We first heard about Osawa a few years ago, when some of our Pasadena friends suggested it as a place to eat when we were visiting them in the area. Glancing at the menu and seeing the layout, it looked like a generalist sort of eatery: There was a Shabu Shabu (Hot Pot) station, a Sushi Bar, and mostly tables with the menu offering pretty much all the popular standards of Japanese cuisine in America.
But recently an article in the LA Times, and seeing a good report from @PorkyBelly made us reconsider and we decided to give it another try.
Another point of intrigue was that according to the LA Times, Chef Shigefumi Tachibe (Executive Chef of the Chaya group of restaurants) decided to helm Osawa. As we sat down to a busy lunch crowd, our server confirmed that indeed Chef Tachibe was Osawa’s head chef. We were hopeful.
Mixed Green Salad:
Their Mixed Green Salad was fresh. Lightly seasoned with a Sesame Onion Shoyu Dressing.
This looked great, but was undone by the oceanic tasting backnote pervading each bite (i.e., bad Uni). The Spaghetti was al dente though, but @ipsedixit @PorkyBelly this is not the Uni Pasta you’re looking for.
Shrimp & Vegetable Tempura with Zaru Soba (Shrimp, Shiitake, Kabocha, Shishito Tempura with Cold Buckwheat Noodles):
We were already setting expectations that Osawa obviously wouldn’t have their own Tempura Bar, nor would they be actually serving Handmade Noodles, but even keeping that in mind, their Shrimp & Vegetable Tempura was average at best, exuding an oily, greasy quality, with barely any crispness.
Their Zaru Soba is mass produced, and tasted overcooked and mealy. The Tenzaru Soba at a simple, humble place like @bulavinaka’s recommended Sanuki no Sato was better, let alone the masterpiece of amazing, light crispy Tempura (fried fresh by the Tempura Chef at the Tempura Bar) with Handmade Soba Noodles at another @bulavinaka favorite, Inaba, makes eating this feel like a nothing less than a disappointment.
Japanese Home-Style Curry Rice with Pork Cutlet:
Our server said that Osawa makes their own Curry in-house, so we were really excited to try this. However, it turned out to be overly salty and thick and gloppy. We would rather eat Curry House’s mass-produced, MSG-laden Curry over this, which is really unfortunate.
Their Tonkatsu (Pork Cutlet) was thankfully better. It had a decent crunch to it, but was slightly overcooked, but it satisfied that longing for Tonkatsu that we hadn’t had in a few months. But this is definitely not anywhere near as good as the excellence that is Kagura’s crispy, delectable Deep Fried Pork Cutlets.
On our 3rd visit, Osawa was as packed as it was on our previous visits.
(Daily Special) Deluxe Chirashi Bowl:
This was thankfully much better than anything we had previously. It looked beautiful and tasted very fresh.
My favorites were probably the Seared Shima Aji (Striped Jack) and Maguro (Tuna) mixed with a bit of the Rice (good, plump grains) and some Ikura (Salmon Roe). For comparison, Sushi Tsujita’s Kaisendon is still better, but this is a surprisingly good alternative.
We returned to try their Dinner menu, since one review had been proclaiming Osawa as a great Izakaya.
Ankimo (Monkfish Liver):
This was solid, lightly creamy.
Gekkeikan Hourin - Junmai Daiginjo Sake (Kyoto, Japan):
Their Sake list is very limited, and strangely extreme: They only have 16 bottles, with most of them in the $11 - 40 range (some are half bottles), and then they have @beefnoguy’s Dassai Beyond for $900.
The Gekkeikan Hourin was more on the fruity aromatic side, but it was still easy-to-drink.
This sounded like a nice, rarer offering for a small plate, and it turned out to be super crunchy, rather firm, but it was soaked in too much Vinegar.
Fresh Mizuna, Daikon Salad (Crunchy Ume, Jako Fish, Asian Vinaigrette):
The Mizuna was quite peppery and fresh, and we liked the slight crunch from the fried Renkon (Lotus Root). But it was really overdressed, overpowering the flavors from the rest of the Salad.
