Archive for the ‘eating’ Category

Kokekokko, Best Yakitori Restaurant in LA

Wednesday, May 30th, 2007

Kokekokko is the best yakitori place in Los Angeles, and I’ve been to most. Here it’s all about the food. The first thing out were quail eggs, plump, slightly larger than usual, lightly charred. The “meatballs” (tsukune) were juicy and grilled to perfection. The moist tebasaki (wing) meat fell off the bones. “Toku-hatsu”, a fattier variety of hatsu (chicken heart), was a real revelation.

David Myers (no relation), chef at Sona, the restaurant near Bob’s old place in West Hollywood, has high praise for Kokekokko: “Old-school yakitori. They also serve chicken sashimi, from the breast and from the leg. It’s very soft, kind of like toro. It’s so smooth.”

Kokekokko is in Little Tokyo downtown. You’ll often find yourself waiting for a table, or waiting for your food once you’ve ordered. That’s OK. Wash down your sticks with some sake from their reasonably good list.


Wednesday, January 26th, 2005

Matsuhisa is Nobu’s sushi place on La Cienega in LA. Notice that I say “place”, not “restaurant”, because the word “restaurant” calls forth a very specific semantic matrix, where the focus is entirely on the food. Think of Iron Chef USA; the chefs are rated on Taste, Presentation, and Creativity. The food must dazzle, it must amaze. It’s performance art on your plate. Look at how Wolfgang has stacked those beets into a tower! Yes, that’s worth $200! It’s food as sex, the meal as fellatio of a particularly imaginative variety.

Good sushi, in contrast, like the inner lining of a silk kimono never revealed to the outside world, excels precisely to the extent it actively fails to assert itself. One enters the sanctum; experience unfolds; time unwinds; conversation ensues; libations lubricate; sushi materializes.

Matushisa is, very simply, the best sushi place in LA. It tries only to be a sushi place, and succeeds beyond all expectations. The excellence of the experience is in the detail. The ultimate simple piece of finely marbled toro rests on an otherwise unadorned clump of vinegared rise. The chef sequences the food you are served perfectly. The waiter discreeetly replaces one soy sauce dish with another between courses.

I must congratulate Nobu on his choice of Hokusetsu (“north snow”) sake, one of the finest jizake in Japan, one seen all too rarely at other restaurants.

Of course Nobu is creative. The yellowtail with jalapeno dish he originated has now been stolen by every sushi shop worth its gari . His modestly named “new style sushi” takes fresh fish flesh and cooks it briefly and deliciously in hot sesame oil. But these dishes both tell us something about the food we are eating, rather than simply being gratuitously “creative”.

All of this excellence comes at an amazingly reasonable price, far from the bloated $500/person tab at places like Masa , and possibly even less than you would pay in Japan for an equivalent, or inferior, sushi experience.

Sushi 90069

Saturday, January 22nd, 2005

If neurotheology’s basic premise holds water, then a healthy brain is essential to a healthy spirit. And what better food to feed the brain than sushi, that quintessential Japanese classic, marrying the fruits of the sea and the rice paddy? Besides, it tastes good.

It helps that West Hollywood, our home, may have the highest concentration of sushi restaurants anywhere in the world—many within walking distance for us.

The sushi-ya closest to us, a mere three-minute walk, right across from the towering Pacific Design Center, is Nishimura, which I reported on here five years ago. This is the best sushi restaurant on the West Coast, or possibly in the US. Unfortunately, I can’t give you any recommendations for what’s best here, since Nishimura-san will decide that for you on any given day, piecing together ultra-creative, mouth-watering dishes from the supremely fresh neta he flies in from Japan. The problem is that a once-a-week meal here would consume a huge portion of my disposable income.

Down La Cienega we find Yabu (website), where it’s hard to go wrong with their competent sushi, good jizake collection, reasonable ambience, and dishes such as the Osaka-style pressed sushi which we love. Yabu also boasts a good soba menu, if you’re in that kind of mood.

