Snowflakes From the Sea

“We do traditional sushi ONLY,” proclaims a handwritten sign taped to the glass door at Sushi Wasabi. “We go to market every day, and buy BEST FISHES. TRUST ME.”

Such is the promise (both declarative and indicative) of chef/owner Katsu Aoyagi, a man who scours the seafood markets of Los Angeles every day before dawn in search of the perfect scallop, the freshest eel, an eel that will knock your socks off. Aoyagi isn't out to create outlandish rolls—no fried this, spicy that, volcano anything. This man and his sushi are like a koan—sparse, satisfying to the enlightened, profound.

Aoyagi's domain is tiny: a strip-mall corner in Tustin's Japanese Row with no decorations save for Japanese calendars. Wood dominates the design, from the walls and tables to the chairs and sushi bar. There are booths, but Aoyagi's wife will suggest you sit at the brightly lit sushi bar, where Katsu-kan glides from fish to fish and hands over his austere creations to the waiting devotees.

You know this isn't sushi as usual from the start, when Aoyagi presents eaters with the traditional garnishes of ginger and wasabi. In place of the ordinary bright-pink slices and dusty green ball, you'll find nearly translucent ginger shavings and the best wasabi of your life—not overpowering but with escalating notes of fire, frothy and mint-green; you're tempted to drizzle it over steak.

Although Aoyagi and his wife usually work alone, the service is quick—it takes about five minutes for your order to arrive on even the busiest nights. The menu is solely sushi—no miso soup, no green tea ice cream, no noodles. (Don't even ask for crunchy or cut rolls.) An order at Sushi Wasabi garners you two tiny pieces of seafood splayed over a small mound of rice. Nothing more.

Sushi is so commonplace—and so trimmed to the Southern California palate—that it's easy to forget its original form: small, incandescent pieces constructed with the diligence of origami so that all you need to do is plop them in your mouth and let them dissolve. Sushi Wasabi delivers the real deal, flavored with fragments of onion, wasabi and homemade ponzu sauce.

The Wasabi menu varies daily depending on the catch of fishermen that morning, but Aoyagi works hard to keep a couple of constants—pungent halibut, sweet red snapper and shrimp, and a wide selection of tunas ranging from toro to the memorably named skipjack (better known as bonito). But no matter what fish are available on any given day, each Aoyagi creation is like a snowflake from the sea, pretty and delicate and seemingly unprecedented. Bonito tuna shines like a stained-glass window and features a citrus tinge, with bits of scallions to provide bite. The toro tuna, pale and long, is marbled perfectly. I've had sweet shrimp here decorated with tiny wasabi balls, orange clam with the texture of squid and the sweetness of scallops served au natural: wonderful.

Sushi Wasabi makes a few accommodations for the Western palate, and they're all hand rolls. These aren't the light, conical rolls you sometimes chew on; they're bulky, as dense and long as a Cuban cigar. The blue crab roll is Aoyagi's signature dish: toasted seaweed wrapped around tender blue crab with just a bit of mayonnaise, the texture of the crunchy wrap, warm rice, and creamy, chilled, shredded crab taking turns dazzling your senses. The spicy tuna roll zings your tongue; the cucumber roll should be every vegetarian's new snack: long strips of pickled cucumber poking through rice and covered in sesame seeds to add smokiness.

Sushi Wasabi is not for the lean of wallet. A recent visit with two friends ran to about $70—and we still weren't full. But that too is the genius of Aoyagi: he left us wanting but satisfied, curious to return and spend more and more on his mystical sushi—and isn't that what all great chefs should do?


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