99 Essential Restaurants 2014

Sawtelle

Kiriko

photo by Anne Fishbein

Years before the few blocks of Sawtelle Boulevard near Olympic called Little Osaka became a hipsteropolis of fantastic ramen-yas, there was Kiriko, Ken Namba’s surprisingly low-key sushi restaurant. Surprising because “low-key” and “sushi” are mostly found together in somewhat questionable fish establishments, the kind where California rolls often go round and round in an automated circle. None of that here! Opened in 1999, Kiriko was then and is now one of the best sushi places in a town jammed with them, a smallish room where you can find dishes both highly traditional and very modern. This juxtaposition is probably best found in Namba’s justly famous pairing of house-smoked salmon and ripe mango, a deceptively simple dish that you might be tempted to try at home but really shouldn’t. If that’s too tricky for you, just sit back and order the omakase (assuming the possibility of kelp-flavored barracuda isn’t too jarring) or console yourself with uni chawanmushi, a consolation if ever there was one.

-- Amy Scattergood

Shunji

photo by Danny Liao

The first thing people will tell you about Shunji is that it’s in a building strange even by this town’s standards, a structure formerly home to a barbecue house, which is supposedly shaped like a chili bowl but looks more like a set designer’s take on a Roswell diner. The second (and more important ) thing is that the unlikely spot is home to some of the best sushi currently available in Los Angeles. Before recalibrating this crazy architecture, Shunji Nakao had amassed a pretty amazing fish resume: He was an opening chef at Nobu’s first restaurant, Matsuhisa, and was the founder of Asanebo in Studio City. At Shunji, Nakao’s food centers around neither the Peruvian-inflected menu of the former nor the sashimi-focused menu of the latter, instead locating things around omakase. Some of this is a purist’s sushi, but some is also beautifully vegetable-focused, with occasional odes to tomatoes and mountain yam and Japanese squash. If the intensity of a dinner’s multivalenced procession of dishes is overwhelming, try lunch, when Shunji offers simpler options, which are crazy bargains if you think about what you’re getting. An enormous lobe of uni, perhaps, perched atop a tiny tower of perfectly articulated rice, a strip of nori like a debutante’s sash. Brilliant in any location.

-- Amy Scattergood

Tsujita L.A.

photo by Anne Fishbein

Do you really want to spend your lunch hour standing in line for the better part of an hour, inches from the busy traffic of Sawtelle Boulevard, waiting in a Wi-Fi dead zone to get into an equally crowded restaurant to slurp down a bowl of hot soup in a city where it’s often 80 degrees in the dead of winter? Yes, you really do. And as often as you can manage it. The seemingly permanent crowds waiting to get into Tsujita L.A. haven’t lessened since the Tokyo-based company opened its Annex across the street, possibly because the ramen and tsukemen are far superior at the original (though still good). These are probably the best bowls of the stuff in Southern California, technically masterful, Hakata-style tonkotsu ramen and exquisite iterations of tsukemen, or dip ramen, with hand-crafted noodles and broth as thick and potent as demi-glace. Sure, the ratio of waiting time to slurping time is ridiculous — but such is the mathematics of gastronomic pleasure. Just get in line.

-- Amy Scattergood