The future is now for California Japanese

The dining room at Sushi Roku is a marvel of artistic lighting and decor, with ancient and modern Japanes elements. Photo by Richard Foss

The menu doesn’t begin to describe how good the food is at Manhattan Mall marvel Sushi Roku

It has been 40 years since the movie Blade Runner and the cyberpunk movement in literature depicted a future world in which Asian, particularly Japanese, culture blended with a future high-tech California. It was a chaotic, visually fascinating place where billboards writhed and morphed, strange electronic music pulsated, and food was elegantly presented but almost unrecognizable.

That movie and those books showed a grim, dystopian future, but with a beguiling background. Like much good science fiction, parts of it have come true. California culture has adopted more Asian media, foods, and music, and though we don’t have the flying cars yet, that’s probably a good thing – just think of what it would be like on Saturday night as the bars close.

For a look at the state of 21st century Japanese-Californian food and decor, visit the Sushi Roku, at the west end of the Manhattan Village Mall. The walls on one side have a retro-futuristic lattice like something out of Star Trek, while the side by the bar has iridescent panels behind bottles of sake and Japanese whisky. The bonsai cherry blossom tree near the back of the room, a symbol of old Japan, sits near a colorful abstract electronic mural whose elements shift position in subtle twitches every few minutes. It’s a mesmerizing piece of art in a beautiful room.

When you first study the menu, you’ll see items that reflect a futuristic fusion, such as cauliflower with red dates, and pinenuts, ingredients that seem out of place on a Japanese menu. Other items have more overt Japanese influence, but with California accents, such as yellowtail with diced chillies, olive oil, ginger, and ponzu, suggesting a meeting of Italian crudo and sushi. For every one of those, there is another item that appears to be standard – vegetable tempura, miso eggplant, and the like. Only if you ask your server will you find out that these, too often have original preparations.


The shrimp tempura at Sushi Roku. Photo by Richard Foss

For instance, when we ordered shrimp tempura, our server Zoe asked if we wanted the sauce on the side. Really, someone serves tempura already sauced? She confirmed that yes, they do, and that just before serving, the deep-fried shrimp are tossed with pieces of asparagus and mushrooms. That’s not something anybody else does, and for some people it would be a turn-off. We tried it and it was terrific, the moist pieces of lightly steamed vegetables and the crisp battered seafood a great match of texture and flavor. The sauce – and it was a miso-based sauce, not the usual tempura sauce – was fine for dipping, but would have soaked that nice batter through had it been poured over everything in the kitchen. We were grateful to Zoe, who was our server on both visits, for telling us, She provided invaluable help as we ordered.

Other items we selected at her recommendation were fluke sushi with kumquat, miso eggplant dengaku, a skewer of seabass, and that cauliflower dish. Cauliflower is native to the Northeastern Mediterranean, and mixing it with dates and pinenuts sounds Sicilian or Lebanese rather than anything that might be in a Japanese restaurant. It belongs here, and cooking the vegetable just to doneness and tossing it in a soy-based sauce with dates and topping it with nuts and micro-greens was a fine idea.

Eggplant dengaku at Sushi Roku. Photo by Richard Foss

A similar miso-based sauce topped the baked eggplant, and it was a rare case of Sushi Roku serving something completely traditional. It was just soft, almost creamy eggplant with sweet sauce and a sprinkle of sesame seeds, the old favorite very well executed.

The fluke was the show-stopper of the starters, six slices of tender whitefish topped with housemade kumquat jam, micro-greens, edible flowers, and sea salt. The citrusy, sweet jam, salt, and fish were in perfect proportion, and though this starter is on the expensive side at $24 for a small portion, it is worth it. The seabass skewer was less impressive, not that anything was wrong with it. It’s a nicely cooked small skewer of fish with a little peppery seasoning and a garnish of chopped chives, something you can get at any yakitori spot. If you have someone finicky at the table who is wary of complex preparations it’s a good choice, but it doesn’t have a wow factor like much of the rest of the food here.

Fluke sashinmi with fig jam at Sushi Roku. Photo by Richard Foss

On both visits we tried cocktails from their very eclectic list that was designed by someone who likes tart citrus balanced with herbal flavors. Almost every drink has lemon, lime, grapefruit, or pineapple, and some drinks have a nod to tiki-style fruitiness. When that’s in balance with the liquors it’s a good thing, and we tried four of these potions and had four hits. The Sundown on Sunset, with gin, sake, apricot brandy, blood orange liqueur, lime juice, and grapefruit bitters was my favorite, but all were satisfying.

We tried two sushi rolls, the tokubetsu and soft-shell crab, and one entree, grilled salmon. The tokubetsu, a crab and cucumber roll topped with toro, sea bream, and white truffle pesto, sounded like it might have one ingredient too many. With all of those things going on, how could they be in harmony, particularly because truffle muskiness often takes over a dish. Surprise, it worked. The truffle oil was a distant breeze of funkiness over the bright flavors of cucumber and seafood, and it was excellent. The soft-shell crab roll was a bit weaker because the deep-fried battered seafood was a bit dry, and the avocado didn’t entirely compensate. A dash of aioli might have finished it, and I may ask for that to be added if I order this again.

The salmon entree was the weakest item of either visit, a good-sized portion of fish that was properly grilled but topped with far too much, very sweet teriyaki sauce. I find teriyaki to be best when a moderate amount is used to top a dish that is being broiled, or grilled so that the sauce glazes and caramelizes – I don’t want a mouthful of the sweet sauce. The fish was served with yukon gold mashed potatoes, sliced eringi mushrooms, baby carrots, and a sauce boat with even more teriyaki. After the other items that were in such excellent balance, it was a letdown.

A variety of desserts are offered, though there is no printed dessert menu. We tried a slice of carrot cake that had a little ginger in the batter and a drizzle of frosting topped with flowers. Mango sorbet and a scattering of nuts completed the dish, and it was a rich, but not overly sweet finish.

An abundant level of staffing means that service here is fast, and servers have time to talk with diners, crucial when so many items are under-described. This, the cost of many of their fresh and boutique ingredients, and the rent at the mall combine to make dinners here pricey – expect to pay at least $75 per person with a cocktail or glass of good wine or sake. The payoff is a meal that has the most appealing aspects of contemporary fusion dining, and if you see a flying car in the lot outside, maybe the other predictions of the cyberpunk age are coming true, as well.

Sushi Roku is at 3110 N. Sepulveda in Manhattan Beach. Open 11:30 a.m. daily, close 9 p.m. Sun. — Thu; 10 p.m. Fri. –Sat. Parking structure or paid valet parking. Wheelchair access good. Full bar, corkage $35. Some vegan items. Reservations recommended. (310)  683-4060. ER  


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