For eight years, from 2012 to 2020, Shunji occupied the wildest, most only-in-Los-Angeles location for a sushi bar possible: the Sawtelle restaurant operated out of a stuccoed 1930s-era building shaped like a soup bowl.
Mr. Cecil’s California Ribs was the previous tenant before Shunji Nakao took over the space, though over the decades it had also been home to a Mexican restaurant, a bar with the on-the-nose name of Roundhouse, a toy store and a real estate agency. It was originally constructed as one location of a short-lived restaurant chain called Chili Bowl; the programmatic architecture far outlasted the franchise.
The food Nakao prepared there had its own sense of place. He’s one of the quiet architects behind L.A.’s sushi culture. Along with his brother, Tetsuya, the native of Yokohama (a city 20 miles south of Tokyo) helped open Matsuhisa in the late 1980s. The brothers opened their own venture, Asanebo in Studio City, in the early 1990s. Nakao left Asanebo in 2000, working at other restaurants around the metro area and running his own place in Tokyo before returning to L.A. to bring his improbable circular theater to life.
Shunji’s menu was ambitious in every way: There were a la carte options as well as omakase in multiple price tiers, with elaborate vegetable whimsies woven in among the seafood courses. A signature was his agedashi tomato tofu, a stoplight-red block that would be finished with, say, a slice of grilled zucchini and a lone shishito balanced atop. Sometimes the vegetable bites could be a little fiddly, but the sushi and sashimi Nakao served were always among the most seasonal and deftly prepared in the city.
Then 2020 crash-landed: Nakao, like so many of his peers, turned to making elaborate chirashi and bentos for takeout to sustain his business. A complicated situation with the landlords, involving a bid to preserve the building amid plans for demolition, compelled Shunji to relocate.
Awards & Press
- James Beard Award
- Michelin 1 Star