The counter remains closed for pandemic-related reasons when I visit Asanebo, the 31-year-old Studio City standby that spent the '90s as a purveyor of late-night karaoke and kappo ryori (Japanese drinking fare) before drawing attention for its hot and cold fusion dishes in the early aughts. Currently overseen by chef Tetsuya Nakao, the Valley standby once earned Michelin stars in 2008 and 2009, though it's his younger brother Shunji’s eponymously named offshoot that holds starred recognition today. The restaurant’s outdoor dining setup takes over three parking spaces in the strip mall’s cramped valet-only parking lot, with patrons thoughtfully concealed from sun and traffic alike through a combination of canopy tents, slatted fencing and plants.
Taking a seat at one of the few indoor tables, I bypass the expansive nine-page menu and settle on the “B” omakase—where Asanebo’s signature dishes can be found alongside a small nigiri offering. A brief glance at the rest of the menu reflects the influence of Nobu Matsuhisa; both brothers helped open the celebrity chef’s iconic Beverly Hills sushi bar before starting Asanebo together in 1991. Fresh truffles, black lava salt and caviar make appearances on the sashimi section, as do sweet onion, arugula and jalapeño. Though no longer groundbreaking, the fusion-forward omakase at Asanebo still delights and inspires—with an end result that surpasses the Peruvian-inflected Beverly Hills institution that started it all.
Less expensive than the nigiri omakase at Shunji, the gloriously inauthentic $160 set menu—which makes no concessions to tradition—is where the fun begins. Where else can you find a deep-fried tempura “seafood stick” served in a martini glass, a flaming conch filled with bubbling hot broth and pieces of tender A5 Wagyu and juicy red onion in sweet soy? At the high-end level, nowhere, really. Led by the Michelin-starred crew of Hayato, Morihiro and n/naka, the needle now largely tilts towards omakase couched in restraint and refinement.
Plenty of other cheaper places around town riff on the legacy of Matsuhisa’s signature yellowtail jalapeño sashimi, but none of them execute traditional Japanese sushi-making plus Peruvian and Western influence as well as this tiny Studio City strip mall spot. Asanebo provides a solid, extremely L.A. omakase experience worth driving to the Valley for (if you don’t already live there), and you don’t even have to set an alarm to book a month or two out on Tock.
Signature highlights aside, the trim set menu—there’s no dessert course involved—also offers a few excellent plates of sashimi and a final nigiri course. While the latter is excellent, it’s also beside the point at Asanebo, which was once known as the “no-sushi sushi restaurant.” The narrow, cozy indoor space feels like the granddaddy of all L.A. strip small sushi joints, imbuing the overall experience with the kind of casual approachability and assuredness so absent these days in the city’s omakase scene. After all, when you’re in a state of sushi-based spiritual transcendence, set and setting tend to fade into the background.
The vibe: Unassuming, like a classic upscale strip mall sushi joint in Los Angeles should be.
The food: A large à la carte menu (that includes fried and charcoal-grilled dishes not included in any set menu) and three omakase options—first-timers hoping to get at the essence of Asanebo should opt for the omakase B; omakase A sticks primarily to nigiri, while the more premium omakase C costs upwards of $200.
The drink: Sake, wine, champagne and a few non-alcoholic options.
Time Out tip: Order a few dishes à la carte on the side of your omakase B if you’d like to leave feeling more than slightly full; while technically cheaper than others around town, the portions are smaller as well. Also, make note that the restaurant only takes reservations during business hours over the phone.