Sushi Note Omakase, a 14-seat jewel box of a restaurant that specializes in 20-course dinners and wine pairings, opened in Beverly Hills last month. But for culinary director Earl Aguilar, who runs the sushi counter with his mentor, Kiminobu Saito, the story of this restaurant began about five-and-half-years ago.
By that point, Aguilar had cut his teeth at fine-dining mainstay Providence and cooked at free-spirited tasting-menu destination Scratch | Bar (a restaurant from prolific chef Phillip Frankland Lee that preceded the Michelin-starred Sushi by Scratch Restaurants and Pasta | Bar). Aguilar loved working with seafood and wanted to transition into making sushi. He had grown up in North Hollywood, so he had long understood that the San Fernando Valley was full of great sushi spots. And now it was time for him to learn by eating.
“I was literally spending all my money eating at all these omakase places on Ventura Boulevard,” Aguilar says. “I was just going broke. And then I ran into Saito.”
Aguilar was dining at the first location of Sushi Note, which was about three weeks old at the time, in Sherman Oaks. Even after enjoying omakase up and down Ventura Boulevard, this place just hit different. There was jazz playing and a mid-century vibe. Saito was doing deeply Japanese things as he served seasonal imported fish, but he was also riffing with different sauces and flavor combinations Instead of focusing on sake, proprietors Andy Paxson and Dave Gibbs encouraged their guests to drink good wine.
Intrigued by what he was consuming, hearing and seeing, Aguilar had a conversation with Saito and revealed his sushi-making ambitions.
“He hired me on the spot after I talked about what I wanted to do and how I was willing to start from the bottom as if I knew absolutely nothing, which I did,” Aguilar says.
Saito’s faith in Aguilar has paid off. The original Sushi Note is still going strong, and Aguilar is now grooving to the Sushi Note Omakase beat in Beverly Hills. This cozy Rodeo Drive restaurant, hidden in the parking-garage level beneath the Rodeo Collection shopping plaza, also plays a lot of jazz. But Aguilar has snuck in some Lauryn Hill here and there.
As always, Saito, who’s known for his love of glistening silver-skinned kohada, and Aguilar are sourcing seasonal Japanese seafood and produce. They amp up umami by serving saba with battera kombu. They use house-made soy, refreshing house-made ponzu (vinegar-based instead of the typical citrus-based ponzu) and fermented daikon. But Sushi Note Omakase is also a restaurant that puts bottarga on amadai, cures bonito in brandy to add smokiness and serves Spanish bluefin tuna that Aguilar suggests you pair with a big red wine like a barolo. (All of Sushi Note Omakase’s front-of-house staff are certified sommeliers, led by beverage director Ian Lokey, if you need any advice before you order a DRC, opt for one of the two wine pairings or just pick a glass of chenin blanc.)
“We like to serve two pieces from the same tuna,” says Aguilar, who might offer a piece of lean soy-marinated akami alongside a ultra-luxurious piece of fatty o-toro or kama-toro
The arsenal of ingredients at Sushi Note Omakase also includes dry-aged Ōra King salmon from New Zealand. That’s part of a three-piece progression of fish (which might also include buri, kanpachi or kinmedai) supplied by dry-aged fish expert Liwei Liao of The Joint, a neighbor of Sushi Note in Sherman Oaks. Like many chefs, Aguilar has become enamored with how dry-aging fish clarifies flavor, improves texture and removes fishiness.
Aguilar is also a fan of Astrea Caviar, sourced from older sturgeon. He likes to put a top-tier grade of the caviar atop an opening bite and also atop a piece of nigiri near the end of the meal. For the latter, he’s recently been serving shiro ebi. The combination of baby white shrimp and sturgeon roe is a sweet, savory, briny, buttery, umami-rich and altogether sumptuous piece of sushi. (It also probably has the highest food cost of anything Sushi Note serves.)
Sushi Note Omakase has already found its rhythm nicely in Beverly Hills, and the restaurant is part of a movement in luxe L.A. neighborhoods. High-profile out-of-town omakase spots Sushi Nakazawa (from New York) and Uchi (from Austin) are close to opening outposts nearby in West Hollywood. Meanwhile, San Fernando Valley omakase destination The Brothers Sushi, which just celebrated its five-year-anniversary in Woodland Hills, opened a second location in Santa Monica last year and is eyeing additional Westside expansion. Sushi Nakazawa is the most traditionally Japanese of these restaurants, while Uchi and The Brothers Sushi have rewritten the omakase script with creative flair.
“I think omakase can be pushed and interpreted in any way any of these people want to do, as long as you create a really great guest experience that people really enjoy,” says Aguilar, who’s proving that you can stay in your jewel box and also color outside the lines.