As of late November, 2005, our all-time favorite, Murakami, right down at the end of our street on Santa Monica, where we had spent many an enjoyable evening bantering with the master and wolfing down his imaginative concoctions, has been sold to a new chef/owner. A recent visit demonstrated that all is not well at our favorite Japanese sushi shop. The old Murakami ambience is completely gone. The entire wait staff is new, and very shaky. The service has now slowed down by a factor of two. It may be my imagination, but the fish itself—possibly the single aspect the chef/owner is most responsible for, on his daily buying trips—is of lower quality. The lovely flower arrangements the previous owner’s wife did are gone—replaced by a cold, barren wall. Murakami-san took with him not only the spirit of the restaurant, but also its name; it now goes by the undistinguished moniker “Ari-ya”.

A bit west on Santa Monica we find Ajisai, just up Palm, where chef Shoei presides over his tiny fresh fish empire, with friendly service, superb catches of the day, background jazz, and good conversation. Our favorite is the boiled squid stuffed with crab.

Down Beverly is Hirozen, also reviewed in this space last year. Although you can eat à la carte , you cannot go wrong with Hiro’s omakase chef’s selection. Highly recommended.

North of Santa Monica on La Cienega we find Wa Sushi & Bistro, the subject of considerable oohing and aahing in the local press when it opened last year, possibly because its chefs are graduates of the legendary Matushisa just a few blocks away. But we found the food overwrought, the service spotty. The albacore salad we had was drenched in an overly assertive miso sauce. They can’t just serve sea bass—it has to have foie gras on top. They can’t just serve soft-shelled crab—it has to have caviar on top. Price performance is poor. We won’t be visiting this place again soon.

The king of 90069 sushi places, of course, is the iconic Sushi Roku , down on 3rd just off La Cienega. It’s also a celebrity hangout; once I saw David Spade there, a fine actor, although I didn’t get the chance to tell him how much I liked him in Joe Dirt. Sushi Roku has long outlived its never justified reputation. Service is perfunctory. The only thing high-end about it is its prices.

Koi (website ) also made a big splash when it opened last year right near us on La Cienega across from L’Orangerie. This is definitely the place to go if you want to try “hamachi fusion soy citrus truffle essence” or “yellowtail carpaccio grapeseed oil and ponzu wasabi tobiko”, consumed in a space that boasts of being a “stylish, harmonious blend of of custom furniture, earth tones and soft light”. Of course, it’s not really a sushi place, instead its cuisine is “Japanese-inspired with California accents”. Its cavernous interior seats over 200 aspiring movie moguls and 20-something would-be models.

Given all the sushi joints in LA, one wonders why anyone with no sushi-making skills and not even from Japan would even bother trying the genre, but still there are those that do. One we recently had the misfortune of trying was Niko Niko Sushi, right next to Barney’s Beanery, famous as Janis Joplin’s favorite hangout when she lived down the street. Suffice it to say you’d be better off crossing the street to IHOP and getting their $2.99 pancake special.

Of course there are lots of sushi places up on Sunset which I make a point of never patronizing. They can’t decide whether they want to be overpriced tourist traps or starlet-encrusted sushi discos. However, Katana is worth a mention, and a visit. Although definitely awash in Hollywood glitter, and owned by the Sushi Roku crowd, it serves a reasonable menu of kushi—things on sticks, one of mankind’s most basic food formats. I like the stuffed mushrooms and rib-eye, and the lamb is worth a try. I wouldn’t recommend their sushi, though.

The granddaddy of upscale nouvelle cuisine Japonaise à la mer is, of course, Matsuhisa itself, on restaurant row on La Cienega. I’ll regale you with Matushisa stories in another post.

Hirozen, Japanese Restaurant Extraordinaire

Friday, December 24th, 2004

Hirozen is the little Japanese spot in a strip mall at Orlando and Beverly in West Hollywood, a five-minute drive from our house. Although it was once one of our favorites (I even talked them out of a Hirozen shirt which I still have), inexplicably we hadn’t visited them for probably two full years until our visit last night.

