Shunji might be the only sushi restaurant in LA where the cost of your meal depends on which chef is slicing the fish. This mellow, blonde wood sushi counter in Santa Monica is divided into two rooms with a handful of seats on each side: one where you can book an omakase with chef Shunji for $280, and another where chef Miko (Shunji’s longtime co-chef) serves you for $250 a pop. If you’re wondering why anyone would pay that extra $30, you probably haven’t met Shunji—not only does he make some of the city’s best sushi, he’s as quick with humor as he is with his knife.
The omakase at Shunji generally split into two parts: a few seasonal small dishes that come on gorgeous little ceramic plates, then a bunch of nigiri to follow. The delicate and subtle dishes like abalone with wasabi and edamame, or matsutake mushroom and eggplant in dashi, are definitely pleasant, but they’re a bit like the opening act at your favorite band’s concert—they’re not the real reason you’re here.
photo credit: Garrett Snyder
For the most part, the 16-or-so pieces of nigiri you’ll have at Shunji are presented without any bells and whistles: there’s lean marinated tuna that’s been aged two weeks, warm black throat perch that’s barely seared, and some extremely plump and sweet uni from Santa Barbara. But like that annoying record-collecting guy explaining why everything sounds better on vinyl, we can sum up why Shunji’s sushi is so life-altering in one word: texture. The fish melts on your tongue like a popsicle during a heatwave and the subtle, vinegar-kissed rice feels like a hug from a long-lost relative. And we can safely say that the toro-filled handroll with crisp, toasted seaweed that comes at the end of the meal transports us to another dimension entirely.
Spending two hours in a small room while someone brandishes a knife in front of you might not sound like everyone’s idea of fun, but Shunji has a way of injecting a little levity into the very-serious-omakase-experience (small talk is encouraged, for one). And though we miss the old days when Shunji used to offer lunch specials, the dinner-only omakase here is more than worth the splurge if you’re looking for an incredible special occasion meal. As to which chef you book, they’re both certified seafood surgeons, so go with whoever is available first—reservations tend to fill out a week or two in advance.