popular, mediocre Little Tokyo Sushi spot). At $19.50 it’s a huge value, but there are issues. The Fish was all generally fresh, but some pieces like the Tai (Red Snapper) and Hamachi (Yellowtail) were dryish. The Shari (Sushi Rice) tasted pre-made, it was dryish, clumpy, and not very good. :frowning:

But again, $19.50 for all this food? You can see why it was ordered a lot (many tables had this).

A La Carte Sushi:

Kohada (Gizzard Shad):

Piquant, overly vinegared, salty, the Kohada itself was poor compared to the best places around town, however the Sushi Rice was dramatically better on this special individual order (we ordered it after the Lunch Combo). You can taste that this was made-to-order, and the Rice tasted nothing like the Sushi Lunch Combo. It wasn’t top tier, but much better.

Sayori (Needle Fish):

The Sayori was fine, but again, the Sushi Rice was dramatically better in this special, one-off order, compared to what was in the Sushi Lunch Combo. This gave us hope that their Dinner Omakase might be worth trying.

Iwashi (Sardine):

Briny, but a bit flat. It lacked the unctuousness and greatness of the best versions around town.

2nd Visit:

We found ourselves needing to drop off stuff to some other friends in the SGV, so it was time for a 2nd visit during Lunch.

Tempura Moriawase (Assorted Tempura):

A decent fry. It arrived piping hot, but the actual batter was a bit too thick, and it was a bit oily after eating a few pieces.

Negitoro (Fatty Bluefin Tuna with Green Onion):

Their Negitoro Cut Roll had soft, soggy Seaweed wrappers. :frowning: But the actual flavor of the Negitoro (Fatty Bluefin Tuna and Green Onions) was fine. Tasty.

Ohitashi (Simmered Spinach with Dashi):

Nicely executed version, no complaints. Good Spinach infused with a medium salinity Dashi. The Katsuobushi (Shaved Bonito Flakes) and Sesame Seeds are always a great pairing.

Salmon Saikyoyaki:

In a bit of a surprise, instead of the traditional Gindara Saikyoyaki (Black Cod with Saikyo Miso), they use Salmon. It still works, and the Saikyo Miso imparts a rich, fragrant, umami flavor in each bite.

A La Carte Sushi:

Wanting to see if the reason the Sushi Lunch Combo was so mediocre was due to pre-made Sushi Rice, or maybe pre-cut pieces(?), we decided to order a few pieces A La Carte to see if it made a difference and construct our own “Sushi Lunch Combo.”

Akami Bluefin Tuna:

First, the Sushi Rice was definitely better than ordering the Sushi Lunch Combo. You could taste some definition in the grains, it still wasn’t top tier, but adequate and much better than the Combo Rice. The Akami meat was balanced and vibrant.

Shima Aji (Jack Mackerel):

A nice combo of lean and fat here, decent for lunch, but the cut and overall Sushi Rice undermined greatness. Sourcing was also decent at best.

Saba (Mackerel):

Briny, overly vinegared like the Kohada we had previously, the Saba (Mackerel) was fine for a casual Sushi Lunch, but at least it was better ordering a la carte, compared to what we got previously in the Sushi Lunch Combo.

Kinmedai (Golden Eye Snapper):

A bit soft, mushy, but still fresh. It just lacked the fat and lean balance and texture of the best versions around town.

Hotate (Scallops):

Silky and very fresh. Delicious. :slight_smile:

Yaki Shishamo (Grilled Smelt Fish with Eggs):

Oceanic (in a good way), crisped, smoky, and nicely grilled.

Deluxe Chirashi Lunch:

Seeing that they offered a Chirashi Bowl for Lunch, we were curious how this would turn out compared to all the wonderful Chirashi we’ve had during the last few years (from top Sushi-Yas doing Chirashi for Lunch). This was fine. It turns out Sushi Kisen is serving Sashimi slices over Rice as Chirashi, vs. some interpretations locally that have the smaller bites of Fish more mixed up.

It was basically a Sashimi Bowl, and you got some thick pieces of fresh Fish over warm Rice.

Chicken Karaage:

The positive: Their Japanese Fried Chicken (Boneless) arrived searing hot out of the fryer to our table. Unfortunately, the Chicken meat was a bit stringy(!), overly salted, and the batter was soft.

