February 4, 2005

The Octopus in Encino

Are you surprised, as I am, by the explosion of sushi restaurants in Southern California? Do you remember, as I do, the days when the only real sushi you could get was in so called ethnic neighborhoods? Do you remember also, as I do, the sense of mild disgust you elicited from most white folks if you were to mention raw fish? And finally, do you remember, as I do, the first time you realized that what people referred to as sushi was, in fact, that peculiarly American invention, the California roll?

Well, fear no more. These days, it seems that there's a joint in every little strip mall in LA that more or less claims to serve sushi. Heck, you can even find "sushi" in your neighborhood grocery store. Of course, much of this is attributable to the rise in American culinary sophistication or healthy eating that those with acute business acumen have been happy to oblige. The quality of these joints is, however, pretty uneven and many of them, especially those catering to indiscriminating lunch clients, can't really be called sushi restaurants as much as California roll machines with teriyaki selections.

The Octopus in Encino is not one of them. The restaurant opened in December and seems to be establishing a growing customer base through the word of mouth. It is one of the larger Japanese restaurants in the area and has a conveniently large parking lot, a very important factor for me. The decor is calm and minimalist and the service is above acceptable. Its clientele ranges from knowledgeable connoisseurs of Japanese cuisine to vegetarians which says much for the menu's wide range.

This restaurant is part of a group of Japanese restaurants that the owner and his partner own and operate. This is notable only for the fact that they buy a large quantity of fish for all of their restaurants and therefore are able to receive a quantity discount that is passed down to the customer. Thus the sushi at Octopus is (almost) obscenely big at a rather inexpensive price. And I even know where the fish comes from.

Several years ago, I followed a family friend to the wholesale fish market in downtown, the Pacific Fish Market. She knew a sushi chef who let us come along to buy fish at wholesale price. The Market is only open to professionals and retailers, I believe. There I saw boxes packed up for various restaurants in town, including the venerable Nobu. Yeah, Octopus gets the same fish as the Nobu. And if you're having sushi -- not the Japanese-South American fusion that the famous chef famously creates - you are having the same food without the heart-attack-inducing prices at Nobu.

I don't know if that's still true but it was three years ago. Of course, you're thinking that the freshness of the fish depends on what happens at the restaurant and you're right. The fish at Octopus is kept fresh with mechanical precision and once they're past their time, the fish is thrown out promptly.

I'm especially fond of uni (sea urchin; here it comes from Santa Barbara) and mirugai (giant clam) but all sushi is good there. Once you've experienced good uni melting in your mouth, you look at other food with a bit of contempt --or, is it just me? Here you can enjoy them without breaking your bank account. (Have you read the Masa review in NY Times? Yikes!)

If you're not into raw or are pregnant, the teriyaki, gyoza or bbq ribs are the way to go. If you are cold, the hot udon will do you good. If you are part of a large group and need a refreshing palate cleanser, get the Seafood Pasta - sort of like ceviche - which has sashimi on top of udon noodles and greens in citrus scented sesame oil dressing. It's a lot of food for one or two people but if you share with a large group, it's perfect. For rolls, I'd try the Camarillo, which has spicy tuna inside and albacore tuna, ikura, and sliced onions on top.

Final note: The restaurant bills its cuisine as fusion but I'd recommend sticking to the traditional fare. I'm not fond of fusion cooking, whatever that means. (Addendum: On second thought, some of their fusion-al creations can be really good. Stay tuned.) Great sushi is what you're getting there so stay with that. Or, eat whatever appeals to you.

Here are some things we ate at Octopus. Yum!

Octopus, 16733 Ventura Blvd., #1, Encino 91436. 818.380.0855

Other sushi restaurants I recommend are:
Hide Sushi on Sawtelle in West L.A. No reservations.
Arado in Koreatown on Wilshire and Wilton (The best sushi in Koreatown)

*Addendum: Feb. 13, 2004: Need kamasutra for your valentine? I went back to the Octopus several times after my the above post, enjoyed each meal immensely, and would like to share a new dish the restaurant is considering to put on its menu. Although I've stated my dislike for "fusion" in general -- JP and I have the same view -- this new creation actually worked for me although the gold on top was bordering on uber-decadence, more than I need in food. Gold, you ask? Yes, gold.

This sushi roll is going to be called "Kamasutra," which is sure to pique interest, I suppose. It is a salmon skin, shrimp(I think or my memory fails me), avocado roll with eel wrapped around it, a dollop of curry powder on top, and (drumroll, please) a little smidgeon of gold (yes, real gold) on top. M and I thought the name required an oyster on the side, but I don't know if that's going to be. The chef thought that since curry is most often associated wth India --> India created Kamasutra --> these ingredients promote health and pleasure --> hence the name. It tastes great, so I really don't care about the name. The dab of curry powder provides a nice jolt of unexpected flavor; the gold is neither here nor there but it looks fabulous and I love great looking food as much as the next person.

Here's a photo of it.


Anonymous said...

Having read the above fairly glowing review of the Octopus in Encino, a couple of friends and I decided to try it, and we were looking forward with anticipation to the dining experience. Our first encounter with the serve staff should have been an indication. Upon sitting at the sushi bar, we were expecting a cheerful greeting from the sushi chefs. None forthcoming, but we decided that was not a big deal. We had to ask for the hot towels, and they were delivered to us all three next to one of us, and we had to pass them out. We were then served a small dish of edamane that probably had been recycled a few times. They were gray-green in appearance, tough as toenails and tasteless. I asked for a replacement serving, which was warm, but not any better - or fresher. While we should have walked out then, we decided to give the place the benefit of the doubt. We ordered yellow tail and albacore. The yellow tail was tough and tasteless. The albacore only edible because of the ponzu sauce. Next we tried the tuna - completely tasteless and barely thawed out from what was probably a long winter's hibernation in their freezer. At which point, we could take it no longer and left. While the above writer may have had a good experience, I would definitely NOT RECOMMEND THIS PLACE to anyone who has a whit of knowledge or taste of good, fresh sushi. This place MAY (with qualification) be OK for the rolls that many people think are sushi, but definitely an embarrassment to anyone who eats more than that. If I were the owner of this establishment, I would definitely take a look at the whole operation at Encino. Or I would more likely return this joint to the property owner so they can expand the parking lot.

