At the end of 2012, a friend of mine told me that Yamamoto had opened Yamakase, a secret sushi bar with an unlisted phone number and address, accessible, according to its Web site, by invitation only. Bringing extra sake to share with the chef is one way to get invited back, so we had a cooler with us. When we arrived, Yamamoto was standing outside, smoking a cigarette on an otherwise empty street. The restaurant, a one-time gelateria next to a place advertising itself as "Home of the Pregnant Burrito" had papered-over windows; behind them, a row of traditional narrow-necked bottles showed in silhouette, like a Morandi. The sign on the door said, "Closed." It was the seafood equivalent of Totoraku, the invitation-only beef restaurant where I'd gone with the Hedonists, and in fact Yamamoto and the beef chef, Kaz Oyama, are great friends: the white Mercedes Yamamoto allegedly took the beef from was registered to Oyama.
Inside: nine seats before a sushi bar, a glowing pink lump of Himalayan salt, and a gigantic, bristling Hokkaido crab with the face of an Irish brawler. Yamamoto had opened specially for us, and we were the only customers. He went behind the bar and sliced a piece of Japanese Wagyu into sheets, grated a little salt on them and seared them lightly. The ban on importing the beef had just been lifted. "Only two weeks it's been available," he said when he looked up. "It's not on the open market yet." He offered to get us some.
We ate the beef, we ate the crab, we ate gumball-sized baby peaches, olive green and tasting like a nineteen-forties perfume. There was slippery jellyfish in sesame-oil vinaigrette, and a raw oyster, poached quail egg, and crab guts, meant to be slurped together in one viscous spoonful. That dishquiver on quiver on quiverepitomized the convergence of the disgusting and the sublime typical of so much foodie food. It was almost impossible to swallow it, thinking ruined it, and submission to its alien texture rewarded you with a bracing, briny, primal rush.
"Damn good!" Yamamoto, a solid, gruff guy with bushy eyebrows, said, and took another swig of sake.
Yamakase was authentic, obscure, and demanded special willingness and stamina on the part of the eater. One influential blogger, who posted about eating 26 courses there with the French chef Ludo Lefebvre, wrote, "I think Yamakase's going to be the next big thing on the Japanese scene here in LA. I'm already thinking about my return tripit's that good. Seriously though, if you care at all about Japanese dining, you owe it to yourself to give this place a try, if you can get in of course."
But in early 2013, Susumo Ueda and Yamamoto were indicted, along with Typhoon Restaurant, Inc., on charges that they conspired to smuggle and sell whale meat; Yamamoto was also charged with interfering with the investigation. This time the penalties were potentially severe: up to 67 years in prison for Yamamoto and 10 for Ueda, and a fine of $1.2 million for Typhoon Restaurant, Inc.
On the day of Ueda's arraignment, I went downtown to the federal building. In the hallway outside the courtroom, I noticed a young Japanese woman with a long black ponytail, shushing a baby. It was Ueda's wife, Yukiko; I went over to introduce myself. She said that her husband now had a job working at a sushi bar in Beverly Hills. "It's more conventional," she said. "Not so interesting as at The Hump. But you can call in advance. If he knows you're coming he will order something special for you."
Ueda, a kind-looking man with a greying buzz cut and a short goatee, used a Japanese interpreter to enter a plea of not guilty. Sei's status as an endangered animal was largely responsible for the outrage, but it wasn't the legal matter at issue; the law the chefs and the restaurant were charged with violating covers all cetaceans, endangered and not. In a sense, he was accused of not understanding that in America whales and their relatives are considered too smart to eat.
Excerpted from Anything That Moves by Dana Goodyear. Copyright © 2013 by Dana Goodyear. Excerpted by permission of Riverhead Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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