Negihama Roll (Yellowtail with Green Onion):

Their Nori (Seaweed) wrapper continues to be a weak spot, soft and chewy. The Yellowtail and Green Onion combo is normally a winning combination, but here it was lacking any pop, soft, mild and with clumpy rice. :frowning:

3rd Visit (Dinner):

For our 3rd visit, we wanted to see how Dinner Omakase (Chef’s Choice) might turn out. We had asked to be seated in front of main Chef Hiro Yamada, but a mixup resulted in us being seated elsewhere, in front of a Taka-san, who was accommodating, but ended up being the 3rd Chef out of 4(!) in the massive Sushi Bar. It definitely felt like a factory at times, with all 4 Sushi Chefs making not only Omakase for the guests in front of themselves, but also churning out table orders for Dinner Sushi requests at the back tables.

Perusing their Sake List, and it was massively underwhelming. A bunch of mediocre offerings, and then 3 bottles at the end in the $900 range(!), clearly for ballers (with the usual suspect Dassai Beyond leading that section). We ended up trying:

Fukukomachi - Junmai Ginjo Sake (Akita, Japan):

A light fruitiness, decent mouthfeel, and an OK finish (somewhat dry) this was fine, but there weren’t that many choices.

Aji no Tataki - Horse Mackerel - Kyushu, Japan:

The opening bite of the Omakase Dinner started with cubed pieces of Aji (Horse Mackerel), which was inherently oily, full-flavored and fragrant from the Negi (Green Onions) and seasoning.

Tsubugai - Welk - Hokkaido, Japan:

This was a nice change of pace, delicate, lightly chewy, but tender pieces of Tsubugai (Welk) from Hokkaido, Japan. Simple, but satisfying.

Shirako - Cod Milt - Ehime, Japan:

Sushi Kisen’s Shirako (Cod Milt) was poached, and served with a house Dashi. Tender, supple and tasty. These opening dishes alone showed that Kisen was much better than their Lunch menu showed previously. We were hopeful.

Katsuo - Bonito - Chiba, Japan:

Their Katsuo was smoked in-house, before being served as Sashimi slices. This was genuinely excellent! Flavorful, lightly smoky, inherently briny-oily.

Time for Nigiri Sushi!

Sayori - Japanese Halfbeak - Aichi, Japan:

The Sayori meat itself was meaty, but sufficiently tender. However, the Nikiri Sauce is surprisingly underseasoned. It’s extremely light (and I like my food lightly salted as opposed to over-salted).

The Shari (Sushi Rice) is OK at best. Borderline clumpy, stodgy, and almost no detectable use of Vinegar. :frowning:

Shima Aji - Striped Jack - Ehime, Japan:

Then the Shima Aji arrived. Tender, fatty, but still with enough leanness. Excellent! :blush:

Kasugodai - Baby Snapper - Hyogo, Japan:

This was surprisingly super tender and almost pillowy(!). It was very strange, as we’ve never had Kasugodai with that texture before. Enjoyable. (@BradFord)

Kanpachi - Great Amberjack - Kagoshima, Japan:

Meaty, a touch leaner than we’re used to having for Kanpachi over the last few years.

Maguro - Bluefin Tuna - Spain:

Surprisingly lush, tender, flavorful. Quite good, but it should be noted, their Sushi Rice was still the weak spot, a bit clumpy still even with the best pieces of Fish throughout the meal.

Chu-Toro - Medium Fatty Tuna Belly - Spain:

Very good Chu-Toro in terms of cut, fatty and lean balance and flavor. Noteworthy. However, it was undermined by their mediocre Sushi Rice.

Aoyagi - Surf Clam - East Coast, U.S.A.:

Very good crisp chew. I love a good Aoyagi prep. :blush: (If they had great Rice this would’ve been a highlight.)

Miso Soup:

Their Housemade Miso Soup was flavorful, not overly salted. Simple, but nourishing.

Oh-Toro - Fattiest Tuna Belly - Spain:

Super unctuous, fatty, decadent. Sadly, with a large piece of gristle running through it. :frowning:

Bafun Uni - Sea Urchin - Hokkaido, Japan:

The Bafun Uni from Hokkaido was fishy, but very creamy. The Nori (Seaweed) was soft and soggy. :frowning:

Ikura - Salmon Roe - Alaska, U.S.A.:

Marinated Salmon Roe were plump and popping, but their marinade resulted in it being a touch too salty.

Shiro Ebi - Baby White Shrimp - Toyama, Japan:

Silky, slippery, tender morsels of Baby White Shrimp. Enjoyable!

Torotaku Temaki - Fatty Tuna Belly + Pickled Daikon Radish Handroll:

Always a great combo, the Fatty Tuna Belly finely minced with Takuan (Pickled Daikon Radish) resulted in this luscious, fatty, and crunchy bite. :blush: Unfortunately, the Nori (Seaweed) wrapper was still soft & soggy-ish.