Seared Foie Gras with Daikon:
This was fine, the Foie Gras being a touch overcooked, but still generally rich and creamy. However the supporting saucing and flavors just didn’t accentuate or lift up the Foie Gras: The Daikon and Sauce could’ve been left off and it would’ve tasted just fine on its own. It was also a far cry from the Foie Gras simply prepared over Binchotan Charcoal at Aburiya Raku.
Shishito Tempura Stuffed with Spicy Tuna:
This turned out to be very much in the “Japanese Fusion” category: The Shishito Peppers arrived in a mediocre thick batter, topped with an overly sweet Sauce.
Eggplant with Nikumiso:
Overly sweet again, heavily sauced.
Free Range Chicken Karaage with Sweet Chili:
We’re always hoping to find a good Karaage (Japanese Fried Chicken), so this was another dish we were hopeful for. As you can see from the pics, this instead turned out to be Osawa’s version of “Orange Chicken” or “Sweet & Sour Chicken.” Overly gloppy, thick, super sweet “Sweet Chili Sauce,” it also rendered any crunchiness gone from the Fried Chicken chunks, and turned it slightly gummy. Avoid.
Sushi - Hamachi, Sayori, Mirugai:
We wanted to at least sample some of the Sushi while here, since we heard this was something they excelled at.
This was OK, not really very bright, but still tender and it had an almost creamy quality about it.
This had a slight crunch, but it also tasted a bit muted. The Rice was decent, but it tasted a bit too soft.
Sayori (Japanese Halfbeak):
Their Sayori was the most disappointing: Tasting bland, really soft and not really like the good-to-great Sayori offerings we’ve had at around town.
Agedashi Tofu (Tomato, Ginger Dashi Broth):
Zero crispiness, soggy, mass-produced Tofu. A far cry from the greatness at Aburiya Raku and their Handmade Tofu, or any of the South Bay’s solid Izakayas.
Blue Crab Handroll:
Soggy Nori (Seaweed) wrapper, too much Mayo for the Blue Crab mix, this was just mediocre.
At this point, we weren’t sure we ever wanted to go back, but I remembered @PorkyBelly’s report just on the Sushi Bar experience, so we decided to go back one more time to try that out.
We sat down in front of what turned out to be Head Sushi Chef Yutaka Kudo for this dinner. He greeted us warmly and we ordered the Omakase (Chef’s Choice) Sushi course.
Shima Aji Sushi - Striped Jack (Kyushu, Japan):
(Forgot to take the first picture because we were so hungry on this visit and ate the first piece before I remembered!)
The Shima Aji Sushi from Kudo-san was nothing like the Sushi offerings we had at the table on our last visit (probably prepared by one of the 2 assistants). This was meaty, bright, nicely cut, and the Rice tasted plump and with sufficient body, not overly seasoned.
Kinmedai - Splendid Alfonsino / Golden Eye Snapper (Shizuoka, Japan):
Wow! Kudo-san lightly sears the outside skin of the Kinmedai (just for a second), and the result is this slightly smoky, but luscious fresh-tasting bite! Highlight of the meal.
Sakura Masu + Tachiuo:
Sakura Masu - Ocean Trout (Toyama, Japan):
Crazy buttery, joy-filled happiness in one bite. This wasn’t as good as the legendary Sakura Masu from Maru-san at Mori Sushi (one of the Best Bites. Ever!), but this was quite enjoyable. Our 2nd favorite bite of the evening.
Tachiuo - Beltfish (Oita, Japan):
This was lightly grilled before serving, and it was nice to see a generalist place like Osawa serving a rarer Sushi offering. This was slightly oily (in a good way), lightly smoky and OK.
Hakkaku + Hotate:
Hakkaku - Sailfin Poacher (Hokkaido, Japan):
This was definitely a surprise: Kudo-san presented to us a Fish we had never tried before at any of the top Sushi restaurants we’ve been to: Hakkaku, known as Sailfin Poacher. (@beefnoguy @J_L @PorkyBelly and others have you seen this around town?)
The Hakkaku was light and meaty, yet delicate, and it was a touch piquant and spicy from the tiny dab of Yuzu Kosho that was put on top.
