Sushi counters have emerged as the pinnacle of fine Japanese dining in the US and as a result, months of planning are often necessary to land a seat in front of a world-class itamae. And as California is home to the second largest Japanese and Japanese-American population in the United States, it’s no surprise that the state has some of the country’s finest, and most sought-after, omakase experiences. What may come as a surprise, though, is the abundance of equally serious sushi-yas that don’t have a months-long waitlist or tricky reservation systems.
Here are some inspector-approved counters from Napa to San Diego where you can probably still get a seat for dinner this week.
KenzoOne MICHELIN Star, Michelin Guide California 2019
Chef Kenji Miyaishi leads the counter of this serene Napa County destination bearing the name of its owner Kenzo Tsujimoto (CEO of the Japanese video game developer, Capcom). The multi-course kaiseki, featuring a chef’s selection of nigiri, is deeply reflective of the seasons, with fish flown in from Japan’s Toyosu market and a wine list featuring the owner’s own Kenzo Estate label.
Shin SushiOne MICHELIN Star, Michelin Guide California 2019
A relatively new entrant to Los Angeles’ wealth of high-end sushi counters (it opened in 2018), Shin Sushi in Encino has quickly risen to the top. Chef Taketoshi Azumi prepares an Edomae-style omakase with supremely high quality fish and a real dedication to his craft. The unassuming restaurant is tucked within a strip mall — as so many of the city’s best restaurants are.
Sushi RanMICHELIN Bib Gourmand, Michelin Guide California 2019
Sushi Ran is one of San Francisco’s first serious sushi-yas (it has been around for over 30 years). The restaurant has served as a launching pad for many successful itamaes, yet continues to be a solid choice for sushi in its own right. Executive Chef Seiji Wakabayashi has designed a quintessentially Californian menu of seasonal plates, inventive maki and pristine fish for sashimi and nigiri.
OkaneMICHELIN Bib Gourmand, Michelin Guide California 2019
Two-MICHELIN-starred Omakase may be one of San Francisco’s best sushi counters, but Okane just next door, run by the same team, offers similarly excellent fish in a much more flexible environment. The counter is small, just a handful of seats, but the menu is wide with everything from hot pot nabe to a la carte nigiri.
TsubasaMICHELIN Bib Gourmand, Michelin Guide California 2019
In San Francisco, a city where economics is on everybody’s mind, Tsubasa offers an opportunity to eat well for (a little) less. At this Hayes Valley sushi-ya, the omakase is available at several price points, or you can order a la carte. The fish is shipped in from Japan and prepared in a more traditional Edomae style.
Katsu-YaMICHELIN Bib Gourmand, Michelin Guide California 2019
Chef Katsuya Uechi is a key figure in the history of sushi in Los Angeles. He opened his first Katsu-Ya in Studio City in 1997 and today he oversees a restaurant empire that reaches as far as Bahrain. The original location specializes in the iconic East-meets-West sushi style invented in California, and proliferated by chefs like Uechi. Expect whimsical rolls anchored by excellent fish.
GinteiMICHELIN Plate, Michelin Guide California 2019
San Bruno may not be known for its Japanese cuisine, but Gintei makes a compelling argument that great sushi can be found here. There is a full a la carte menu of cooked dishes and maki rolls, but sushi and sashimi highlight the excellent quality fish from California and Tokyo. The restaurant also offers a very reasonably-priced omakase of minimally embellished fish.
Sushi YotsuyaMICHELIN Plate, Michelin Guide California 2019
It seems like nearly every neighborhood in the greater Los Angeles area has a Sushi Row, and Tarzana, specifically along Ventura Boulevard, is no exception. Here, Sushi Yotsuya is led by Chef/owner Masa Matsumoto. The counter only allows for the omakase, but that’s exactly the point. The procession of nigiri here forgoes all bells and whistles and focuses instead on the quality of the fish, simply but carefully prepared.
KirikoMICHELIN Plate, Michelin Guide California 2019
Chef/owner Ken Namba opened Kiriko on Los Angeles’ Sawtelle Boulevard, also known as Sawtelle Japantown, in 1999. Namba was born in the Tsukiji neighborhood of Tokyo, and the former site of the great fish market. He has a reputation for serving a diverse and original selection of fish and isn’t afraid to use nontraditional techniques to bring out the most flavor.
BluefinMICHELIN Plate, Michelin Guide California 2019
Takashi Abe, the chef/owner of Bluefin in Newport Beach, Orange County, trained under Californian national treasure, and sushiya to the stars, Nobu Matsuhisa for years. The influence is obvious. With ingredients like foie gras, truffle oil and caviar, the menu at Bluefin is packed with winning creations designed with one goal: pure deliciousness.
Cloak & PetalMICHELIN Plate, Michelin Guide California 2019
From the décor to the menu, there’s nothing traditional about this Japanese restaurant in San Diego’s Little Italy. But at the heart of this restaurant, and every other place on this list, is a dedication to serving high quality fish. Here, the fish is most likely to be stuffed into or draped over creative maki rolls and the counter is really just the bar, with views of two faux cherry blossom trees in full bloom.