Bazaar-Vet Wonny Lee Brings Modernist Lilt to Hamasaku

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Lee's Gun-smoked salmon Photo: Tatiana Arbogast

Contrasts riddle Hamasaku like seams of alabaster through a well-marbled sirloin. Here we have a serious sushi destination, all but veiled in the corner of a West L.A. strip mall, whose name can't help but conjure up images of owner and Imagineer Mike Ovitz, formerly the most feared agent in town. Self-labeled as "Japanese-Californian," this is a restaurant conscious enough of tradition to offer pressed box hako sushi and unpasteurized nama-zake, where the former might be called the "Sarah Michelle" and rolls named after Twilight and Scrubs are among the best-sellers. An angled ceiling seeping serenely into blonde wood walls, with Kanji scrolls and a hand-carved screen signal a sort of conventional Zen austerity, while the room also comes dotted with white tablecloths, banquet chairs, and industry elite. A supermodel famous for her work trying to save the whales may be sitting with a friend at the sushi bar, which unrepentantly serves endangered blue fin tuna.

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Wonny LeeTatiana Arbogast

The latest chapter in Hamasaku's story is the recent hire of Southern California's own Wonny Lee, a CIA Hyde Park grad who grew up around his parent's Chinese restaurant and held down his first apprenticeship at a sushi restaurant. Following a stint at Marche Moderne and a job with Patina, the chef recently left his position at The Bazaar to oversee the ippin-ryori and sushi at Hamasaku, joining the restaurant just six months ago. Teamed with new general manager Jesse Duron, a half-Japanese veteran of Hamamori, Gonpachi, and Miku who makes frequent R&D; trips to Japan, the duo's distinct resumes and upbringings lend a fairly apt grab-bag of cultural and culinary reference points for Hamasaku's mission.

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Octopus arnacini, shishito peppers, and Gochijang chicken popsTatiana Arbogast

As a vet of The Bazaar, Lee's most notable new additions involve a subtle weave of modernist techniques and European influence. We came to see what the chef was cooking on Hamasaku's invitation and found takoyaki remixed into creamy, crisp arancini, spherified salmon roe and salmon cured quickly with a handheld, wood chip-loaded smoking gun, yellowtail belly topped with yuzu foam and yellowtail sashimi wrapped in shishitos. Halibut nigiri arrives topped with an ume gel and a delicate shiso leaf.

Recalling a dish the city loves at Lukshon, Lee has chicken legs stripped to the plump thigh and smothered in Korean gochujang. Recalling a David Chang signature, Hamasaku offers bao enfolding kakuni pork belly and pickle, its construction more restrained and direct, the bao a bit more stiff and starchy. A sashimi plate offers unagi topped with microfilm of lardo, upping umami in a pleasurable hit that recalls the lardo-laced uni Michael White makes at Manhattan's Marea.

Hamasaku Dessert

Almond financier with lemon curd ice cream, D'anjou pear, and yuzu caramelTatiana Arbogast

The results didn't overreach or fuss up what already works, like some modernist cooking can be, and often rightly is, accused of doing. Lee's additions are just a cool, cleverly conceived perk to the restaurant's pristine fish and enjoyable cooked dishes. The usual crowd of big-wigs may not always veer far from the baked snow crab "Fox" hand-roll or the "DJ Spider," but Lee's contributions are interesting additions.

Since Hamasaku often conjures images of a heavy-hitting price tag, among other things, it's encouraging to see that the restaurant is now offering an affordable introduction for rookies and the reluctant to get in the door. Monday through Thursday, a $45 omakase menu of four to six courses is now available, featuring a salad course, nigiri, a few of Lee's cooked items, and dessert. Sake flights are also now offered from its 26-bottle menu, starting at $16. An example of the potential $45 menu is below for your looks.

Hamasaku $45 Omakase Sample Menu

First - House Smoked Salmon

Second - Herb Salad, Calamari, Yuzu Vinaigrette

Third - Octopus Arancini, Shishito Peppers, Rock Shrimp

Fourth - Nigiri Sushi (Halibut Ume Gel, Yellowtail Belly Yuzu Foam, Unagi with Lardo)

Fifth - Hanger Steak, Garlic Soy Pan Sauce, Micro Arugula, Eringi Mushroom

Dessert - Almond Financier, Lemon Curd Ice Cream, Yuzu Caramel, D’anjou Pear,