Nodoguro - Blackthroat Sea Perch - Nagasaki, Japan:

This was a great example of how much Nodoguro can differ in the hands of someone less experienced or masterful in preparation. The Nodoguro here was soft, it looked delicious, but it was actually not that fatty and lacked that superb balance of fat & lean and flavor bomb that the best Nodoguro preparations have (e.g., from Maru-san at Mori Sushi).

Lychee Sorbet:

And the Omakase ended with Lychee Sorbet. This was tropical, light, refreshing and super concentrated in Lychee flavor.

In the end, it feels like Sushi Kisen is aiming to please a large volume of customers every day, for Lunch and Dinner. It’s apparent with their choice of the elongated Sushi Bar, with enough space for 4 Sushi Chefs to prepare Fish, as well as the numerous tables in the dining room. There’s nothing wrong with that choice, as given the pandemic, and just overall focus, it can be hard to decide to go for the ultra-high end style of Sushi Bar, where you only have 6 - 8 seats at the bar, and that’s it. How much would they have to charge to make money? Compared to the large volume format, with more turnover per night, in a more rushed capacity.

Sushi Kisen for Lunch and their cooked dishes is a place that offers affordable, if mediocre Lunch Specials. The Fish itself is fresh (mostly), and you get some nice small bites and Miso Soup and Rice with all Combos. Considering the amount of food for the Sushi Lunch Combo at $19.50, it’s extremely affordable for those on a budget. But their dishes are mostly average.

Their Dinner Omakase fairs better. There are some genuine standouts, so you can see there’s some skill here, but sadly, their Sushi Rice is disappointing. At Lunch, it tastes like it was pre-molded en masse, super clumpy, stodgy. For Dinner Omakase, even freshly formed for each bite, the Rice was borderline clumpy, but better than Lunch for sure. If they took the time to improve their Sushi Rice, it would actually be a decent spot to stop by if you were in the area. Here’s to hoping.

Sushi Kisen
1108 S. Baldwin Ave., # B6
Arcadia, CA 91007
Tel: (626) 623-6033


19.95 lunch special is a good sweet spot

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Thanks for your thoughts and report, @Chowseeker1999. Here’s to hoping they’ll continue to improve with the rice especially. I think of all of the smaller omakase-only places now that have popped up around the last 5-10 years or so, and all of the advantages they have when they have a set menu and set seating times. The rice, in particular, is so much easier to control. There’s quite a few business advantages to doing that prepaid omakase-only style, too, so I totally get why other sushiya do that.

But in the last couple of years, I’ve often wanted a place offering a high-quality okonomi menu as well. Somewhere to pop in for a few seasonal whitefish, hikarimono or two, clams, try the akamizuke, and a maki roll to finish. Not have to do a full prepaid (and reserved a month in advance) omakase meal and then just get to choose a couple of bonus rounds. But, as you basically point out in your visits, rice texture is always going to be paramount.

Kasugodai can be great when it’s pillowy.

Kasugodai no konbujime with ebi “soboro” at Sushi Sho Waikiki.

And I love clams, too! I wish we had more akagai stateside, those were a revelation in Japan - very different than the quality of clams I’ve had in the US.


Hi @BradFord ,

Thanks. And yes! I 100% agree. :slight_smile: I would love a high quality Okonomi place as well. It is tiring and trying to have to pre-plan months in advance for a full Omakase Sushi experience, and that be your only option for high quality fish.

I understand why, as you said. It guarantees sell-through of product (so chefs don’t get stuck with leftovers), better quality control over all aspects, etc. We miss the wonderful neighborhood spots in Tokyo that you can just pop-in, sit down and order what you like, not commit to too much, and have high quality delicious nigiri in the process. :slight_smile: (It is not hyperbole to say, some of those neighborhood Okonomi spots put out better Sushi than many of LA’s upper tier Omakase-Only spots.)

That Kasugodai looks amazing! :blush:


Perhaps one way to bridge the gap would be for an okonomi sushiya to have set seatings so that they can time the rice better. Say seatings at the top of the hour, rice always comes out at XX:20, giving the diner some time to settle in, order drinks and an appetizer, etc. and then maybe another, smaller batch at XX:50. Bar only, with a minimum order. Still not a perfect solution.

No doubt! The floor and ceilings are just higher in Japan. As far as food in North America goes, though, we got it quite good in LA all things considered, and for sushi (for breadth especially) it’s one of the best cities. Thanks for always sharing about your hunt for good food.

