Sushi Secrets Revealed by Chef Masa of Santa Monica’s Soko

There is more than just ”slice and serve” when it comes to creating sushi at the intimate 8-seat bar, Shimakawa tells LA Mag

Chef Masa Shimakawa rejects the notion that sushi is a minimalist preparation, that he simply serves as a middle-man, a broker with a sharp knife, between the ocean and his counter. You see, your average independently wealthy food zealot has come to understand sushi as a straightforward institution. Cook rice, slice fish, and fin. The problem with this understanding is that it presents the act of making sushi as a rather thoughtless procedure. Elegant, yes, but basic. It shouldn’t be any surprise that reducing a practice to its simplest terms can be a little condescending towards a chef. Hearing the subtle annoyance in Masa’s voice as he talks about it is delightful, “We don’t just slice and serve; we work for the ingredients. Some ingredients we need to help infuse with flavor, some need vinegar,” he explains with a quiet passion, “It’s not simple rice and fish.”

At Masa’s intimate 8-seat sushi bar, Soko, which is neatly tucked in the main lobby of the glamorous and breezy Fairmont Miramar Hotel in Santa Monica, technical vision and creativity combine to serve some of the best sushi in Santa Monica. Nigiri is decidedly the move at Masa’s counter. A sizable piece of horse mackerel nestled atop his piquant rice is a delicious bite that also delivers on Soko’s theme: Fatty fish and tangy rice. That subtle vinegar flavor is essential to Masa’s sushi, “It allows you to indulge the fish taste,” he explains. While pretty much all sushi rice is cooked with rice vinegar, Masa uses a specific mix of 4 different vinegars to further demonstrate this effect. The result is a deceptively craveable rice that compliments Soko’s variety of sebaceous and decadent fish.

Chef Masa Shimakawa (Photo by Soko)

Chu-toro, that is medium fatty tuna, and marbled Ora King Salmon topped with a thin slice of yuzu provide more in the way of buttery, savory bites balanced with acid. And lean bluefin is cut cleanly and thickly, providing an immaculate piece of nigiri. You’ll also find deeply fulfilling salmon roe and uni separated by a few strips of lemon, firm and flavorful selva shrimp, and yellowtail. The tuna at Soko shines bright, as Masa subtly paints extra flavor right onto his nigiri with a thin glaze of nikiri, a combination of mirin, dashi, and soy sauce. At Soko, Masa provides an authentic Tokyo-style sushi experience with a focus on fatty fish, tart rice, and a small glaze of sauce like a thumbprint on each piece of nigiri.

“I would love for this to turn into an 8-seat omakase,” he admits, “But right now the most important thing for me is consistency.” No doubt the consistency is becoming established, and once Masa gets to stretch his legs, Soko will become a great spot for seasonal surprises and flavorful sides.

As good as he is at maximizing the flavor of fresh fish, he is equally skilled in cooking elsewhere in the kitchen. His miso soup is a delicious and hearty concoction of japanese parsley, nameko mushrooms, wakame, and tofu. Occasionally, he gets some produce from the Santa Monica farmer’s market to create a fresh, Japanese-style sesame bean salad with blue lake beans, romano, yellow wax, and heirloom tomatoes. On a more recent visit, a golden brown tomago with eel, sea urchin, Japanese parsley, and shitake mushrooms sat atop his counter. He has been known to whip up ankimo, or monkfish liver, fatty and firm like a fish foie gras and served with ponzu, thinly sliced cucumber, sesame, and nori. Though some of these things aren’t currently present on the menu, they could be at any moment. It inspires hope that when Masa does get to add different selections to his card next month, this storeroom sushi bar will reach new heights.

(Photo courtesy of Soko)

For now, customers can enjoy a brilliantly executed Tokyo-style sushi experience at one of the most lovely hotels in Los Angeles. Soko is worth the trip, and it should be a regular spot for people on the westside. It’s expertly done, affordable, and thoughtful sushi with potential to provide an even bigger selection in the future. Masa is, naturally, highly committed to the operation. A native of Hokkaido, he’s had 4 jobs in 21 years spanning 3 countries, so Soko isn’t just some random hotel pop-up for him. He’s a highly skilled veteran who knows what’s at stake. “I need to keep the bar high. Consistency is key. I want to keep things at a high level,” he declares. “If a restaurant can do that, then they’ll be successful.”

Soko is open 7 nights a week from 5-10PM. Outdoor seating available this fall.

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