Eating Los Angeles – From Top to Tacos

The Beverly Hills Hotel Sign(Gimme gimme)

Los Angeles is a city, a county, a tangle of towns and a state of mind. It begins in the San Gabriel Valley just west of the El Cajon Pass, and ends at the beach cities along the Pacific Coast Highway. In between are almost 5,000 square miles of municipalities (88 in all), along with the biggest spaghetti bowl of freeways in America. Hidden among them are all sorts of good things to eat.  Getting to them, however, will always be a challenge, in more ways than one.

If you’re driving from Las Vegas, the gravitational pull of L.A. is palpable. Once you’ve crossed that mountain pass, it is downhill all the way until you hit the terminus of the Original Route 66 underneath the Santa Monica Pier. Driving is the only way to see LA, by the way, it having sold its soul to the cult of the car before anyone reading these words was even alive. (There are walk-able areas among its many towns, but they are laughably small, and you’d better know the territory before beginning any trek, unless you enjoy hobnobbing with the homeless.)

But up to the challenge we were, so drive there we did (courtesy of friends with sweet, oversized rides befitting the landscape), to check out the food scene. This time, though, we weren’t in search of the best new places. This time we were big game hunting — bagging the ultimate elusive prey like Hemingway on a bender, led by a local food guide, and armed with credit cards instead of shotguns.

It was epic eating of a particular SoCal sort, punctuated by meals both highbrow and low, from the absurd to the sublime. We covered a lot of territory in four days…and here is the tale:

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Polo Lounge

It doesn’t get more old school than The Beverly Hills Hotel — perched on a hill above Sunset Boulevard, looming over swimming pools and movie stars like an edifice of pink excess. The BHH has been in more movies and dreams than one can count, and its Polo Lounge serves as a de facto commissary for big shots of the movie producer ilk. (These days, you’re more likely to be rubbing shoulders with FOMO Instagrammers and bachelorette parties than Jerry Bruckheimer, but such is the century we live in.)

While it is still possible to be seduced by the prospect of running into B-list actors and eurotrash here, we came for the food…and maybe a little of the glamour that this place still wears like a faded fur on Norma Desmond.

What we found was a lot more spruced up than we remember from 20 years ago. Now a part of the Dorchester Collection, its mega-rich owners cannot be accused of letting it go to seed. Things were polished to a fare thee well; the bathroom fixtures are now more Louis Quinze than Louis B. Mayer, with carpet so plush you could sleep on it.

There is lots of obsequious head-bowing as you stroll through the joint  (which must be the way hotshot Hollywood hottentots like it) and food calculated not to offend — artfully presented and tasty, but un-challenging to the palate (which is another way wealthy barbarians like their pablum). There’s nothing particularly interesting on the card, just the standardized menu fare that gets hustled out of hotel kitchens from Long Beach to Louisville — here made with better groceries than most. You will eat well, but you won’t be so distracted by the food that you can’t spend most of your meal searching for someone famous. Which is, after all, the whole point of this place.

Image(Not included: lubricant)

Worthy menu items included a really good piece of California sea bass — a fish that never seems to find its way to Vegas, 240 miles up the road — a substantial steak, excellent steak tartare, mammoth double-decker club sandwich, and a not over-priced wine list. On the down side: prices are astronomic and service metronomic — for the privilege of paying $32 for a Cobb salad, and 42 bucks for fish tacos (above), you also get waiters who barely look at you.

The Damage:

Around $130/pp. The Food Gal® says: “Only my husband is dumb enough to pay forty-two dollars for fish tacos. Get a salad and hope Jennifer Aniston shows up to make it worth your while.”

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Chez Jay, Baby

We’re spoiled, of course. You can pin a lot of negatives on Las Vegas restaurants, but bad service isn’t one of them. From our haute cuisine palaces to pizza/pasta/sports pubs, the management and staffs both on Strip and off are always happy to see you.

