Saturday, October 07, 2006

The Lowdown: Welcome to Azami

I love Katsu-ya. But I just can't justify the trek to Studio City anymore. It’s not that the sushi palace is too far away (isn’t everything in Los Angeles?). And it’s not that the albacore and crispy onions, spicy tuna and crunchy rice, or yellowtail rolls are not fresh beyond belief. They are. It’s not even the interminable waits sandwiched between a dog kennel and a Domino’s. It’s really none of that. I will put it lightly. I have found Azami. And it's close.

A bit of web surfing one day led me to this outstanding sushi cafe on Melrose. Although (ahem) may not be the most reliable source for restaurant recommendations, its audience voted Azami the best sushi in LA. So I figured a turn of the tide couldn’t hurt, and neither could a 10-minute drive from my apartment.

Entering Azami is tantamount to opening the door to your grandmother’s home on Christmas morning. The sushi chefs are two adorable women who could not be happier that you came over for dinner. They beam broad smiles while carefully and tenderly executing their art. Sitting at the sushi bar gives you a one-on-one repertoire with the chefs and great suggestions, while the ten tables offer a slower-paced meal. Take your pick, or just switch it up every time you return. Azami is small enough that it's impossible to miss any of the action, no matter where you sit.

Azami is not about the show or spectacle. The fish isn’t drowning in avocado or some gooey sauce. There are no mounts of rice hiding your dinner. There are no accompanying radishes in the shape of an extinct amphibian. The fish is pure. Simple. Elegant. Start off slow, and work your way through the intensifying silkiness of the sushi. If you do not know where to begin, the omakase, or chef’s choice, for $35-$45 is never a bad choice. Sit back with a nice cup of hot sake and peruse the menu. Label the number of pieces, kind of fish, and desired preparation (sushi, cut roll, or hand roll) on an inconspicuous white sheet and the journey begins.

Plates of spicy tuna crispies swim to every table. Azami kicks up the tuna sashimi, avocado, and lemon with jalapeno. Yet this version does not singe your taste buds. Two generous bites of silken tuna are balanced with lightly fried soy crisps. Orders of sushi (2 pieces in each order) are a reasonable $3-$5 and cut rolls are $4-$9. Specials on the board the other night were Tasmanian sea trout, Spanish mackerel, sweet shrimp, and more. When we ordered the toro, or fatty tuna belly, from the waitress, the chef herself came by only moments later to ask us which toro we preferred. Would we like the more marbled, or the leaner, subtler cut? She told us the price as well, for the difference was about $4. Is that OK with you? she asked. Her recommendation was wonderful, and her attention was sincere.

Fresh water and salt water eel are both on the menu. The fresh water has a more robust taste and hearty texture. Served warm with a touch of sauce, it is the quintessence of fine sushi.
Tasmanian sea trout has the color of light tuna, but a taste similar to that of salmon. The fish rests on the rice like a butterfly on a flower, amazingly light and gravity defying. Its lemon undertones hit your mouth first, while the texture brings your taste buds to the brink of ecstasy.

The fact that Azami’s sushi is not dressed up for a night on the town means that you can savor the freshness, the impossible lightness of the fish without the bombardment of additional flavors. The embellishments that define so many of LA’s sushi restaurants detract from the taste of the fish. Azami is different. It has a simple philosophy about sushi.

End the meal with a small bowl of green tea or red bean ice cream, and a soothing cup of tea. Now that you do not have to get in your car for eternity, perhaps walk along quirky Melrose for a bit. But before you do, flash a smile behind the sushi bar to the chefs. The smiles you’ll get in return convey their genuine happiness at having satisfied each and every customer. Not even grandma’s Christmas grin is that big.
—Camilla Warner

Azami Sushi Café
7160 Melrose Ave. (cross street Formosa Ave.)
323 939-3816
Metered street parking available