Highballs and hi-fi jazz might be on the menu, but the sushi remains the primary reason to head to Bar Sawa, an omakase experience ($185) in Little Tokyo that combines immaculately crafted nigiri with a cocktail program that rivals the city’s best bars. Run by the team behind Sushi Kaneyoshi, and housed in the same hard-to-find basement of an office building, the restaurant manages to distinguish itself from its more traditional (and expensive) Michelin-starred sibling. Built-in speakers behind the bar and a glowing wall of glass-encased whiskey bottles lend the space an elegant, lounge-like feel, and upstart chef Anthony Nguyen combines Edomae-style technique with more unconventional seasonings to great effect. For all but the most diehard purists, Bar Sawa makes for an unforgettable evening of sushi that rises above all other options around—and sometimes even above—the same price point.
Like with all omakase menus, seasonal and market availability determine the exact makeup of Bar Sawa’s 18-odd courses. The trio of appetizers that kick off the meal, however, are likely to include smoked, soy-marinated chutoro in a shiso sauce and a perfectly crispy, well-seasoned agemono course. Given the cost differential relative to Kaneyoshi ($300), there are, of course, a few limitations. Sourced domestically, the sous vide monkfish liver here lacks the buttery, standout quality of the version offered at Bar Sawa’s older sibling. Though the influence of Kaneyoshi chef Yoshiyuki Inoue remains evident throughout the meal, you won’t find nodoguro—one of the most expensive sushi cuts around—on the menu.
Once Nguyen breaks out the nigiri, however, the lack of ultra-luxurious cuts hardly seems to matter. He draws maximal delight out of omakase standards like red snapper, which arrives topped with a brown dot of ponzu, onion, garlic and apple. An unassuming piece of yari-ika (spear squid) appears in a handroll, scored to the point of becoming marvelously tender. Towards the end comes a noteworthy piece of seared bluefin toro, brushed with ginger-garlic sauce and topped with salted jalapeño. A cup of somen noodles in ebidashi (a shellfish and fish broth) and a creamy, soy-sauce-tinged slice of cheesecake round out the meal, which clocks in at two and a half hours.
For those who enjoy spirit-forward libations, the optional cocktail pairing ($45) makes clear that Bar Sawa’s dedication to craftsmanship extends to drinks as well. On the far end of the bar, a pair of bartenders in black waistcoats expertly mix all manner of highballs, martinis and other house libations, also available á la carte. Japanese ingredients like yuzu, matcha and hojicha come off as balanced, rather than gimmicky, and little touches like pre-packaged, crystal-clear ice and gold flakes add flourish to the presentation of each cocktail. These are boozy, boozy drinks, the type that’ll tip you over if you aren’t careful—so imbibe responsibly, or opt for one of the few house mocktails instead.
While Bar Sawa may not outrank all of the higher-end options around town, an evening at this Little Tokyo spot delivers more than enough sophistication and flair for most diners in search of an amazing sushi omakase. No other sushi restaurants offer such swoon-worthy cocktails, but even the nigiri on its own makes this place worth a visit. Unlike other sushi chefs, Nguyen’s use of unorthodox ingredients shines without needing to rely on extravagances like truffle and caviar to stand out from the competition; having tried over 20 different omakases across the city (and counting), I can say confidently that Bar Sawa stands out from the pack, especially in terms of price. For under $200 a head, at least before drinks get involved, this is the L.A. sushi experience to beat.
The vibe: Dark, sultry and a little bit genteel, like a high-end cocktail bar or jazz kissa in Tokyo.
The food: Eighteen courses of Edomae-style sushi with a twist, plus a few appetizers, somen noodles and some seriously tasty cheesecake infused with soy sauce.
The drink: Highballs, martinis and other house libations available in a three-drink pairing or á la carte, plus a selection of Japanese sake, whiskeys and wines.
Time Out tip: Bring cash for the parking attendant if you plan to park on-site, and arrive a few minutes early, since the subterranean space is a little difficult to find. If you’re walking in from First Street, head up to the second story via the unmarked stairwell, where you’ll find the elevator to head downstairs.