Don’t try this at home [restaurant review]

The art of the omakase meal is the focus at Fan Sea Sushi

Fan Sea Sushi’s Piyapong “Daniel” Sripho and Pumate “Puma” Wattanakiat. Photo by Kevin Cody

The pandemic shutdowns have given me plenty of time to practice replicating favorite restaurant dishes. Each time an experiment works, it makes me believe that I might be ready to assay an even more demanding recipe next time.

There is one I would never try, because it can’t be made at home: the omakase sushi dinner. It’s not just the difficulty of buying tiny portions of high-quality seafood and treating them with a master’s skill, because a conceptual roadblock is involved. Part of the delight of these chef’s choice meals is the surprise as it’s served, and you can’t surprise yourself.

So, when we ventured out for our first restaurant meal since November, there was no questions about what we’d have, or where we’d have it. One of the most successful takeout meals of the last year was an omakase from Fan Sea Sushi in Manhattan Beach, which occupies the space that used to be Waca Sushi, on the corner of Rosecrans and Highland Avenues. to-go omakase included soup, a crab sunomono, toro sashimi with truffle soy sauce, and 12 pieces of sushi. These selections used superb quality fish expertly prepared, and were presented in a way that made the inside of a takeout box look like a work of art. The staff thoughtfully wrote what each item was on a piece of paper so I would know what I was enjoying. My wife feasted on seaweed salad, tempura that somehow retained its crunch even after a car trip, and a rainbow roll that was a kaleidoscope of fish.

We enjoyed that meal so much that we had to compare the experience in person, so found ourselves sitting in Fan Sea’s improvised outdoor dining space. It’s not the best environment, because the tables are on a slope and there’s some traffic noise, but they’ve done all they can do to make it hospitable.

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Outdoor dining at Fan Sea Sushi is limited, but worth a wait. Photo by Richard Foss

The menu looks fairly standard, and oddly doesn’t include the omakase that is the jewel of sushi dining experiences. It’s always available, and modestly priced at $65, but you have to ask. Even if you don’t order that, ask about the fresh fish and specials, because they may change your decisions. On this visit I got the omakase again, while my wife ordered miso soup and their “sushi box 2” combination, and we split a large flask of hot sake.

For a while nothing happened, which was fine – you don’t go out for sushi if you’re in a hurry. Edamame arrived hot in a garlic soy sauce, sake hot without sauce, then the salad and soup that was part of my wife’s dinner. Perhaps it was how good hot soup feels on a cold night, but the miso tasted particularly tangy and fulfilling. My first courses arrived immediately afterward – albacore sashimi with truffled soy sauce and, one of the few repeats from last time, crab sunomono. When crab is used in salads, restaurants often use tiny bits that are inexpensive, but here there were chunks so you get the texture as well as the flavor. The dressing was a light touch of sweetness, accenting delicately modified seafood and vegetables. The truffled soy sauce is a polarizing item, since some people find the muskiness of the truffle oil overpowering. It’s about right in four bites of sashimi, but more would be excessive. A bite of sushi ginger after the first two pieces helped reboot my taste buds to enjoy the rest.

Then came the fireworks – my wife’s sushi combo and the first of three courses that composed my chef’s choice dinner. It was almost completely different from the omakase I had enjoyed a few weeks before, but that’s what happens at places where the chef really is using the best fresh fish they have.

Part of an omakase sushi meal to go. Photo by Richard Foss.

This time the first four items were snapper with black salt, halibut, halibut fin, and sea bream with shiso leaf. There was a clear theme here, as all four were delicate white fish, but each was handled slightly differently. The black salt on the snapper added a distinctive smoky mineral flavor, while the first halibut had a dab of citrusy yuzu that was in sharp contrast. The second halibut had been seared so I could compare the fish raw and lightly cooked, illustrating how flavors were modified by heat. The sea bream had a mild, clean flavor that was accented by a dot of minty, peppery shiso, and was as much about that flavor as the raw fish.

As I finished these the next plate arrived, and again a theme was evident. The four pieces were salmon belly with marinated kombu, amberjack belly, yellowtail belly, and albacore belly, the richest, fattiest parts of those fish. I think if I hadn’t had them back-to-back and after the milder fish, I might not have noticed the similarities between them, but it was apparent here. Salmon belly is always a little oily, but the marinated kelp gave a pleasing contrast that kept it from being like a mouthful of fish-flavored butter. The other three were less rich and had subtle amounts of wasabi and other seasonings to accent their differences. This might have almost been a perfect conclusion to the meal, but wait, another plate was arriving. There were only three pieces here: tuna topped with gold flecks, scallop, and uni sea urchin over ikura salmon roe.

The dusting of gold (yes, real metallic gold) did nothing to change the flavor of the salmon, it just made a beautiful piece of fish even more so. It was a completely frivolous bit of decoration, adding sparkle to a piece of luscious seafood. As good as it was, it was eclipsed by the scallop for flavor. When less than completely fresh, scallops are rubbery and flavorless, but this piece was like eating a piece of soft ocean breeze. The uni was a similar flavor amped to eleven, assertively briny and a bit funky, and putting it over the salty ikura made those flavors even more assertive. It was a fitting coda to my meal, a great big flavor to cap a parade of subtleties.

While I had been attacking these novelties, my wife had been busy with her combo, five pieces of sushi along with what was described as crunchy rice and two handrolls. The crunchy rice wasn’t what I expected, pearls of flying fish roe on crisp and crunchy triangles, but the flavor made up for any lack of fried-to-crispness rice. The sushi pieces were generously proportioned and to her liking, while the handrolls were a bit unorthodox. The spicy tuna roll was somewhat salty, while what was described as a California roll seemed to be something else entirely that involved crab and fish with mild seasonings but no avocado. I meant to ask what it was but forgot, but whatever it was we had no complaints.

Our lavish meal for two with one flask of sake ran $110 before tip, which was remarkable for the quality of the experience. Fan Sea is stunningly good whether you get take-out or dine in, a refreshing break from home cooking. Whether you invite them to surprise you or order what you know you like, this is an ornament to the local dining scene.

Fan Sea is at 302 Rosecrans Avenue, Manhattan Beach. Tues. — Friday noon to 2:30 and 5 to 9 p.m. Sat., Sun, 3 p.m. – 9 p.m. Street parking or nearby lot. Wine, beer, and sake. Reservations  (424) 398-0083. AtFanSeaSushiMB.com. ER

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Written by: Richard Foss

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