Commodore said...

Please delete this entry from your blog deliciousbiting! I agree with the anonymous poster above. OK, so I took a girl there after reading about how fresh the fish was and about the sexy gold-crusted kamasutra roll..,. maybe this place has new owners or something. There was no kamasutra roll and the itamae had never heard of it; he wondered if I had the place confused with another octopus (apparently it's a chain). The atmosphere sucked .... place looked like a Denny's. The lights were way too bright and there was a big screen TV showing sports. A giant TV, dominating the atmosphere. We took a seat away from the TV and the sushi bar (which was too close to the TV). The speakers were blaring crappy top 40 music. At least give me J-pop, come on! Did I mention how bright it was? We asked them to dim the lights and to their credit they did. Then five minutes later someone turned them up again! We asked for them to dim it and they did... this lasted about ten minutes before someone else turned them up again; this went on most of the meal. Then I asked for cold sake. Instead of offering a list or suggesting a brand, the waiter said OK and disappeared. So they have one house sake, you drink it hot or cold. It wasn't awful but had I known there was just one house sake I would have ordered it hot. Edamame and sunomono came with the meal, which is usually a classy touch, but the edamame was tasteless (as the poster above also noted). The sunomono was ok but nothing to write home about. We started with tempura and miso soup. The soup was OK -- at least it wasn't from a package, though the wakame was dried -- but the tempura was crap; it was the greasiest tempura I have ever tasted. Not light and fluffy as tempura should be at all. My date commented that it was like kentucky fried chicken! All I could think was, I am so not getting laid tonight.... Then came the sushi... hamachi was not the freshest I've had but at this point I was just thanking the stars that it wasn't frozen. We also ordered something called a "Monkey Ball" which sounded good in the menu -- negi-toro with mushroom deep fried. It was as greasy as the tempura, and the "negi-toro" was a big meaty pile of fried tuna (I doubt it was toro; we tried to order toro sushi and "ohh, no toro tonight") and the mushroom was a basic white mushroom, not at all the fresh shiitake I was hoping for. This was tasty, but ridiculously huge, and they gave us six of them. We ate two apiece and left the rest. We considered ordering more but what was the point really. Two different waiters asked if we wanted a box to take home the extra tempura and monkey balls; it was very difficult to keep from saying "I wouldn't feed that crap to my dog..." I don't even have a dog but I still wanted to say it. There was a small container of sugar and sweet and low packets on the table so I didn't even dare ask about their green tea; we just paid the check and left. Perhaps this place has a different owner from the kamasutra days; there is no way I would ever go there again.

By the way, there really isn't any "Asian fusion" on the menu except a very questionable looking filet mignon sashimi dish (we asked a waitress about it -- perhaps it was seared? She said, no, it's raw, and she made a really disgusted face as she told us this. no way we were gonna try it). I'm not sure what they considered "fusion"; perhaps that was the tempura/KFC thing they were doing...

Anonymous said...

My husband and I have been to Octopus in Encino twice and in Burbank once. Every experience has ochoed the last: great food! I'm new to the sushi world and my husband has been taking me all over the Valley to try diferent types of Sushi. Many places provide a fare which leaves much to be desired. I dont like "fishy" fish.
High quality sushi should not leave a fishy after tasts. Octopus sushi is supurb. I've been to high priced places and enjoiyed the food less.
The tuna's in particlar are delectable.
The terriaki is very good. Terriaki is one of my favorite dishes,and I tend to be particular about it. The sauce is sweet and delicious.
The filet mignon sashimi is amazing. Don't let the past reviewer turn you away. It's seared, not raw and is served with a tangy sweet sauce.
Service is ok. I look for food in a restaurant. Lacking service would never send me on a rampage against a restaurant if the food is good.

Anonymous said...

I have been to Octopus in Encino and Burbank since my introduction to sushi, and I don't understand what those first two posters are whining about. The service is always good and friendly, the fish is always fresh and reasonably priced. I especially like the monkey brains (deep fried and delectable - and no, for the uninitiated, it's not monkey brains, it's just called that). Their spicy tuna is tasty as well. Now I agree that their edamame is often dried out, and their sake selection leaves much to be desired, but food-wise, just like any restaurant, you have to know what to order, and what to steer clear of. The atmosphere lacks, well, atmosphere, but I go there for the food. I've been to many restaurants with great atmosphere and service, but lousy food. While Octopus isn't the best, it's certainly above average.

Anonymous said...

Ok. The first to people are biotches. My family owns the restaurant and I can say it's REALLY GOOD!!! I'm not just saying it because I'm family, but it's one of the best restaurants in town! The second comment was wrong, because some of the things you ordered aren't on the menu, and it doesn't look like a Denny's. My father designed the interior and you have no right to insult his ideas. Why don't you just try opening a restaurant yourself and see how hard it is!!! The service is great and I thank the two other people who agree with me. You have good taste!! As for the people who are like, "well, i don't like it cuz blah blah blah..." You are freaks and should be more respectful!!!!

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Gananch said...

This place gave me food poisoning last night. The sushi chef undercooked my scallops from dynamite rolls.the service sucked and we counted 4 tables who complained their order was wrong or foegotten. I will never go there again.