Hiroji Ohbayashi, the owner and chef, has been busy innovating and creating and—still—cooking, as he was last night. The Today’s Special menu is a cornucopia of old and new favorites, brilliantly walking the line between traditional and modern. We’ve always loved the sweetish Nasu Soboro (Eggplant with Ground Chicken), a simple old Japanese pub dish that Hirozen does gloriously; Bob thinks it’s just the right thing to go with sake. Zucchini Flower Tempura is a deserved favorite.

At the table next to us sat a beautiful lacquered black platter with luscious broiled chicken pieces, a tower of tempura, and elegant mounds of hijiki and Japanese potato salad. I discreetly asked the waitress what that was and nearly fell off my chair when she told me it was the “teriyaku tempura combo plate”. Only Hiro could take the tired old stereotyped combination plate from Japanese restaurants in the 60s and update it this vigorously and sophisticatedly and humorously. I spent so much time gazing longingly at it that I almost forgot to ogle the would-be starlet picking it at with her studio executive boyfriend. Seized by a sudden craving for the hijiki and potato salad, I strong-armed the waitress into bringing me a small sample.

Lately we’re stuck on sashimi platters whenever we eat Japanese and here we went for a simple plate of striped bass, kampachi, and aoyagi, which was presented perfectly and was astonishingly fresh. We also had the shiitake stuffed with grilled tuna, a festival of contrasting flavors and textures, your Japanese izakaya staple “ika natto”, and another old favorite, crab meat chile relleno with salsa. We washed this all down with some perfectly serviceable warm sake. It’s winter, after all.

I hear that Hiro is spending time consulting for Japanese restaurants opening up in Las Vegas and elsewhere. That’s great for them and him, but I sure hope he doesn’t stop innovating and cooking great food at his fine little ten-table restaurant, without doubt one of the finest Japanese eateries in our beloved city of angels.

Ajipon, famous ponzu brand

Sunday, July 4th, 2004

Imagine living in Japan for 15 years and never having heard of “Ajipon”, the ubiquitous ponzu sauce—although I’m sure we had some in our kitchen, and I must have walked by it on the grocery store shelves hundreds of times.

According to the Ajipon web site put up by its manufacturer, Mitsukan, Ajipon was developed in 1964, back when ponzu was not a common household item. The Mitsukan president was having some mizutaki in a restaurant and vowed to bring the fabulous taste of the dipping sauce into the Japanese home. Ajipon was the result of three years of experimentation with different types of citrus and degrees of saltiness.

Ponzu itself is created by boiling mirin with katsuo-bushi and konbu and vinegar, then adding citrus juice. If you then add soy sauce, it becomes “ponzu shouyu”, although this could also be called just ponzu. Ponzu or Ajipon would most commonly be used as a dipping sauce for nabe dishes; mixed with grated daikon for yakizakana; or as a dressing for tataki.

And in modern cuisine? In the recipe “Oyster-leek Gratine with ponzu” Ming Tsai deglazes the pan where he sauteed the leeks with ponzu. A San Diego restaurant serves up ahi with a ponzu glaze. Another restaurant dresses pan-fried Escolar with ponzu. Shiro in Pasadena serves catfish with ponzu and cilantro. A cruise ship’s menu tries a ginger ponzu sauce on its grilled ahi. Sushi Masu in Westwood serves up monkfish liver with mountain caviar in ponzu sauce. Add olive oil and you have a ponzu vinaigrette. Geisha uses ponzu as a marinade (with coconut!) for its fluke dish.

Ponzu is the perfect marriage of the flavors of the paddy and the sea and the orchard, of the salty and the sweet and the tart.

No more Charles Shaw wine for Bob

Sunday, January 25th, 2004

We’ve been buying the $2 Charles Shaw wine ever since Trader Joe’s set up shop just a ten-minute walk away from our apartment. It’s nothing to write home about, but it’s drinkable and hey, you can buy a case for $24.

