With just whispers in online forum Food Talk Central from intrepid enthusiasts who first reported on it, Sawa in Little Tokyo has quietly become one of the city’s most special sushi and cocktail experiences. Opened a little over a month ago in early June, Sawa is a production from the same team that gained fame from the 20-course omakase feast at Kaneyoshi, located next door in the subterranean space. Look for Sawa or Kaneyoshi from the street, and they’ll be almost impossible to find. A subtle Kaneyoshi sign is visible from San Pedro Street, but the stairwell next to it leads to a locked door.
Just getting to the basement of the Kajima Office building is an exercise in patience and dexterity, making guests feel like secret agents. An easier approach might be to park in the lot, where an attendant directs diners to an elevator from the office’s lobby that descends to an underground floor. Here, a mural of Los Angeles awaits as the doors open. Take a left, and a single door lacking a sign gives way to the inviting bar of Sawa. That’s the way chef Anthony Nguyen wants it. Sawa isn’t supposed to be easy to get to for a large number of guests. It’s a special place to be discovered by curious Angelenos, combining elements of classic Tokyo-style cocktail bars with an upscale Edomae omakase to match, all in an arresting space meant for just a handful of people at a time.
Like Kaneyoshi, Sawa has just a small social media following and no marketing machine behind it. It’s all word of mouth, especially from established Kaneyoshi customers who expect a high-caliber dining experience. Like Kaneyoshi, the sushi at Sawa approaches the lofty standards of the best Edomae-style places in Los Angeles and even Tokyo. Nguyen shows his prepared fish, anything from small but plump Hokkaido uni and gently poached ankimo (monkfish liver) to gracefully seared slices of shima aji topped with a tiny knob of yuzu kosho.
Eight years ago, Nguyen was learning the trade at a conveyor belt sushi restaurant in Granada Hills, studying psychology in the meantime. After a brief stint in Illinois to pursue engineering, he returned to California to work at Katsuya and study cooking in earnest at Le Cordon Bleu. It was a move to Sushi Sushi in Beverly Hills, a recently closed bastion of pricey but not necessarily high-concept sushi, that introduced Nguyen an elevated style of preparation. A plan to work in Tokyo to learn yakitori was cut short due the pandemic, leading the young Vietnamese American chef to reach out to Shin Sushi to learn more Edomae sushi. Nguyen was instead referred to Yoshiyuki Inoue, an Edomae master at Kaneyoshi. After working there for two years, Nguyen partnered with Inuoe to become the executive chef of Sawa.
“Kaneyoshi is traditional, but the base here is using Edomae techniques and adding additional things. It’s a little more fusion style,” says Nguyen on Sawa’s approach to sushi. That’s evidenced by things like the seared toro nigiri, served with a bit of salted jalapeño. But beyond the slight departure from strict Edomae sushi, Sawa’s striking ambience and interplay of cocktails stands as somewhat unique. Even in Japan, omakase and cocktails generally don’t get to interact on this level, let alone in Los Angeles, a city that has few intimateJapanese cocktail bars operating at this level.
Bar director Natalia (who requested to withhold her surname) usually mixes yuzu saketinis, negronis with Roku gin and umeshu, or green tea-infused vodka for bubbly highballs, though sometimes a vested bartender named Katsu-san might step in. The trademark aspects of Japanese cocktails — the reliance on Japanese spirits to the careful, near-poetic shaking and preparation of drinks with crystal-clear ice — are all here, backed by jazzy-lofi music coming from the speakers cut into the back bar. The dimly lit design of the bar feels hyper-intimate, with smooth wood tones and lattice windows adding to the space’s dreamy, timeless aura. The far wall showcasing Hibiki whisky will be converted to member-style bottle lockers in the future. To the side, a modest lounge area allows anyone who wants to retire to post-prandial drinks.
Consider it luck to find this underground refuge, a place for relaxed opulence, intricate but playful nigiri, and artful, precise Japanese drinks.
Sawa releases reservations on Tock, though anyone interested in a reservation can email the restaurant directly. Omakase costs $170 a person, and comes with about 11 pieces of nigiri and a few other small courses. An optional drink pairing costs $45.