Chef Mark Okuda makes dishes that represent summer in Japan and California at the same time.

By Andy Wang
July 18, 2019
Erin Franzman

The Brothers Sushi in Woodland Hills is one of L.A.’s best new restaurants, but a lot of people don’t realize it’s new. Chef Mark Okuda knows that he probably should have changed the name of the restaurant when he took over a longtime sushi spot on Ventura Boulevard in the San Fernando Valley last year. He’s thinking about renaming it something like "Okuda Japanese Cuisine" when he has his first anniversary at the restaurant in October. He’s already using his family crest as the restaurant’s logo, and customers keep telling him that they love the new direction he’s taken in the space and that he should change the name.

Okuda’s serving pristine sushi but also cooking some of the most wonderful seasonal dishes in Los Angeles. The San Fernando Valley is a hotbed of Japanese food, and Okuda stands out with his focus on combining the finest seasonal ingredients from around the world with the finest seasonal California ingredients. You should order a lot more than raw fish at The Brothers Sushi.

One stunning example is seasonal Hokkaido scallops with Brussels sprout leaves and truffles. The dish is sea and earth and freshness and umami and luxury and bliss.

“I think the really key thing about the dish is the scallops are flown in overnight, so they’re never frozen,” Okuda says.

The plump, firm, and sweet scallops are lightly seared. Depending on what’s in season, Okuda shaves Alba white truffles, black Australian truffles, or summer truffles from Italy.

On many Saturdays, Okuda will drive to a farmers’ market in Torrance, 35 miles away from Woodland Hills. He also goes to the Santa Monica farmers’ market, but he likes how compact and focused the Torrance market is. There might be berries at one stand, peaches at another, potatoes at another, and tomatoes at another. He’s come across some fantastic sunchokes in Torrance recently.

“I like going to the farmers’ market because you see the seasons,” he says.

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One ingredient Okuda has been buying in Torrance is Indian spinach, which he serves with halibut and sakura red cherry shrimp. It’s the tail end of the season for the tiny sakura shrimp, so Okuda knows he won’t have this dish much longer.

“If people love it, it’s something to look forward to next year,” he says.

Okuda gets excited when ingredients come in at the peak of the season. He tells me about the Alaskan salmon roe and Chesapeake Bay soft-shell crabs that just arrived. We discuss how much I like the seasonal smelt from British Columbia that he’s serving. It’s the peak of sweet-corn season in California, so we talk about how he’s making chawanmushi with sweet corn and also the buds of seasonal junsai, an almost tapioca-like Japanese plant that’s in the water-lily family.

“It tastes like summer,” Okuda says of the chawanmushi—summer in both California and Japan.

Okuda knows that diving for Santa Barbara uni is a treacherous job, so he makes the most of the sea urchin he gets. My recent dinner at The Brothers Sushi started with black sesame tofu and Santa Barbara uni. Okuda loves Italian food, so the dish was inspired by the texture of burrata with olive oil. Okuda's a dazzlingly imaginative chef who knows how to execute a good mash-up.

You can get uni sushi at his restaurant, of course, but you should know that Okuda won’t serve sea urchin that’s from anywhere besides Santa Barbara or Hokkaido. He won’t settle for ingredients he considers inferior. You can order Santa Barbara uni with grilled A5 wagyu, housemade cranberry jam that has a hint of yuzu, and housemade red miso. Okuda also makes sesame miso (which he uses to dress kanpachi) and white miso (which adds depth to sea-bass lettuce cups).

Beyond the many suppliers he uses for specific ingredients like Santa Barbara uni and truffles, Okuda visits many seafood markets. He does this because he knows that different vendors excel at different things.

Ocean Group is really good with whitefish,” he says. “If I go to True World, they have a lot of exotic wild Japanese items like hairy crab and Hokkaido sea urchin. International Marine, the shellfish is really good, also shiny fish like gizzards. They get pretty weird fish, too. Like, sea grunt right now is in season.”

But beyond his meticulous sourcing, what distinguishes Okuda is his originality and desire to take Japanese food new places.

One of his best dishes is a riff on New England clam chowder with a Japanese foundation. Okuda’s chowder is made with the same broth that he uses for dobin mushi, a traditional fall dish with matsutake mushrooms.

“Once that mushroom went out of season toward the end of winter, I needed to think of a soup,” he says.