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Do you folks think there is enough demand in greater SoCal to support such a setup?

What Bradford suggests sounds very much like Hayato, which while fantastic, is anything but a casual, neighborhood Okonomi sushiya

Hi @ipsedixit ,

Good question. I suppose it might come to down to price? We’ve all seen the long wait times at Sushi Gen (Little Tokyo), and that’s for the cheap Lunch Sushi Combo mainly and other items. On one of our visits to Kisen for this report, there was a wait outside and the inside tables at lunch were 100% packed. Most of them were ordering Lunch Combos, but the Bar was full as well.

If the price was right, with good quality Sushi Rice and Fish, expertly made? I think it’d do good business. Neighborhood factors in as well, of course.

And Hayato is as you said, definitely not casual. :sweat_smile: I think that’s more super high-end strict Kaiseki cuisine / experience (with only 1 seating per night). Thanks!

Not really. I think that there are sushi chefs who believe that okonomi is important, but if one is going to make it a high-quality / high-end sushiya in America, they’re probably better off business-wise going omakase-only right now. I’m not a chef, but even to me the business advantages of going omakase-only for a high-end sushiya are readily apparent. Further, I’d venture that the average diner nowadays who is going out for high-quality sushi is probably going to prefer omakase-only, anyway.

  • Omakase is perceived to be higher-end - the “best of the best.” In the US, “omakase” really rose to prominence in last 10 or 15 years or so. It was a seemingly novel format here and it was distinct from what people were used to being served at older, generalist neighborhood sushi bars (the kind with “The Art of Sushi” placards at the table, fake wasabi, and thrived on bento box lunch specials with two pieces of California roll and a heavy piece of tempura on the side). Undiscerning diners will use price as a proxy for quality, and with the omakase format correlating with a relatively high floor price, they’re going to assume it’s inherently better. Of course, the top sushi in LA is also at omakase-only places right now, anyway. The media doesn’t help, with the often-told narrative of giving oneself over to the master at these so-called “sushi temples.” I think most diners will assume - even if because of price - that an okonomi place is not as high quality as an omakase-only place. In this social media age, many millenial and gen-z diners are aspirational and want to show they’re “balling-out” at “fine dining.”
  • Such diners (which is the majority) often won’t know how to order with the seasons or progression, anyway. It goes hand in hand with “trusting the chef” and getting the “freshest, best of the best,” they think. Good sushi often isn’t cheap, anyway, and omakase lessens the chance of making a faux-pas at the sushi bar in ordering an unseasonal fish or in an odd progression.
  • Correlating with higher-end, new restaurants - Tock or tickets-based reservations are going to be harder to do with okonomi because the floor is less. WIth these Tock reservations, on the other hand, an omakase-only place can cover ingredients costs with up-front revenue sometimes a month or so before the actual reservation date. With the cancellation fee, they have a guaranteed cover probably for all of ingredients. More revenue earlier.
  • Less waste. With set number of diners and a set menu, they can know both how much seafood to buy and which seafood to buy - just the fixed selection for that part of the week (say, fish deliveries on Tuesdays and Fridays).
  • timing of rice - for stickiness, temperature, moisture, instead of having it exposed for longer.
  • streamlined operations - ordering, serving, etc. making it much easier on the chef to prep each course just once and even the administration of ordering ingredients and billing are easier with omakase-only.

While I want a good okonomi place, I’d be pleasantly surprised to find a new sushiya that does okonomi very well. If a new one opens up, it won’t be because of some corporate business plan by a restaurant group. I have very little hope for a big, corporate restaurant because as things are scaled up, the more it’s about hiring a contractor for a concept and less a labor of love, the more likely the details will fall through the cracks. It’ll probably be because of someone with an old school mindset and good training just makes good sushi, and finds it culturally important to always offer that.

I don’t need an okonomi place to serve the top shiro amadai, seki saba, donchicchi aji, high-auction Oma tuna or Hadate uni…but I’d love a happy medium. Good quality rice, good packing, proportions, temperature control, proper knifework, consistency, and of course a fair selection of quality fish treated nicely. And a comfortable environment with good omotenashi. Not a bright and modern collaboration with a restaurant group who has a “new Japanese concept” arriving with all the corporate new buzzwords, but an honest labor of love perhaps by an old-school couple from Japan. Or someone who recently trained at one of the top sushiya here (Sushi Sho Waikiki, Yoshino New York, and probably Sushi Noz) and wants to expand differently with something “more casual” but his training is good.

Here’s to hoping.