What's Behind L.A.'s Sugarfish Mania

Austin Hargrave
Chef Nozawa and son Tom

Kazunori Nozawa, aka the "Sushi Nazi," softened his style (goodbye, no-cellphone policy) and built a mini empire fueled by devoted industry fans including Charlize Theron, Larry David and the Kardashians.

This story first appeared in the Feb. 14 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Kazunori Nozawa, known for years as L.A.'s infamous "Sushi Nazi," earned national renown in 2007 when Charlize Theron complained on The Tonight Show of having been kicked out of his eponymous Studio City restaurant because she kept directing him to serve certain types of fish. She should have known better: Nozawa's edict, inscribed on signs at his hole-in-the-wall omakase spot, was "trust me."

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Regardless, Theron keeps going back for more. In January, paparazzi caught her and Seth MacFarlane stepping out of the Beverly Hills branch of Sugarfish, the stylish successor concept to the now-closed Sushi Nozawa. Since it launched in 2008, Sugarfish -- which boasts eight L.A. outposts, from Calabasas (the location is something of a Kardashians catch basin) to Brentwood (Bradley Cooper recently was in) to a month-old address on La Brea -- has become an industry infatuation. The Beverly Hills shingle on Canon Drive in particular attracts the entertainment business crowd, including Larry David, manager Molly Madden and Paramount's Rob Moore, and placed No. 13 in THR's annual Power Lunch survey of 250 top Hollywood players, ahead of Mr Chow and Spago.

The Sugarfish chainlet is, for the uninitiated, essentially Sushi Nozawa scrubbed of its roughest edges. "Let's put it this way," says CEO Jerry Greenberg, a 15-year Studio City customer and co-founder of tech company Sapient (he retains shares in the company worth about $140 million). "At Nozawa, you couldn't use a cellphone; at Sugarfish, you can." Adds Nozawa's son Tom, co-head of operations: "My dad is a difficult man. He's an artist, and he doesn't take bullcrap." Yet, he admits, "we wanted our customers to have a pleasant experience when they dined at Sugarfish -- a more civilized environment."

Explains Mosaic manager Michael Lasker: "Look, everyone loves Nozawa, but he is a pain in the ass. Now it's close by and everywhere. Finally they're making it easier on me!" Lasker is a partisan of the Beverly Hills branch, which boasts the reservation-only 10-seat, $150-a-person Nozawa Bar hidden in back -- whispered about among aficionados as something of a bargain Urasawa, known for its $395 omakase.

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The reforms only go so far: You still can't ask for ponzu sauce, and you're still strongly urged to order from the several "trust me" prix-fixe menus (85 percent of customers do).

Sugarfish -- which has an eye on expanding nationally -- appeals on many fronts. It's a remarkably fresh product at a relatively modest price. (The average check is $30 a person.) At 68, chef Nozawa still scours downtown L.A.'s insular seafood district six days a week at 5 a.m., getting first dibs because of relationships with fishmongers forged during the course of decades. "I handpick everything," he says. "That's 80 percent of a successful day -- at least."

Nozawa's warm, loose rice is unlike any other food item in town. "The blend of ice-cold fish on top of warm rice is such a fantastic taste collision," says Danielle Gelber, an executive producer on Chicago Fire and Chicago P.D. "No other place does that unique combination."

For busy decision-makers, ordering is a no-brainer. The menu runs no gamut: It's sushi, sashimi, cut rolls and edamame, with not a spider or dragon roll in the house. Gratuity is included, so no time is spent calculating at meal's end.

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Then there's the fact that no one seems to complain of a bad meal. "It's the most incredibly consistent restaurant I've ever eaten in. It's a pretty rare thing," says writer-director Zak Penn (The Grand). "You know exactly what you're going to get, and it's going to be excellent."

Says Nozawa: "It's purism. It's simplicity. I wanted to make the Apple Pan of sushi."