Tucked away in a dark corner of a mini-mall in an unglamorous section of Wilshire Boulevard, almost unbeknownst to the voracious L.A. foodies who flock to Spago and Citrus, is a modest-seeming sushi restaurant named Ginza Sushi Ko. It doesn’t advertise, it has an unlisted telephone number, and it caters almost exclusively to Japanese diners. And it also happens to be the most expensive restaurant in Los Angeles.
Unlike the celebrated temples of California cuisine, where who you see is as important as what you eat, Ginza Sushi Ko and its menu of sliced raw fish and other delicacies is strictly for food purists. Celebrities get no special treatment, for a very good reason. “Quite a few do seem to come here,” says Masayoshi Takayama, Sushi Ko’s 38-year-old owner and sushi master, who opened the restaurant three years ago. “I just don’t know who they are.”
One celebrity who is recognized in Sushi Ko is Marlon Brando, who often descends on the little restaurant after hours with his Tahitian clan. Brando, the only customer to whom Takayama will deliver, seems to favor the Toro, or tuna belly, which runs as high as $10 a piece, as well as the Anago (sea eel) and Shima-aji, a delicate whitefish.
Dinner at Sushi Ko is more than just a meal; it is a theatrical production, a two-to three-hour feast with Takayama performing a Kabuki of the hands. There is no printed menu; the host announces the choices and brings on courses until sated diners throw in the napkin. The owner enjoys being with his customers. Says Takayama: “This kind of work is completely different from that of a French or Italian chef who works inside the kitchen.”
The total bill depends on how much a customer eats and the fluctuating price of fish; the average dinner tab (without alcohol) ranges from $125 to $150 per person, but a particularly hungry diner can shell out $200 or more. Still, there are few complaints from the pampered clientele. Takayama keeps a careful record of each customer, the date he or she dined at the restaurant, how many were in the party, what they drank and what they ate. “When a reservation comes in,” he says, “I check to see what they ate the last time, so I can plan something different.” And then, there are the raw ingredients—the fish that Takayama searches out for his sushi. Although some American seafood—Boston tuna and Santa Barbara sea urchin, for instance—meets his exacting standards, he has most of it flown in three times a week from the Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo. Takayama says that the best fish is sold in Japan because of the demand from restaurants there.
The results certainly impress his customers. “This is better than what you get in Tokyo,” says Joi Takei, a Japanese-born Angeleno who travels to the Far East frequently for her work as a TV producer. “This is top of the line. In Japan they would charge double for this.” Her husband, Shin, a classic-car collector, notes that some of the subtle touches and painstaking methods of the sushi chef are lost on people outside the Japanese culture. “This is the way we were brought up,” he says.
It is, indeed, the way owner Takayama was brought up. The son of a fish merchant, he was born in Kuroiso, Japan. “I began cutting up fish when I was a little kid,” he says. “Maybe that’s why, when I was in high school, I wanted to become a surgeon. Now I’m a kind of fish surgeon.” After high school Takayama apprenticed for eight years at the venerable Sushi Ko in Tokyo, a 120-year-old restaurant that aficionados consider one of the world’s great sushi places. A 1978 vacation in Los Angeles convinced him that his future lay on the West Coast—and he moved to the United States. Two years later he opened his first restaurant, Saba-ya, close to his current location—and began dreaming of having a sushi restaurant that would rate with Tokyo’s finest. Sushi Ko is the fulfillment of that dream.
Away from the restaurant (Sushi Ko is open six days a week until 10 P.M.), Takayama retreats to the West Los Angeles home he shares with his wife, Hisako, and three children. Takayama met Hisako, a Japanese native who was studying English in America, at an Orange County sushi bar where he worked briefly in 1978. He confesses that, away from the restaurant, he is not a total food purist. “I like the hot dogs at Dodger Stadium,” says Takayama. “I go with my whole family. When we’re there, I do it right—salted peanuts, beer and hot dogs.” At home Hisako does most of the cooking, but, even there, she admits that “when he wants to eat something good, he’ll cook.”
—Michael Neill, Nancy Matsumoto in Los Angeles