One of Okuda’s favorite soups is clam chowder, so he started playing around and combined the dobin mushi broth with sautéed clams, sweet onions, and light cream. Just like the dobin mushi, Okuda’s chowder is served in a teapot and poured into a cup. Open up the teapot, and you’ll see Manila clams, whitefish, shrimp, and Japanese mitsuba leaves. This soup is lighter but also more delicious than typical New England clam chowder.

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Okuda, who previously ran the sushi counter at Studio City mainstay Asanebo, has been working at Japanese restaurants since he was a teenager. He’s a second-generation Japanese-American who grew up in North Hollywood and has spent his entire life in the San Fernando Valley. At 16, he got a job at Chiba, a popular North Hollywood restaurant where he started as a busboy and server before joining the kitchen and making sushi. He spent close to 13 years at Chiba.

“I had a good time over there, but every day was the same thing,” he says. “There was nothing seasonal about it. I just got tired of doing the same thing.”

Joining the high-end Asanebo, which had earned a Michelin star in 2008 and 2009, greatly expanded Okuda’s range. He was working with the highest-quality ingredients from Japan and learning from a Japanese-born chef/founder, Tetsuya Nakao, who was one of the first chefs at Matsuhisa.

Okuda, who worked at Asanebo for around eight years, says he once thought about going to Japan for culinary training. But he realized that he had access to incredible Japanese mentors in L.A. Shunji Nakao, Tetsuya’s brother, has also been a huge influence, which helps explain a lot about how Okuda cooks.

Shunji, who opened Asanebo with his brother before creating his eponymous Shunji restaurant in West L.A., is known for making excellent sushi but also for cooking seasonal Japanese food and strikingly original dishes like an agedashi tomato “tofu” that doesn’t involve any actual tofu.

“His kaiseki style is one of the most unique in L.A.,” Okuda says.

Shunji, like The Brothers Sushi and Asanebo, is a place where you can order a tasting menu or get greatest hits a la carte. Okuda says he’s grateful that both Nakao brothers have been generous with their time and knowledge. He says he wants to pay it forward at The Brothers Sushi and teach young cooks the techniques and philosophies he’s learned from others and developed on his own. Another of his mentors is chef Ken Namba of Kiriko Sushi on Sawtelle Boulevard. Namba worked with Okuda’s mom, Nobuko, at Teru Sushi, in Studio City. Namba managed the restaurant and Nobuko, who worked for more than two decades at different Japanese restaurants in the San Fernando Valley, was a server.

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“After school, since I didn’t have a babysitter, my mom would take me to the restaurant and I would just hang out,” Okuda says.

Okuda adds that it’s “always been a dream” to open his own restaurant, and being at Asanebo gave him clarity about what kind of restaurant he wanted.

“At Asanebo, I started learning traditional Japanese techniques, flavors, seasonal ingredients,” he says. “I wanted to do something like Asanebo but bring more of a California twist to it.”

His partner at The Brothers Sushi, Steve Vartazarian, gave him the opportunity to create what might soon be renamed Okuda Japanese Cuisine. Vartazarian, a Sherman Oaks lawyer who met Okuda while dining at Asanebo, is a food enthusiast who’s turned into a food entrepreneur. He also owns FatStack Smokers, which has built barbecue equipment for L.A. smoked-meat stars like Moo’s Craft Barbecue and Trudy’s Underground Barbecue. Vartazarian is driven by his love of food. This makes him an ideal partner for Okuda.

“For him, the numbers are not a huge deal,” Okuda says. “It’s more that he wants to eat. He’ll come in to get a bite and he know the quality is really really good, so he’s happy about it.”

Vartazarian, who has an impressive collection of knives displayed on a wall in the restaurant, knows how hard Okuda is working and the path he’s taken to get here. The Brothers Sushi is still a neighborhood spot where Okuda will make you a spicy tuna roll if you want, but it’s also one of the most transporting restaurants in Los Angeles.

And when Okuda walks me out after I interview him, I realize that this restaurant represents his past and his future in so many ways. Okuda’s mom is outside with his son, Shaun, while his daughter, Kairi, is inside. Nobuko, who takes care of all the plants at the restaurant, is putting soil in a planter. This is a family who knows that one of the best parts of life, whether it’s in Japan or California, is being able to watch things bloom.

The Brothers Sushi, 21418 Ventura Blvd., Woodland Hills, CA, 818-456-4509

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