For many years I have had wanted to experience omakase with chef Morihiro Onodera. This was at the top of my list for so long. Someone once told me that his eponymous Mori Sushi was the "best sushi restaurant in Los Angeles." I visited Mori Sushi a few years back (after Mori-san sold it) for a very luxurious chirashi bowl and last year ,visited Shiki Beverly Hills while Mori-san was there. It seems like there was a rift between the owners so Mori-san parted ways with the Beverly Hills restaurant. His chef partner, Nao Sugiyama, is still there, but his expertise isn't sushi. Needless to say, there is no need to eat sushi now at Shiki Beverly Hills.
I first heard about Mori-san many years ago through a vendor when I was digital marketer in the cruise industry. We were at a lunch meeting talking about the best sushi we've had in Los Angeles. He told me of the sushi chef that grows his own rice. I found that to be very intriguing, but back then not enough for me to leave my sushi bubble in the Valley. Yes, we have great sushi in the San Fernando Valley that I had no need to leave the Valley for sushi. The California Roll WAS invented in Studio City. Wait, but that's not real sushi. :) The Valley is home to sushi row along Ventura Boulevard.
I have been to Michelin-rated Asanebo a few times (not impressed) and frequented Katsu-ya (both the original in Studio City and Encino.... and Little Izakaya in Sherman Oaks. I later discovered Sushi Spot where I became a regular having enjoyed the sushi with Taku-san at Sushi Spot more than anywhere else in the Los Angeles. I've cheated on Sushi Spot, trying Sushi Go, Yotsuya, and Sushi Iki. I always end up back at Sushi Spot.
Chef's tasting menus (or in this case, omakase) are fun for me to experience, especially when dining solo. Chefs tasting menu at the bar with the chef in front of me is like going the theater or a concert. You don't need to bring a friend. The entertainment is talking to the chef and watching them prepare the food. I love the element of surprise of this experience as you never know what to expect. My most favorite so far has been at the 8-seater e by Jose Andres hidden in a backroom at the Cosmo in Las Vegas. Those kind of restaurants tend to attract people like me, people who enjoy dining at some of the best restaurants in the world.
When dining solo, I try to beat the dinner rush at 7 pm and eat at an "old people dinner time" at 5:30 pm or right when the restaurant opens. I wanted a quiet dinner with Mori-san at the sushi bar so I can get to know him other than what I've read or heard about him.
Inn Ann is located on the 5th floor of the Hollywood and Highland complex facing Hollywood Boulevard with a panoramic view from Downtown LA, Hollywood toward Beverly Hills. This part of Japan House LA is described as an annex detached from the Japan House LA boutique, matcha bar, and exhibition space currently featuring the art of a manga artist. In the annex, there is the library to relax in which also contains a shared restroom with the restaurant, meeting room same and Inn Ann restaurant.
I arrived and was promptly seated at the bar. Mori-san wasn't there when I arrived so I spent some time reviewing the menu curated by Mori-san. I decided to go with the Biwa tasting which is described as the true omakase. There wasn't a price was written on the menu for omakase, so I asked him how much it was before I went all in. I didn't want to be hit with an unexpected $500 bill at the end of dinner. Mori-san told me it was around $180 to $200 for omakase. A bit more than I wanted to spend, but as a first timer, I recommend going all in. Hopefully you don't have any dietary restrictions and will eat anything like me.
He asked me if I didn't like to eat anything, but I told him I'll eat anything even fishy tasting things. He then told me that he didn't think that Filipinos (like me) didn't like raw foods because of the temperature in the Philippines as what some Filipino told him. I told him that I don't fit that stereotype. I love raw foods and enjoy eating kinilaw (a Filipino dish of raw tuna cooked in vinegar) whenever I see it on the menu in the Philippines.
During dinner we talked about many topics. Ranging about his opinions of certain restaurants to him growing his own rice at his farm in Sacramento before selling it along with Mori Sushi to his apprentice to the rice farm he no longer has in Uruguay which did not end up working out with his partner.
I asked him about his apprenticeship with Jiro Ono of the three-starred Sukiyabashi Jiro in Tokyo that Jonathan Gold recently wrote about in his review of Shiki Beverly Hills last year. I found it amusing to learn that this "fact" published in the Los Angeles Times wasn't true and that Mr. Gold made that story up and published gossip or most Mr. Gold most likely misunderstood Mori-san's English.
I also asked about his former student, Niki Nakayama at n/naka, of Netflix's Chef's Table fame. She was a student of his while he spent time at Takao in Brentwood. He didn't really have much positive to say other than her opening her restaurant on Melrose Avenue and the San Gabriel Valley. I got how she comes from money so she was able to open some restaurants on her own. I heard she doesn't do traditional kaiseki and he is more of traditionalist and doesn't fusion.
We also talked about his thoughts on the French Laundry (he's friends with chef Thomas Keller) compared to his experience at Meadowood and also his $1,500 dinner he had at Sushi Ginza Onodera and the young cocky chef there that knew who he was that left a bad impression at that restaurant. Dining in front of Mori-san is much about his perfectionist food as well as opinionated conversation.
I asked about his thoughts on his Michelin star and the Michelin guide returning to Los Angeles in 2019. He said that he wants another star (maybe two) this year now that they are back in California. When asked where I should eat in Tokyo, he told me to avoid Jiro and stick to the Michelin guidebook as it is pretty reliable in Tokyo. He told me that Jiro is past his prime and you will be in and out of there for 15 minutes. No conversation and it's not worth the price you'll pay.
Omakase for me that night was about 17 courses. I didn't get a chance to photograph each one. My phone malfunctioned during the A5 Wagyu and Uni course. There were a couple nigiri dishes I chose not to photograph as I was annoying myself taking pictures of everything! There was a plate featuring sashimi which could probably be considered as four courses on a plate. The dish he seemed most proud of was Kanpyō, the vegetarian rolls he served me just before my dessert of orange pudding. He commented that he made this himself and was very traditional. He also served it to Jonathan Gold. It kind of felt like a rehearsed encore at a concert. He asked me "if I wanted anything else." I replied "no." Then he presents me with something that was quite special which he told me was a prepared squash.
You'll find the same high level, attention to detail he was known for at Mori Sushi. During dinner he told me that he is the only sushi chef in Los Angeles using a particular nori he used during omakase. Everything if not almost everything he makes from scratch from ingredients directly from Japan or from the Santa Monica or Hollywood Farmers Markets. He himself is at the fish market every morning selecting fish to be served for dinner. Mori-san is the only only one making sushi at the sushi bar right now along with an assistant who helps him other than making sushi. During a hectic dinner on the weekends, I imagine it will probably be tough for him to spend more time talking with everyone.
Mori-san is trying forge a new path at Inn Ann away from what he was doing at Mori Sushi. Gone is the farm where he controlled rice quality. He now places his trust in where he sources his rice in Japan. Back are his own ceramic plates he brought from home or where he now makes his ceramics at a studio in Pasadena. Interesting to hear that he doesn't have any plans to retire again. I am looking forward to returning again to sit with Mori-san to see how his perfectionist "traditional" cuisine will evolve in the coming years.
He also mentioned that he will be meeting with Evan Kleiman of Good Food soon so stay tuned to KCRW to listen to his interview. I know I will.
I love exploring Los Angeles like a tourist. I have as much fun in my hometown as I do traveling to another country. I hope my adventures inspire you to eat well and travel often.
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