I've often likened sushi to art in these reviews. Most of the time, I wasn't being literal, but maybe I should've been. Sushi chefs—especially the modern kind who specialize in rolls—are closer to painters and sculptors than cooks or chefs. They use squirt bottles of Sriracha and Kewpie mayo instead of brushes and raw fish in lieu of clay or paper, but the end products can often be as beautiful and unique to their style as a Warhol or a Monet.
Atun Sushi in the Bixby Knolls neighborhood of Long Beach may just be the first sushi joint I've found that takes the art thing to the next level. At minimum, the chefs garnish almost every other dish with a curl of celery and a carrot flower. But on a few plates, they take the time to trace the teriyaki sauce to form the branches of a cherry blossom tree; the blossoms themselves are drawn from dollops of mayo and bits of fruit. One afternoon, I ordered what I thought would be just an ordinary sushi roll, but the plate came decorated with very convincing hot-rod-style flames painted from splotches of Sriracha, mayo and eel sauce. It was about then that I realized sushi isn't like art; rather, sushi is art.
The restaurant itself resembles a woodcarving masterpiece. The walls are made from recycled German pine stacked unevenly, as though it were an unfinished game of Jenga. Yes, it's a trendy space—as all post-Nobu sushi bars that serve martinis and bowls of edamame have to be—but unlike a lot of those I've been to lately, it feels warm and accessible. It's the kind of place in which I can imagine myself slurping a comforting bowl of hot udon soup on a cold night—except it's not served here. Atun dabbles mostly in yakitori, sushi and tempura. There's teriyaki, but it's limited to two lonely dishes of beef and chicken I've not seen anyone actually order. The point at Atun is to graze the small-plates menu, take in a few rolls, then wash down the sticks of yakitori with a soju-based cocktail, marveling at the artistry Atun takes in everything it does.
Atun, 4262 Atlantic Ave., Long Beach, (562) 513-3243; www.atunsushi.com. Open Sun.-Thurs., 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Meal for two, $50-$100, food only. Beer, wine, soju and sake.
Though you could keep a menu handy and order in stages, you should eat most—if not entire—meals from the big blackboard of specials that change daily. There are hits including the house sashimi: one of them consists of pearl-white slices of halibut with kumquat, the whole thing sprinkled with micro-diced citrus and laced with a tart sauce that will remind you of Italian crudo. But there are also misses such as the Japanese beef short ribs, which looked exactly like Korean galbi, yet with significantly less flavor. The miso cod was faultless, however, melting as if it were pudding here as it does everywhere else.
One of the prettiest dishes Atun constructs has four seared scallops topped with tiny cubes of mango salsa, an edamame purée dramatically smeared across the plate with a calligrapher's flourish. Yes, the bland paste doesn't have much to contribute other than its presence as something green, but as it is in the art world, it's okay if form trumps function once in a while.
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More proof of this are the blocks of Himalayan rock salt used as the serving tray for the sushi. Atun touts the concept on its website, but I didn't see even one. None of the sushi I ordered was served on a rock salt block. The Bixby Roll, for instance, was presented on a regular plate embellished with the artful touches I mentioned earlier. The roll didn't need much improvement anyway; inside this warm, compacted, tempura-fried cylinder, there was asparagus, imitation crab, tuna, and yamagobo, all tucked in tight and crispy on the outside. But most important, it avoids a common affliction of deep-fried rolls: There's no rice to turn into a gummy paste in the heat.
While the sushi is beautiful and mostly great, the yakitori is spectacular. There's a chicken sausage that's packed around a bamboo stick, then basted over the grill to sweetness; it ends up tasting akin to the Japanese version of koobideh. The pork belly skewers are even more thrilling, lightly seasoned with five-spice and cooked so well the meat is indistinguishable from the fat. Skip the shrimp kushiyaki, though, which are ho-hum when compared to the tender steak skewers and, well, every other item on the list wrapped in bacon.
If you dare, ask for the homemade chocolate wasabi ice cream for dessert. I couldn't stand to wince through more than a spoonful of the stuff, but it demonstrates how Atun is willing to take the risk. As with all art, there's no accounting for taste.