Backed by a wall of orchids that celebrates a decade in business, Shunji Nakao settles in behind the six-seat bar of his eponymous Michelin-starred sushi restaurant, now located on a sleepy stretch of Ocean Park Boulevard. His wife, beverage director Yuko Sakurai (who also runs front-of-house), and another server weave in and out, taking drink orders from guests at the bar and in an adjoining room, where chef Miki Takahiro runs a second, near-identical omakase operation to Nakao. Smooth, unadulterated jazz pipes into the room as patrons pick from a curated list of expensive sake and wine.
Nearly two years into a pandemic, a change of address and a full menu shift later, all is well at the newest iteration of Shunji Japanese Cuisine: a streamlined, more exclusive approach to top-notch sushi that brings the focus back to seasonal inflections and pristine nigiri, as well as the customers who can—somehow regularly?—afford its significant price tag.
Gone are the vegetable-focused creations, the affordably priced set tasting menu, the various à la carte options; $250 omakase is all that remains. Even the restaurant’s former home, the Chili Bowl in West L.A., has been dismantled (the distinctive building’s final fate is yet unknown). The critically acclaimed chef, however, is still very much here, his focus honed and sharpened with an omakase-only menu after crafting some of the city’s most popular bento boxes at the height of 2020’s lockdown. While it’s surprising to see just how much Nakao, one of three original chefs at Matsuhisa—along with his brother Tetsuya, of Studio City’s Asanebo—has shifted away from that iconic Beverly Hills sushi bar’s genre-bending raw fish creations, the end result of Shunji in 2022 will still fill the chili bowl-shaped gap in the heart of longtime fans and wow anyone looking for an ultra-polished, high-end sushi experience, with plenty of kaiseki-style dishes thrown into the mix.
On the night of my visit, delicate firefly squid arrive on a bed of lettuce and fresh peas, the latter as divergent from the freezer bag variety as haute couture juxtaposed against fast fashion. A tiny bowl of baby eels topped with grated mountain yam triumphs, while a later lotus root and shrimp mochi topped with more spring vegetables falls flat. A fluent multilingual Japanese speaker holds court among the four big spending gourmands among us, discussing the finer points of a sake made in France that costs several hundreds of dollars. This is the affluent crowd I encounter on a random Wednesday night, ready and willing to splurge on food and drink alike, making commentary from another recent visit, where the entire room turned into an "uni party."
From there, Nakao breaks out a wood block of sliced fish, each brilliant, shining row ready to be prepared for each guest. Among them are the standard bluefin cuts, of course: the chutoro (fatty), maguro (lean) and otoro (extra-fatty) varieties. A smoky piece of nodoguro (blackthroat seaperch) and a choice piece of iwashi (sardine), however—both beautifully scored—distinguish Shunji from your standard upscale sushi bar and secure its solid spot in the upper echelons of the city’s omakase scene. In between, there are calls for an add-on—the quartet hoping to taste and compare the uni of Hokkaido to the included Santa Barbara—which I decline, trying my best to stay within Time Out’s limited review budget. The procession totals 16 pieces in all, concluding with a restrained piece of tamago and, finally, a delicious mandarin sorbet and slices of Asian pear with sake gelée.
Like others in the upper sushi echelons, Shunji 2.0 will exceed all your expectations and then some in terms of luxury, sophistication and the utmost care taken by Nakao, Sakurai and the rest of the staff. What the new address and format notably lacks, however, is a sense of casual approachability found in others in the L.A. sushi scene: the multi-priced tier options at Atwater Village’s Morihiro, the walk-in potential of Matsuhisa or the cozy, neighborhood feel of Studio City’s Asanebo. While Nakao’s shift to a premium-only dining model is more than understandable given the last few years, I still mourn the chef’s original, eclectic menu, where I tried omakase for the first time and at a price point accessible for a college student saving up for a special occasion. Shunji’s higher cost of entry and new format now mean a narrower band of customers can patronize the restaurant. There’s no way to "mess up" ordering, but there’s also no way to wander in on a random night, wondering just where Nakao might take you.
The vibe: Sophisticated and upscale. The restaurant is almost hidden—thanks to its unadorned entrance—and is made of two different wooden sushi counters with refined overhead lighting and smooth jazz piping throughout the space. Exact clientele might vary by evening, but skews generally affluent and gourmand.
The food: $250 omakase only, with no substitutions for dietary restrictions, though allergies can be accommodated with advance notice—with a $150 deposit required through Tock to book either the 5:15 or 7:45 seatings. Choose from chef Shunji Nakao or chef Miki Takahiro; each serves virtually the same menu, though Nakao’s bookings fill up quicker.
The drink: A large, high-end collection of sake and wine curated by Yuko Sakurai, with corkage only allowed for bottles not already on the restaurant’s list (email to ask). Green tea upon request.
Time Out tip: If you’ve been wishing you could travel to Japan throughout the pandemic, book a seat at the bar—a meal at Shunji is on par with any omakase counter you’ll find in Tokyo or Kyoto.