Shunji Nakao as worked at Matsuhisa and the beloved Asanebo. His finest performance, however, is happening at his eponymous restaurant on Pico, which is housed in a barrel-shaped former barbecue joint. Nakao is as likely to structure his elaborate omakase menus around purple asparagus as around succulent slices of golden-eye snapper. You may be entertained by a massive, squirming sweet shrimp, rubies of agedashi tomato “tofu” floating in dashi broth, or by Nakao himself. His jokes are as sharp as his knife.
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Occupying the compact digs of an old Mr. Cecil’s Ribs, Shunji Nakao looks over his quirky Westside fiefdom the way a Brunello Cucinelli model peers from the hills of Umbria. Long a counterman at Studio City’s Asanebo before opening, then closing, Shunji’s on Melrose, he’s given to doing things his way. Order the sushi bar standby saba, or mackerel, and he’s invariably out. The sweet omelette-like tamago won’t fly, either. But stick with it. On the right night you might be offered kohada, the rare marinated gizzard shad whose silvery skin shimmers as if the fish has been plucked straight from the current. Because on the other side of the stern sushi master routine is a generous soul who wants you to experience how smoked ikura, or salmon eggs, spark off the crisp nori and who practically coos as you slurp the dashi-flecked juices of braised root vegetables. He may even accept a Sapporo as thanks for the pristine tempura-battered Hama Hama oysters that have all the power of a Puget Sound squall.