I kept getting side-tracked from writing this up but it’s well past time I shared it with everyone Feel free to skip to the Intro if you don’t want to read the boring backstory
U-Zen, at first glance, looks to be a mostly unremarkable neighborhood sushi spot with a pretty busy menu (often not a great sign).
A few years ago, after I moved to Santa Monica, I went for the first time, and in the spirit of experimentation, sat down at the bar and asked if they did omakase (the only hint that they might was a reasonably interesting specials board which was obviously handwritten daily). The particulars are lost to me - it was fine for a neighborhood spot but at the time I felt like I could do better for the same money going to Shibucho for nigiri (in the $80-100 range). It was much more convenient as a spot to drop by and grab some maki, though, so I did that for a while. I don’t remember why exactly I decided to try the omakase again (probably I was just too tired to drive that far east); this time, Masa-san, the head chef, started by serving me otsumami instead, followed by a dizzying array of cooked dishes. I don’t remember exactly what I ate, only that I when I got the check I experienced reverse sticker-shock - I don’t think I’ve ever spent more than $120-130/head before tip & tax here.
Anyways, fast-forward to yesterday - my cousin’s in town and good Japanese food is one of those things you should aim to get while you’re in LA. After the first option a little closer to where he was falls through, I remember that U-Zen was more or less perfect for what I wanted. The meal was something like this (order approximate, I didn’t take notes or anything, and I think I forgot a fish or two somewhere, since otherwise I don’t know how I would’ve left as full as I did):
Toro & Cucumber w/ (???) Miso - thick-diced toro with thinly-sliced cucumbers, with a sweet and tangy miso-based dressing of unclear provenance (but delicious). Great textural contrast.
Some kind of snapper(?)
Matsutake Chawanmushi - made with halibut and snapper. Very good. Either my first or second time having matsutake in the context of chawanmushi.
Red snapper, two ways - one with yuzu and one with momiji oroshi. Served on a plate with the carcass of the snapper from which they were delivered, neatly skewered for the presentation. Classy
Kohada - nice!
Intermezzo rd. 2
The carcass from the red snapper came back - this time as deep fried fish bones. Crunchy! (And there was some delicious meat to dig out of the head & cheeks, too.)
Anago - easily the second-best piece of anago I’ve ever had - expertly cut & deboned, super fluffy, delicate anago tare, and to top it off a bit of yuzu rind (maybe candied?). Only beaten out by the anago I had at Kaneyoshi; frankly the comparison is a bit unfair given the relative accessibility, price points, etc, but this honestly put up a very good fight.
Yellowtail - this was so good I honestly thought I was eating buri but when I asked Masa-san he said it was “somewhere in between” that and regular yellowtail.
Ikura - bit of a whiff, but not offensive or anything
Some sort of baked crab handroll - next time I might ask for ume-shiso or something instead.
It was homemade - some sort of gelee with a layer of matcha on top of a layer of azuki, with agar as a binding agent? The closest thing I can find on the internet is a 2-layer neri yokan, though the gradient one we ate was less distinct and I’m not 100% confident it’s the same thing. Definitely pretty far along the uniqueness spectrum, and it was tasty - I’m not usually a fan of azuki.
This came out to ~$77/head (~$100 after tax & tip). Pretty wild! I’m also going to post some random pictures of other things I’ve been served here over the years, since this was a pretty sushi-heavy meal, as far as it goes.
Last meal here before the pandemic
Various Otsumami (stuffed mushroom, daikon-wrapped fish-cake(?), pickled eggplant(?), prawn, ???)
Lobster & Red Snapper, rendered for parts (sashimi)
The Return of the Snapper
(skipping the nigiri shots)
Some random earlier meal
This might’ve been halibut, but I could be totally wrong. With the egg sack (I think? My memory is telling me it was female, but I won’t swear to it). Simmered in something. Totally fantastic, no idea what to ask for to get it again.
Some final notes: while I wasn’t super impressed with the sushi my first time around it does feel like the sushi game at the bar has gotten a lot stronger lately, with more precise technique across the board, more consistent rice, etc, so even as a “pure sushi” option you could do a lot worse.
If you do want to eat off-menu cooked food rather than sushi I’d recommend calling about a week in advance and asking the GM explicitly if Masa-san can do a kappo meal given advance notice to buy ingredients - you might get lucky just walking in but no guarantees.