The great thing about Chez Jay is, it never got the snooty L.A. memo. Here, the absence of attitude is as refreshing as the salty breeze coming off the Pacific. Even when you roll in slightly inebriated, late at night (Who? Me?!) with the kitchen about to close, it feels like you’ve staggered into an old friend who is happy to see you.

This downmarket, laid back louche-ness has been drawing us to this lovable dive for thirty years. Only a stone’s throw from the Santa Monica Pier, the place used to be filled with drunks and fisherman (not to mention drunk fishermen) and smelled like Coppertone mixed with bait. The smell is gone, but the boozers remain. This is a good thing. There is a quiet, scruffy alcoholism to Chez Jay that provides the perfect antidote to its upscale neighbors. “Every guy who ever played Tarzan used to hang out there,” says writer/director James Orr, and you can still feel their presence every time some worn-out fellow with a weather-beaten tan and a floppy hat walks in.

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What you’ll find at CJ is the opposite of hoity-toity: a smiling welcome (whether you’re a has-been actor or not), strong, well-made cocktails, and an old-timey “steaks, seafood, chops” menu with some surprisingly tasty fare. Skip the so-so steaks and head for the garlic shrimp or sand dabs (above). And tip your sassy waitress well: she’s honed the skill of reading people into a fine art.

If there’s a better way to bring eating Los Angeles into sharp relief than lunch at the Polo Lounge and dinner at Chez Jay, we haven’t found it.

Sadly, Denny Miller is no longer around.

The Damage:

Two entrees and a few stiff drinks will run about $50/pp. The Food Gal® says:  “Chez Jay is old-school fun whether your spouse is sober or not when you arrive. Sadly though, Billy Bob Thornton, was nowhere to be found, either.”

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n/naka

Then, shit got real. Scoring a res at n/naka takes the patience of Job and the perseverance of Sisyphus. The person typing these words has neither, but he does have friends with connections, so in we strolled to the toughest ticket in Los Angeles — a small house on a corner of a commercial street containing a 30 seat restaurant, a multi-course kaiseki meal, and a bill that would choke a horse.

Having appeared on the first season of Netflix’s Chef’s Table made a ticket to this meal harder to come by than a backstage pass at the Oscar’s.

Fawning, persistent press has sealed its fate as one of those places that actually transcends the hype and has become a cultural touchstone. To eat here is to know what high-falutin’ Californian food is about, but you no longer come to n/naka just to eat; you come to embrace it as a status symbol. As with the French Laundry up north, the food (good as it is) has become beside the point.

You’re also up against drivel like this:

Though the effort to evolve the restaurant industry’s bro culture has seen some progress, those toxic roots still run deep. Niki and Carole carved out a successful restaurant in a male-dominated industry while cooking a historically male-dominated cuisine, never compromising on their vision and values. “What is so interesting about the whole subject, about how kaiseki is this male-dominated form, is that it’s a form that relies so deeply on nature, which seems to me to be inherently feminine,” says Kleiman. “So I find that in a way Niki is this correction.”

…so woe to the diner who wants to assess things through a prism of culinary objectivity rather than a “gendered lens” of alphabet soup sexual politics.

Because these things are so important to Los Angelenos, chefs (Carole Iida-Nakayama and Niki Nakayama) have found their perfect niche: a casual-yet-formal, California-inflected Japanese kaiseki restaurant that pushes all the right buttons. Here, you can enjoy the best seafood/sushi/produce Cali has to offer, and congratulate yourself for doing the right thing while paying for the privilege.

Of course, we’re more interested in the dashi than gendered lenses, so our thoughts drifted to similar meals we’ve had in Tokyo, New York, and Las Vegas.

Nothing compares to Japan, where these multi-course, hyper-seasonal feasts are rigidly formal, with flavors so obscure they sometimes border on the invisible. Las Vegas has a kaiseki restaurant, and like n/naka, Kaiseki Yuzu is tiny, pristine, and all about impeccable technique. It can’t compete with the Nakayamas when it comes to right-off-the-boat fish, or produce grown in their own back yard, but in terms of what I saw on the plate, I’d call it a push. (Our kaiseki is also $100/pp cheaper than their kaiseki.)

