Side street sushi score [restaurant review]
Black Bamboo offers a remedy for palate ennui
There are meals that nourish not only to the body, but the mind. They feed the part that wants to be enchanted by beautiful colors and interesting shapes, with varying textures and fresh flavors that change over the course of the meal. They engage you so the cares of the rest of your day disappear and you live in the moment, savor each bite.
Sushi is near the top of my list when it comes to all these categories, and on a recent day, when the weather was muggy and the horizon tinged orange with smoke, it was the thing I needed to feel alive. My wife assented, so we headed for Black Bamboo, one of the few sushi bars that is serving outdoors. We could have gotten sushi to go from other places, or from here for that matter, but I have been spending way too much time within my own four walls and wanted to eat in the open air.
We had plenty of uncluttered atmosphere because the outdoor tables are separated by at least 15 feet. An appropriately masked and face-shielded server showed us the QR code so we could look at the menu on our phones. Paper versions are posted just inside the door, so if you’re not the high tech type you do have options.
The selection here is heavily focussed on modern sushi rolls, though there are also cooked fish items, noodle dishes, soups, and teriyaki chicken or beef. They also offer the ever-popular mixed tempura, which we had as a starter. This consisted of two large shrimp along with slices of carrot, eggplant, Japanese sweet potato and kabocha. The batter was very light and crisp, as it should be, and I’ll order this any time I’m dining in. I’d hesitate to get it to go, because tempura loses its prized crispness if it travels very far. If you decide you want it at home, you should punch a few holes in the top of the styrofoam box so it doesn’t steam, so it may arrive with the texture intact.
We followed that with a delightful item called S.S.T.S.S., otherwise known as seaweed salad wrapped in spicy tuna sashimi. You know those salads lots of places offer where you have a bed of greens with sashimi on top? This inverts that idea, with the seared tuna sashimi cut thin and rolled with seaweed salad inside, put on a bed of shredded pickled daikon, and topped with avocado, shaved purple onion, chopped green onion, and sesame seeds. It’s a great idea, each bite calibrated so you get all the flavors in exactly the right combination. I have never seen this anywhere else and suspect that it’s an original idea, and a very good one.
Though the menu is heavy on rolls they also have standard nigiri sushi, and on that particular evening they had toro, the rich and fatty tuna belly. This was good in the way that toro always is, and we were pleased that they resisted the widespread tendency to load up their nigiri with wasabi or other sauces. Good toro has such a rich and delicate flavor that it needs no such embellishments, and the restraint was appreciated.
Having good sushi while watching the shadows lengthen put us in a benevolent mood toward the world, which may have also been helped by glasses of Otokoyama sake. The alcohol list is short but has some decent selections at good prices, which fits the casual everyday vibe of the place. A parade of people getting to-go orders kept the outdoor space lively, as did a gaggle of teenagers who did skateboard tricks in the parking lot before heading next door for pizza.
We ordered two sushi rolls to finish our meal because the combination of ingredients looked interesting. Only afterwards did we realize that they also gave a Japanese look at the flavors of two American states. The Hawaiian roll has crab meat (, not imitation), avocado, and cucumber topped with seared tuna and finished with a mustard ponzu sauce. Avocado isn’t Hawaiian, and though crabs that weigh up to seven pounds do live in Hawaii they’re not usually thought of as part of the island’s flavor palette, so I don’t know the reason that this is named after Hawaii. It’s probably not the mustard ponzu sauce because mustard is a European import, but for whatever reason they named it, it was a good sushi roll.
We almost ordered the Piano Roll because we were amused by the pun in the name, but it used imitation crab rather than real crab. Instead, we got the baked crawfish roll, which has a distinct homage to Louisiana in the mix of cooked crawfish, tomato, and mushrooms atop a California roll that is finished with a sweet and spicy sauce and a dash of orange. This is unwieldy as a conventional sushi roll because of the exuberant sauces used as toppings, but whether you attack it with a fork, chopsticks, spoon, or bare hands, you’ll want to get every bit. The flavors are not as spicy as just about anything a Cajun would send out of a kitchen, but the crawfish,and tomato, with a topping of slightly spicy mayonnaise, onion, and both toasted and white sesame seeds was irresistible. Somebody has a great sense of how flavors and textures combine. This is one of the best cooked rolls I can remember having.
After we finished the rolls we considered dessert, but as we mused over standard items like green tea and mochi ice cream, our server arrived with something we hadn’t ordered. It was swordfish dynamite, the fish baked in a sauce of sweet and spicy Japanese mayonnaise with fish eggs, and it was a fine but somewhat unconventional choice. Traditional Japanese meals don’t usually have a dessert course as we know it – a sweet item may arrive in the middle of a meal as a palate cleanser or be eaten as a snack, but a meal is complete without them. I hadn’t considered fish for desert before but would have it again, because it was an oddly appropriate way to finish the evening.
Dinner for two with sake ran $117 before tax, quite reasonable for high quality sushi with a decent sake. Black Bamboo is an unpretentious place that has moments of unpredictable creativity, a side street gem for those who take the time to seek it out.
Black Bamboo Sushi is at 724 Yarmouth Road, Palos Verdes Estates. Open daily except Sunday 11:30 a.m. – 2:30 p.m. and 5 p.m. – 9:30 p.m. Street parking. Some vegan items, patio dining (reservations suggested), take out available. No website, several inaccurate menus posted by delivery services – accurate menu under “photos” section in Google listing. (310) 265-1688.
by Richard Foss