I walked into Shunji with N/Naka on the brain. I was in for another Japanese kaiseki experience where I left my order in the capable hands of the chef.
I hate to compare restaurants, but when people have limited time and money, a choice needs to be made. I'll give you the facts and the pictures. The choice is yours.
Shunji occupies the former Mr. Cecil's California ribs, where evidently people ate ribs in the round, adjacent to an Adult Book Store. There's a few seats at the sushi counter where you can watch Chef Shunji Nakao wield his knife, and he has wielded in some top Japanese spots around town. He was one of the original chefs of legendary Matsuhisa as well as the founder of the no sushi, sashimi only, Asanebo. With that pedigree, you know you're in for some good fish.
When I heard he made his own sake in Japan, and brought it with him, I knew we'd have to try it. It was a nice balance between sweet and dry and a good pairing to go the distance with his hand picked meal that followed.
I'm not going to give a plate by plate description, and not just because I lost my notes and can't remember each and every obscure ingredient on the plate. It's not like you're going to make any of this at home, not to mention, you won't be able to find some of these ingredients like our first courses of some unique root vegetables and jellyfish gelee.
I can't say I had ever seen or eaten a blue cheese ball covered in purple mashed potato, or a shrimp stuffed with sweet potato, but I was intrigued, though not ready to try this at home. The fresh fish was just that - fresh, silky and with all the right notes.
There was also interesting warm preparations of tempura fried shrimp and another unique plate with crab, spaghetti squash and avocado - it was a strange combination, but it worked.
A true stand out was a tomato dish topped with a shisito pepper and eggplant, sitting in a light, dashi broth. The texture confounded me and was compared to tofu for its compressed consistency, but I'm not much of a tofu fan, and this warm, dense tomato was delectable.
It was an intriguing meal with overly attentive service. While I've heard about servers wanting to clear plates before others have finished so no one has to look at a dirty plate, it just makes me feel rushed. As far as the ambiance, I don't mind a rustic atmosphere, but when you're paying $100 a head, I like just a touch more atmosphere, or at least a bathroom I don't have to walk outside and into the parking lot to reach. All that said, Shunji is working with top notch ingredients and producing some intriguing plates, but for my money, I'd pay $10 more and go to N/Naka for a more artistic meal in a serene, Japanese atmosphere with impeccable service.
12244 W. Pico Boulevard
Santa Monica, CA