Hotategai - Scallop (Iwate, Japan):
The Scallop itself was silky and creamy, which was very nice, but the Basil Reduction added on top was a bit distracting (and I love Basil normally).
Amaebi - Sweet Shrimp / Live Spot Prawn (Santa Barbara, U.S.A.):
Outstanding! Hard to go wrong with a Live Spot Prawn served immediately after being dispatched. It was extremely fresh, bright, creamy, yet meaty and excellent!
Nodoguro - Blackthroat Seaperch (Shizuoka, Japan):
This was presented lightly torched. This meat itself was generally fatty / creamy, but the skin turned out to be chewy. This was a far cry from the Nodoguro we had Mori Sushi (amazing).
Mirugai - Geoduck (Seattle, U.S.A.):
This was crisp, slightly crunchy and better than the table version served last time. But it still lacked the super fresh, lively quality in the best Mirugai offerings.
Masaba - Premium Mackerel (Oita, Japan):
Kudo-san introduces this offering as Masaba, a Premium Mackerel which he explains is tastier and not as common as regular Saba. This sounded really interesting, but in the end, it tasted like a good, regular Saba (Mackerel).
Miso Soup with Spot Prawn Head:
The head of the previous Amaebi course was prepared in a Miso Soup. There was a nice brininess from the Spot Prawn Head, however the Miso was strangely barely there. It tasted more like a Pork Bone Soup than Miso.
Kawahagi - Thread-Sail Filefish (Nagasaki, Japan):
This was another surprise offering that’s rather rare around here: Kawahagi, known as Thread-Sail Filefish. Unfortunately this was really fishy, and there was a slight funk as well. It was rather unappetizing.
Chutoro - Medium-Fatty Tuna Belly (Spain):
Lush, fatty, creamy, but sadly it had some stringiness from some gristle running in this cut.
Uni - Sea Urchin (Santa Barbara, U.S.A.):
(No picture, as we forgot to take a picture of these final 2 pieces. Sorry.)
I took one bite of the Uni and had to spit it out. It was borderline rotting! Probably one of the worst Uni offerings we’ve ever had at a Sushi Bar, that’s how bad it was. To make matters worse, the Nori (Seaweed) was soft and soggy.
Anago - Sea Eel (Tokyo, Japan):
The final piece, their Anago was much better, tasting clean, lightly sweet, although maybe a touch too soft, but otherwise fine.
The Omakase Sushi course ran about $100 per person, with no drinks.
In the end, Osawa turns out to be a solid Sushi restaurant hidden inside a generalist facade. Probably for survival and to cater to the local crowd, their menu is chock-full of the most commonly sought items for “Japanese food” in America: Osawa serves Ramen, Tempura, Soba Noodles, Udon, Sukiyaki, Shabu Shabu, Curry Rice, Uni Pasta, along with Izakaya (Japanese Pub) Small Plates, Katsu Don (Cutlet Bowls), as well as Sushi.
Unfortunately, attempting to cover so many different types of food results in them mastering none of them. The most egregious of these is the claim that Osawa is a good “Izakaya” of sorts: Osawa’s Izakaya / Small Plates quality is so far below L.A.'s top places like Aburiya Raku, Kinjiro or Morinoya (RIP), let alone the next tier down (but still good) places like Izakaya Hachi.
But thankfully, there is a gem in their wide-spanning offerings, and that is sitting at the Sushi Bar and ordering their Omakase Course. (Sadly, through the course of our entire meal, the remaining seats at the Sushi Bar were filled with people ordering California Rolls, Dragon Rolls, Rainbow Rolls and Ramen. We were the only people ordering Omakase that night.)
Get a seat in front of Head Sushi Chef Yutaka Kudo and enjoy a solid Sushi course, with some excellent items, and some not so good ones (like the awful Uni). There’s probably a reason @ipsedixit @ElsieDee and other Pasadena experts haven’t really recommended this place, but in the end, if you’re in the area, and have tired of Sushi Kimagure and Sushi Ichi, then give Osawa a try.
77 N. Raymond Avenue
Pasadena, CA 91103
Tel: (626) 683-1150