No more. We unfortunately saw the TV special about the product. It turns out the man making it, Fred Franzia, is quite an unsavory character. He’s a convicted felon—and the crime had to do with wine and mislabeled grapes, and cost him $3 million in fines. He looks really unpleasant. He bought the label on the cheap from the ex-wife of the real Charles Shaw. He tries to pass his wine off as a Napa wine although the grapes come from all over.

Every time we drank the wine after that it tasted worse and worse. Now we’ve given Charles Shaw the boot and moved up to the premium $2.99 bottles.

Japanese restaurants from the ’60s

Thursday, January 8th, 2004

Unfortunately, it looks like the current Japanese food boom has not completely extinguished that sorry remnant of the past, 60’s-style Japanese restaurants of which Benihana is the prime examplar. I recently had the most unfortunate experience of eating at Hamada in Las Vegas—I simply assumed that a prominent Japanese restaurant in the City of Sin would be on the cutting edge. How wrong I was.

This unfortunate blast from the past has one branch in the Luxor, another on Flamingo. The menu is your old teriyaki and tempura style. Nothing introduced into Japanese cuisine in the last two decades is anywhere to be found. The sushi we ordered came looking limp and forlorn, crammed on an undersized plate with no garnish. The sake menu was weak and the waitress, an oldish Japanese woman who had probably spent less time in the last 25 years in Japan than I have, could not answer basic questions about it and seemed insulted that I would dare to ask them in the first place.

A place like this, sadly, will probably take another decade or two to completely die off, since the Las Vegas clientele is by definition dominated by the family from St. Louis that goes there every five years and thinks chicken teriyaki is the pinnacle of Japanese cuisine.

Fat Chance, Fat Fish

Tuesday, January 6th, 2004

We just noticed a new “Japanese” restaurant a ten-minute walk from our house, at Robertson and Melrose: Fat Fish. We checked it out on the web and it sounded great: an upscale-istic fusion-ocious Asian French sushi bar with exotic green-tea margaritas, or something like that.

It could have been a bad sign that the place was completely empty at 6pm but then again that’s early for West Hollywood. No-one was at the entrance or noticed us so we walked in. We started off with some sweet and sour shrimp which any Chinese-American restaurant in the 1950s would have done a better job of. Service was perfunctory. The asparagus tempura was a soggy mess; perhaps they thought the elegant “presentation” (stacking them up like Lincoln logs) would make up for that. The “Tuna Trio”, a combination of tuna tartare, tuna sashimi, and seared albacore, looked and tasted like it had been put together by a guest worker hired the day before, which it probably had been. The “Ichi Roll” was some dry salmon meat and yellowtail wrapped up in some kind of unidentified covering and perhaps deep-fried? It seems unlikely it had been made that same day. We passed on the proffered dessert of tempura ice cream. After we gave them our credit card they took ten minutes to bring back the receipt to sign, then acted put out when we asked why it was taking so long.

We had a weird sense as we made our painful way through this meal that this was not a real Japanese restaurant. By Japanese, I mean menus designed and dishes cooked by people that trained in Japan and with Japanese chefs. Frankly, a Japanese restaurant would not dare to serve the crap that Fat Fish does. Later we found out—Fat Fish is run by some non-Japanese restaurateurs who are moving upscale from the low-ball sushi takeout business. Suddenly it all makes sense. Samurai on La Cienega is another sorry example of a non-Japanese Japanese restaurant. The kim-chi on the menu is a dead giveaway.

Next Fat Fish says they are opening another location in Westwood. It’s really too bad that there are so few enough people who actually know what Japanese food is supposed to taste like that establishments like this manage to stay open.


Tuesday, October 21st, 2003

Bastide is considered one of the top new restaurants in LA. Esquire named it one of the twenty best new restaurants of 2003 in America. And it’s just walking distance from our house, on Melrose Place! We had to try this out.

