KazuNori comes from the same crew behind Sugarfish, Chef Kazunori Nozawa's chain that most recently expanded to La Brea, and so it is unavoidable that expectations run high here. The small, compact den Downtown has touted itself as "The Original Hand Roll Bar," offering simple hand rolls in a seat-yourself, first-come first-serve setting. As with Sugarfish, you won't find California rolls here—instead, there are scallop and blue crab and toro rolls packed with rice (Nozawa has essentially transported Sugarfish's hand roll menu to KazuNori), as well as their one á la carte item: sashimi. In theory, a hand roll spot serving reasonably priced set menus to a Downtown lunch and dinner crowd seems smart. In practice, Sugarfish's younger sibling still has some growing up to do.
It's not that the fish isn't fresh, because it is: bite into a salmon or yellowtail roll, a lobster or scallop one, and the ingredients taste nothing but pure and straight-from-the-ocean. The lobster is rich without being chewy; the toro is clean without being overwhelmed by the extreme fishy-ness that plagues cheap tuna. The eponymous blue crab roll—Nozawa's signature roll that is served at the end of almost every Sugarfish meal—is a fine choice here, and ended up being one of my favorites along with the cucumber roll, a welcoming break from the fish options. A satisfying crunch is had when you take your first bite, because the nori made from exceptional seaweed is always crispy—as long as the rice doesn't cool.
And therein lies the problem. Sugarish (and Nozawa) diehards are dedicated to the signature warm rice, and rightfully so. But at KazuNori, the rice is borderline hot, and there is a lot of it. Whether you opt for the 3-, 4-, or 5-Hand Roll set menu ($10.50, $13 and $17.50, respectively), or order á la carte, you inevitably feel uncomfortably full from all of the rice. Not only that, but the stark contrast between the hot starch and the noticeably cold fish makes for a bite that throws you off-kilter. We can already tell that the fish is fresh, so why the need to make it seem like it just came out of the freezer?
With all of the other lunch and dinner options Downtown—a bäco at Bäco Mercat across the street; a French Dip at Cole's a few blocks down; hell, even Sugarfish, a 15-minute walk away—it is hard to see the pull of this place when it asks you to gorge on so much rice. Maybe the staff knows it, too: it became comical, the number of times our waiter asked about our meal and whether we liked "the hand roll experience." Perhaps a small change in the rice temperature, a reduction of rice and a mellowing of the staff is all this place needs to thrive. In the meantime, there are other hand rolls to conquer.
What to Eat: Cucumber roll ($4). Bay scallop roll ($4.25). Yellowtail roll ($4.75).
What to Drink: A basic drink menu lists sodas, iced and hot teas, Sapporo beer and Ozeki one cup sake. You may not want to get bombed if you're here on your lunch break, but a cold Sapporo ($5) goes well with any of the rolls.
Where to Sit: There's patio seating at KazuNori, but you'll want to sit at the bar, which allows you to watch the chefs packing in rice and folding up nori. They may be more apt to grill you about your meal multiple times, but you'll also be able to ask your neighbors what they ordered and whether it's worth getting.
Conversation Piece: There is a "daily roll" included as part of the set menu, and it switches between toro and yellowtail (though you can order either from the á la carte menu as well). At least for now, waiters are flexible if you want to swap out a roll for another one when ordering a set.