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Azami's Amazing Girl-Powered Sushi

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Remember how we told you that this weekend we'd be sending ourselves off on another leg of our sushi safari? Well, we bellied up to the bar at Azami Sushi Cafe on Melrose, and let the adventure begin. This time we'd decided we'd tried enough sushi to know, at the very least, good from bad, and we also knew it was time to let the chef make all the decisions. So we opted to do an omakase lunch, which put us in the hands of Niki Nakayama, co-owner and sushi mistress of Azami.

Admittedly Azami is located in a funky part of town--not so funky that it feels unsafe, but it's definitely on the edge of the more densely packed retail alley of Melrose. This, however, gives Azami a bit of an edge: They're the only sushi spot in the area. Folks seem to flock to Azami in happy devotion; our fellow diners at the bar confessed to making Azami their destination at least once or twice a week. That general upbeat vibe is central to the Azami experience. Nakayama shared with us her philosophy that sushi should be fun, and not about rules. She hoped we were having a good time, and with each selection she presented us we were sure to let her know our delight.

Ah, the sushi! First, the regular wasabi paste was swapped out for freshly ground wasabi, a new experience for us, and wow, what a difference in texture, spice, and taste--it was slightly more muted, but had more of an impact thanks to its absolute freshness. Our meal began with a lobster rollcut in three generous but not overwhelming segments, and drizzled in a creamy sauce (pictured). The roll was done in the traditional nori (seaweed) paper, but then was wrapped a second time in rice paper, which offered a curious balance between cool and warm, as well as the contrast between the textures and flavors. We were then served a yellowtail carpaccio dotted with pink peppercorns, which was light and spicy, and also for us a fresh presentation for the fish. And then we moved on to the pieces of sushi...

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Here's a listing of the items we were served, along with our quick notes, and links to photos. Oh, and you'll notice we missed a few photo ops--that's what happens when the food is so good and you're so relaxed you forget to take a picture!

Bluefin tuna--beautifully bright red and meaty

Kanpachi (Amberjack) with salt and lemon

Albacorehttp://www.flickr.com/photos/sassylittlepunkin/67128617/in/set-1448996/

Yellowtail belly

Jumbo Sea Scallop--from Hokkaido; firm, great texture & taste

Spanish Mackrel

Toro--fantastic (pictured, second from the left)

Kobe-style beef(Nakayama explained the meaning of Kobe beef to us; this was called Kobe-style, so we're fairly certain it wasn't the Kobe, but in that vein. Delicious regardless, and a change of pace for a sushi meal; pictured, second from the right)

Fresh water eel--our dining companion's go-to item

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Handrolls--Ours was plain tuna, our dining companion tried the Creamy Crab. We both opted for the soy paper, which was a pleasant alternative.

Seared toro--unbelievable! The charred flavor brought out the richness of the fatty fish. A highlight.

Organic Scottish Salmon
Halibut--sweet and sharp, a lovely finish (pictured, far right).

What was nice about dining omakase was that we didn't have to stare at a menu or take a gamble on anything, but rather let the chef guide us through what she thought was the best in the house. The pace was perfect, and the fact that everyone else in the city was out holiday shopping left Nakayama free to chat with us, so we learned about the restaurant's history (open for five years, co-owned with her cousin Sayori Onozuka), as well as her culinary and sushi training (traditional culinary school here in Pasadena, intense training in Japan, working with LA's Mori). The bright and charming atmosphere and demeanor of the staff only made our meal more pleasant; we never felt rushed, we appreciated Nakayama's concern that we enjoy ourselves and leave satisfied, and the sushi was some of the best we've had. It's curious how experience and an adventursome spirit can help form the palate for sushi--while we've long poo-pooed things as lame as California rolls, we've grown to really have an eye and a taste for quality fish, and an appetite for new things. Of course it helps to have some help along the way; we usually head out armed with a little know-how thanks to some prep work (God bless the internets!), and in this case we happily let Nakayama take us by the hand. She was a fantastic guide--she was quick to point out interesting tidbits like the misnomer of "baby yellowtail" for Kanpachi (it's actually Amberjack), and also to let us know when we needed not dip the fish in soy, or where the fish had originated. So our first omakase was a rousing success, and we're happily adding Azami to our shortlist of favorite gems from this city's treasure trove of sushi.

Azami Sushi Cafe
7160 Melrose Avenue
(323) 939-3816