But wait! It’s supposed to be impossible to get reservations there! Wrong. We were eating there about four hours after our phone call.

There’s no a la carte menu here, just three tasting menus. The “fig” menu looked interesting; that’s right, every course had something to do with figs. We had the “traditional menu” for $90. The Bastide menu has an extra course or two for $100. We were offered another 10-course menu called the “Chef’s menu” for $125. We went with the traditional menu—which had two choices for each of the major courses.

We started off with some champagne, with some guidance from the rather haughty sommelier. But I guess all sommeliers are haughty, right?

Amuse-bouche was a little scallop in a sweet wine sauce with caviar on top.

For the first course, Sakiko had a salad, shrimp on a bed of ratatouille-like vegetables, very finely diced, with a pronounced tarragon flavor, encircled in a cucumber strip, with an herby green on top. The vegetables were good but the shrimp lacked personality. Bob had a melon crab tortelloni, on a very sweet jello made from a Sauterne-like wine, a single chive on top. I have to admit that the juxtaposition of crab and melon was interesting, but I’m still not that much of a melon fan. I found the crab filling to be uninspired.

For the second course, Sakiko had Mediterranean fish soup, poured over cheese and bread. The waiter went to great lengths to explain to us that they could not call it a bouillabaisse, since it was made not out of Mediterrean rockfish, but local rockfish. In any case I think fish stew is one of the most surpassingly good flavors our civilization has invented, and Bastide does this as well as anyone.

Bob had eggplant caviar, eggplant mousse, and trout, in almond sauce. Little caramelized almonds on top of the eggplant mousse tied the dish together a bit. The eggplant dishes were lovely and had great texture. The trout (which I guess was French, since they called it a “truite”), was fine but nothing to write home about.

For the third and main course, Sakiko had ribeye along with a tender ossobucco-like piece of meat, and crunchy tasty salty good stuff in a bone. Sakiko’s dish was quite the artistic layout. The mushroom ragout was possibly the best single preparation of the entire meal. But I found her ribeye both less flavorful and tougher than I would have preferred.

Bob had pieces of squab, and zucchini flower stuffed with chicken pate. I found the chicken pate to be flavorless; actually, I forgot what it was and couldn’t even tell, so I had to ask the waiter!

We were competently paired with a glass of interesting wine for all of the courses. I didn’t study the wine list in depth, but there seems to be a lot there at reasonable prices.

Bastide has a great dessert menu. They have eight or so preparations, each around a particular theme. Sakiko had “Lavendar”, a fabulous thing involving ice cream and meringue. Bob had “Apple”, which meant apple crepes, caramelized apple, and apple ice cream. The lady at the next table had “Chocolate”, which among other things some chocolate soup which I thought I’d like to try next time I go back.

Bottom line: this is a great restaurant, one of the best in LA. It could be nearly perfect if it drilled down and tuned some of its dishes. But even then it’s questionable whether the experience is worth $200 per person.

Garlic Soup

Friday, October 10th, 2003

Bob’s garlic soup is quite simple. Roast a whole bunch of garlic; I usually do about eight heads; plan on about two heads per small serving. The roasting process involves chopping off the upper 20% of each head, drizzling them with olive oil, and sticking them in the oven for an hour or so. The result should be very soft cloves that can be plucked out of their covers with a toothpick, or even squeezed out if you’re in that kind of mood.

Stick the roasted garlic cloves in the blender with your choice of liquid—any combination of water, milk, any type of soup stock, or even whiskey will do the trick. Blend until very smooth. I usually put the result through a sieve of some sort to remove any remaining large pieces which may be better. Warm up the soup on the stove, adding cream if you prefer. Taste the soup. I’ve experimented with adding honey if the soup tastes too bitter.

Serve, garnished with a sprig of marjoram.

If made correctly, this soup will cleanse your entire gastro-intestinal system. The cleansing period may extend to several hours, and it is highly probable that it will be noticed, and commented on, by anyone in close physical proximity.