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LA

Review

Jakob Layman

Sushi I-Naba

Written by
Jakob Layman

A meal at Sushi I-Naba, a tiny sushi spot in Manhattan Beach, feels more like a meeting of the Secret Society Of Sushi. The room is about the size of a toolshed, the BYOB policy is liberal - in part, we suspect, so you can share a drink with the chef - and the fish on the menu isn’t just rare, it’s presented in a box that makes it feel like it’s part of an initiation rite. We kept waiting for them to teach us the secret handshake, though perhaps that’s more of an after-hours kind of thing.

In fact, it’s not a stretch to call Sushi I-Naba one of the most unique restaurants in LA. But that uniqueness comes at a price - a dinner here can run north of $200 per person - and if you’re spending that much on a meal, it’s fair to expect perfection at that price. Sushi I-Naba is not perfect, but it is special.

When you walk in, you’re greeted by chef Yasu-san, told to take a seat at one of the six stools along the bar, and within moments, the first courses arrive. They’re some of the best you’ll get the whole night - starting with I-Naba’s take on sunomono, a well-balanced blend of creamy uni, sweet crab, and potent seaweed, and a course involving crab brain tofu that packs an entire king crab’s-worth of flavor into three small bites. After those appetizers, Yasu-san will present all the fish you’re going to eat tonight. They’re laid out in a lacquered box, which makes you feel like you’re in the back vault of a Diamond District high-rise, and Adam Sandler is showing you the uncut opal he just got from Western Africa. All that’s missing is a blinged-out Furby chain.

Jakob Layman

But Yasu-san’s got something nearly as good: Somewhere around 20 pieces of fish. Highlights include ultra-fatty, 19-day-aged bluefin toro, impeccable golden eye snapper, and 10-day-aged amberjack. But the place where I-Naba really sets itself apart from other high-end omakases is their inventive and - dare we say, downright unique? - dishes. The most notable is shirako (cod sperm), which is buttery, custardy, and almost chowder-like. Another is a soy sauce-glazed ankimo (monkfish liver), that is rich, creamy, yet still light and velvety. And lastly, the engawa - a cut of meat from inside the fin of hirame that basically produces two tiny pieces of sushi per fish - is oily, firm, and unlike any piece we’ve had before. Amongst those near-perfect cuts though, you get a whole bunch of good-but-not-great pieces: Halibut with yuzu zest that doesn’t have much bite, snow trout with dehydrated soy sauce, and sadly bland Hokkaido scallop.

Sushi I-Naba shines brighter at lunchtime, when it resembles most other sushi spots (which is to say, you won’t see cod sperm on the menu). The $18 hand roll set comes with a fatty tuna roll that’s among the best things we’ve tasted this decade (it’s still early), and the chirashi bowl, with 18 immaculate pieces of fish over perfectly vinegary rice, is so good it makes $35 seem like a bargain.

Deals aren’t what Sushi I-Naba is going for, though. They’re out to create a one-of-a-kind experience - and their omakase is pretty close to that. Lunch isn’t quite as unique, but it’s actually much closer to perfection (we’re not sure there’s a better sushi lunch for the price in Los Angeles). Merging these two into one cohesive, perfect, and memorable meal would ultimately make this one of the best sushi restaurants in town - for now, though, it’s still a very good one.

Food Rundown

Jakob Layman
Omakase “Umi”

This isn’t the most expensive omakase here - that would be the $220 “I-Naba” - but at $180, it’s an amount you’d probably only spend on a meal once a year (unless you just got a DNA test revealing you’re a Bezos). It involves around 24 courses, and often includes killer dishes like crab brain tofu, ankimo, aged toro, and cod sperm. But also, a lot more less-exciting stuff.

Hand Roll Set (Lunch Only)

Three rolls for $18 is downright affordable for quality fish (it’s the same price as KazuNori). The selection varies, but you can always expect crab and fatty tuna. The latter is absolutely impeccable: The handmade nori is crisp, the tuna is oily and fresh, and the rice is nice and vinegary.

Chirashi Bowl (Lunch Only)

The most beautiful chirashi bowl around. It’s 18 pieces of fish served over lightly vinegared rice. If you want to see the quality of fish they serve here - but don’t want to shell out three figures - this is a perfect way to do it. You get the mackerel cured in vinegar, aged bluefish toro, and tuna so fatty we’re honestly kind of worried about its family history.

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