In other cities, Power Brokers, and their friends the Movers & Shakers, lunch on meat.
They take their noontime repast in dark, wood-and-brass settings, where they consume large chunks of fatted calf, washed down with rivers of martinis and Cabernet. They slather their baked potatoes with butter and sour cream. They eat cheesecake for dessert. Contrary to our local rendition of conventional wisdom, they survive the incredible cholesterol, fat and sodium hit this meal includes. And they consume it day in, and day out.
In Los Angeles, it is not without significance that major meat shops like Arnie Morton's, Lawry's the Prime Rib and Ruth's Chris Steak House are open for dinner, but not for lunch. Even though there is beef to be found at lunchtime (The Grill, The Palm, Nick & Steff's), steaks are not necessarily the meat that matters (or the meat of the matter) for our ultimate honchos.
Instead, as effete as it may sound, it is sushi bars that call to L.A.'s big cheeses at lunchtime. And that doesn't mean all-you-can-eat sushi joints like Todai. It means upscale raw-fish emporiums, where our finny friends on rice can cost seriously more than a hunk of incinerated cow. Raw uni may seem rather fey compared with a porterhouse gushing juice, but it can do a lot more damage to your plastic. Raw ain't cheap.No martini, no steak
Interestingly, there may be a correlation between the waning of the lunchtime libation and the waxing of the sushi bar. Back in the old days, when two-fisted drinkers roamed the earth, people of the business persuasion (or, in non-PC terms, "guys") would head for their local watering hole for a liquid lunch, and some witty interaction with the mixologist who created their martinis, old-fashioneds and stingers.
As lunchtime drinking turned into an act with all the moral righteousness of clubbing baby seals, not only was the fine art of bending an elbow lost, but so was the natural interaction between the barkeep and the barfly. Nature abhors a vacuum. And so, replacing that particular form of human discourse was, and is, the sushi bar.
The chefs behind the sushi bar may not be all that well attuned to the subtleties of marital strife, but they know plenty about baseball; when Hideo Nomo was pitching for the Dodgers, every sushi chef in town could tell you his ERA.
Then again, the explanation for the rise of the sushi bar as our power lunch destination of choice may be nothing more complex than the simple fact that an awful lot of folks in the entertainment industry have decided raw fish (with or without rice) is not only healthier than a chunk of well-marbled sirloin, it also tastes at least as good, and maybe even better.
Our flowery image notwithstanding, we're a lean (if not actually lean and mean) business city, in which the edge is based on being alert not just after our morning latte, but also all afternoon up until we head for an evening sweating on one of those helical-spherical gyro exer-widgets. In other cities, they nap between lunch and dinner; in L.A., we spend that time crunching both the numbers and the competition.
"I'd go out for sushi twice a week if I had the time," says Ken Biller, executive producer of the "Star Trek: Voyager" series. "But mostly, all I can do is a couple of times a month. And if I'm doing sushi for lunch, I'm going to Nozawa."
That means, of course, Sushi Nozawa, one of the most revered sushi bars in Southern California. It is a small, spare space in a nondescript mini-mall on Ventura Boulevard in Studio City, on what has come to be known as Sushi Row (with 12 Japanese restaurants in the mile-and-a-half stretch east of Laurel Canyon Boulevard).
At Sushi Nozawa, no matter who you are, you wait for one of the few seats at the sushi bar or at a table. Biller remembers standing in line at lunch one day, a few places ahead of actor Robert Duvall and studio head Jeffrey "Sparky" Katzenberg who was not happy to have to stand in line. And even less happy when the restaurant received a phone call for him and Mrs. Nozawa paged him as, "Captain Katzenberg." The notoriously impatient DreamWorks SKG co-founder opted not to wait for a seat. Which was probably just as well chef Nozawa is famous for working at his own, deliberate speed.
Still, even at its slowest, sushi is a quick lunch.
"It takes maybe 25 or 30 minutes for the whole meal," Biller says. "And it's totally satisfying. For me, it's an indulgence, a reward for a hard morning. Also, because it's never heavy, I don't curl up into a ball in the afternoon. All that protein gives me a lift."Show biz and sushi
The importance of sushi as a dining ritual here in Los Angeles is emphasized by the provenance of two high-end sushi bars that have opened on the Westside in recent months. One, Tengu in Westwood Village, is owned by a syndicate of some three dozen agents from Creative Artists Agency, who longed for a place of their own. The other, not far away on Santa Monica and Sepulveda boulevards, is Hama Saku, owned (at least in part) by their former boss, "Shogun" Michael Ovitz; it's the Battle of the Agency Sushi Bars.
Add on the raw fish prepared by the sister of Melanie Griffith at Tsunami in Beverly Hills, and you have a lot of synergy between show biz and sushi biz. But then, that's been the case for some time; there are probably as many famous faces at Matsuhisa on any given night as there are at Spago. And it's every bit as hard to get in.
"I probably eat sushi three times a week, mostly at Take on Sunset, where Nobu knows me well, and makes special dishes for me," says sushi obsessive Carl Borack. "I also like Teru and Genmai in the Valley, and Hide on Sawtelle, though I do wish they'd take credit cards."
Borack may be the most unusual hyphenate in a town of many hyphens he's both a successful film producer (most recently, the "Shiloh" series of films about a dog and the boy who loves him) and captain of the U.S. Olympic fencing team. For Borack, sushi lunch represents an opportunity to take meetings with film makers and distributors, while it's light enough to help him maintain the fighting form he needs to train Olympians in epee and saber.
"It's the rare day I don't see people reading the trades while sitting at the sushi bar," Borack says. "That, and talking on their cell phones. I think that drives the chefs crazy. For me, it's about knowing the chef, having him greet me as Carl-San. I love to have a relationship with my sushi chef, to buy him a beer, to have him come up with something I might not have ordered."
Sushi bars also, in classic L.A. style, can do a good job of separating the men from the boys (and the women from the girls). There's no sushi bar that appeals to the rich and famous more than Ginza Sushi-Ko at One Rodeo in Beverly Hills. Dinner prices there seem to run between $250 and $300 a person. (There's no menu, no price list; you put yourself in the hands of the chef, and the limit on your Visa card.)
Madonna eats there. Warren Beatty eats there. Visiting journalists from The New York Times with massive expense accounts eat there. (There have been not one, but two reviews of the place in The New York Times in the past three months!) Lunch and dinner are by reservation only; don't even think of showing up without having called first. This is Power Sushi at its most extreme; truly, if you have to ask the price, you can't afford it.
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