Restaurant Review #222: sugarFISH, Marina del Rey

Tuna Sashimi

sugarFISH is a sushi restaurant by Chef Kazunori Nozawa (of the cult favorite Sushi Nozawa in Studio City) that emphasizes simplicity and quality over trendiness and pretention. You won't see the words "spicy," "crunchy," "rainbow," or "California" anywhere on the menu. In fact, you'll see very little on the menu, period--it's so basic that it's only a page long.

In addition to simplicity, sugarFISH emphasizes the omakase concept, where you let the chef choose everything you eat. But unlike most restaurants, at sugarFISH, omakase is not synonymous with super-expensive or with surprise. The price is clearly stated on the menu ($23 at lunch, $27.50 at dinner) as are the fish you'll be eating.
The dining room is colorful and narrow, with booths for two or four people lining one wall and a sushi bar on the other. What's unusual about this sushi bar is that there are no sushi chefs and no fish behind it. The chefs only work in the kitchen. If you find it intimidating to sit at the sushi bar, or if you want to have a private conversation during your meal, the arrangement at sugarFISH is a good thing--it means that half the seating in the restaurant isn't automatically off-limits.

My friend and I met for lunch at 12:45 on a Saturday afternoon, and the restaurant was virtually deserted, with only four other patrons. Emptiness is usually a bad sign in a restaurant, and I hadn't bothered to read any reviews before I went--I saw "Nozawa" on the website describing the place and assumed that was all I needed to know. That the restaurant is in a popular Marina del Rey shopping center off Admiralty Way that was bustling with shoppers made the emptiness all the more disconcerting. But, continuing to place my faith in Chef Nozawa's reputation, I ordered as I usually would, rather than testing the waters with a small order first to see if the fish was any good.

Snapper with chili ponzu

We opted to share an omakase (called "Trust Me"), sans shellfish, which neither of us can eat. The waitress didn't hassle us about substituting the crab roll for a yellowtail roll. We also added an order of snapper. A la carte sushi is priced at $4.25 to $5.75. Nothing carries the dreaded "market price," and nothing costs $5 per bite. It's probably the most affordable, patron-friendly sushi menu I've ever seen. The portions are smaller than they are at many sushi restaurants; however, sugarFISH is one of the only sushi restaurants I've been to where the sushi was the appropriate size to eat comfortably in one bite, the way it is supposed to be eaten.

The first dish we were presented, edamame, was cold--not refrigerated cold, but obviously not just cooked. Truthfully, I am not sure what the proper temperature to serve edamame at is, but I prefer mine warm and was turned off by the idea that my edamame might not have been freshly prepared. Thankfully, the soybeans turned out to be an aberration.

Salmon nigiri

Despite what many people think, nigiri is actually supposed to be about the rice, not the fish. The rice at sugarFISH is incredibly fresh--maybe too fresh, because the rice underneath the first fish, the snapper, was almost hot. But it was perfectly cooked, perfectly seasoned, and loosely formed. Chili ponzu sounds like it might be an overwhelming sauce for a fish as delicate as red snapper, but it came through as a subtle enhancement. I thought nothing of the sesame seeds sprinkled on the salmon when the dish came out, but on tasting the pairing, I wondered why more chefs don't see the brilliance in combining light, toasty, and nutty flavors with this fish.

Unlike the best omakases I've had, the kitchen didn't pay any attention to the timing of sending out the dishes, so we weren't really eating everything at peak freshness and our table became cluttered. We hadn't finished the tuna sashimi when the nigiri started arriving, and we hadn't finished either when the handrolls came out. Also, the Trust Me, as we learned the hard way, is not really designed to shared--we had to cut the two hand rolls with an ordinary table knife, which was a little annoying and kind of ruined the presentation. At least we were encouraged to eat the hand roll right away, while the nori was crispy.

Toro, the fatty underbelly of the tuna, is supposed to be a standout among cuts of raw fish. I'll admit that it rarely excites me (unless you count the spike in my heart rate when I see how expensive it is). This toro handroll was no exception. Maybe I just don't have enough appreciation for subtle flavors, but the yellowtail handroll didn't taste like much to me, either.

Scallop roll

At the risk of sounding like a hypocrite, I actually don't understand why virtually every sushi restaurant, including, surprisingly, sugarFISH, feels compelled to mix its scallop sushi with orange mayonnaise. Raw scallop is naturally sweet and can easily hold its own. The mayo was used sparingly, though, and the roll was not bad.
A highlight of the meal, besides the freshness of the fish, was the sauces (mayo notwithstanding). The house-made ponzu that came with the tuna sashimi was maybe the best I've ever had. The yuzu sauce that graced the halibut was equally good. At the end of the meal, I wouldn't say we were full, but then, it's hard to get full on sushi. As my out-of-town friend commented, "In New York, you go out for sushi, then you go out for pizza." sugarFISH doesn't offer any desserts, but there are a Pinkberry (for however much longer it can last) and a Starbucks in the same shopping center--handy if you always crave ice cream after sushi like I do.

Yellowtail nigiri

Another unique feature of sugarFISH is that a 16% gratuity is included with every meal and the menu says that no additional gratuity is expected. Since I leave 15% even when the service isn't good (more if it is), I really don't mind having 16% added to my bill automatically. I also like that there's no pressure to leave more than 16%. Some restaurants, I've noticed, now calculate "suggested gratuities" of 18, 20, and a whopping 22% at the bottom of every receipt. Perhaps the best part of the automatic gratuity, though, was that when it came time to pay the bill, I didn't have to do any extra math. And the bill was that it was only $44 for 2 people--one of the least expensive sushi meals I have ever had and with plenty of variety and no sense of deprivation.

Though I was satisfied with my meal overall, and certainly with the quality of the fish and the prices, I'm not sure I would go back. With the lack of other patrons, the atmosphere was a bit of a downer. I'd also prefer a menu with a wider selection. Of course, there is little else to complain about. The service was the best I've had in ages--granted, our waitress didn't have much else to do, but at some restaurants the waitstaff seem to disappear into the back and do nothing the whole meal if business is slow. And they also have special meals designed for takeout--a rareity among sushi joints.

sugarFISH has another location in Brentwood that opened on July 10--perhaps it's busier. Though the Brentwood location is a little closer to me, I assumed that parking would be a nightmare and opted to drive the extra miles to the Marina del Rey location because of the copious parking I could see in the satellite view on Google Maps. The two restaurants have completely different interiors, so it doesn't feel like a chain: see photos here. sugarFISH is also one of the only quality sushi restaurants I could find in the general vicinity of West LA that was open for lunch on a Saturday.
4722 1/4 Admiralty Way
Marina del Rey, CA 90292
Phone: 310 306-6300
Mon-Sat 11:30 am - 10 pm Sun 12 - 9pm
sugarFISH website

1 comment:

randomguru said...

nice review and pics! i've been getting into Japanese cuisine as a way to lose weight and get back into a healthier lifestyle. of course, i have to cut down on the white rice too, but not too much. ;)