Where n/n excels is in unforced elegance. The restaurant itself is simple bordering on the austere, but look closer and you see exquisite details — in the plates, the table, the seating and the food. They don’t miss any of their marks here. Service is as smooth as the inside of an oyster shell, and informative without being intrusive.

The sake and wine lists are short and superb and like the Polo Lounge, much softer in markups than what we’re used to in Sin City. (Absurdly overpriced Vegas wine lists have inured us to sticker shock forever.)

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The food is one eye-popping course after another, smoothly, almost effortlessly served with succinct explanations and instructions. There’s an old joke about every waiter in L.A, being a wannabe actor, so the boss says, “Why don’t you try acting like a good waiter for a change.” No one’s acting here; the service is as good as it gets.

The point of kaiseki is not as much to wow you with a single dish, but to soothe your soul with a parade of bite-sized, ultra-fresh delights, plucked at the peak of their deliciousness. It actually started out as a few small savory bites served to blunt the effects of strong green tea during a  sadō  – Japanese tea ceremony, but has morphed into its own thing. Both here and across the Pacific, “kaiseki” now denotes the height of Japanese epicureanism — a prix fixe, omakase, tasting menu (does anyone call them degustations anymore?) representing the pinnacle of a chef’s skill — hyper-seasonal, and full of symbolism (both obvious and inscrutable), edible and otherwise.

Your twelve courses aim for each station on the kaiseki cross: Sakizuke, Zensai, Owan, Yakimono etc., and to a plate, there was something to rave about.

You begin with a Sakizuke of Hokkaido uni so fresh it practically sparkled. Sippery-slick, orangeish-tan and luminescent, it enveloped a carrot coconut ice and was topped with a dollop of trout eggs, every element announcing right out of the chute the chef’s skill at combining disparate ingredients into a whole greater than the sum of its parts:

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This is high-wire cooking without a net, and every bite has to be in perfect balance with what came before, which it was in the Zensai course (assortment of small bites), showcasing the chef’s repertoire:

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….and then on to “Modern Zukuri” course (raw fish from live seafood, usually served whole) of the kind of freshness you only find within a few miles of an ocean:

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…and from there your meal proceeds through an Owan (soup course), with dashi so bracing we could’ve slurped it all night long.

One course leads seamlessly into another: after the Tai (sea bream) soup comes twin ribbons of sashimi, followed by grilled sea trout, and then the star of the show: a Mushimono of a peeled, poached tomato wrapped around lobster, floating atop fennel mochi croutons in a tomato broth:

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Gorgeous, complex food somehow retaining its elemental simple dignity — the best evocation of summer on a plate we can remember.

A couple of things I didn’t “get” on the menu: some weird  jelly of cactus leaves, cukes and chia seeds as the Sunomono course — usually a tart, refreshing cucumber salad. This one could compete with okra in the slimy foods Olympics. Ending the meal with with Nigirizushi (after the A-5 Mizyazaki wagyu course) was likewise odd.  “Must be a Cali thing,” I thought to myself. It sure as shootin’ ain’t a Japanese one. The signature dish of spaghetti with abalone and Burgundy summer truffles (ugh) was also about as seasonal as ski boots on a surf board, but these were but tiny blips in an otherwise extraordinary experience.

I may have had it with western tasting menus, but you’d have to be one jaded palate to ever tire of a proper kaiseki dinner. There are only a handful of restaurants in America that can compete with n/naka in delivering a meal of such subtle refinement. I’m fairly certain there isn’t a better one in Southern California when it comes to service.

The Damage:

Cost pp (including wine and sake but nothing too precious): $560. The Food Gal® says: “Loved it, but there’s definitely a California bump in pricing which is ridiculous.”

Image(Mizumono – ginger-poached plum, lavender ice cream, warabi mochi)

This is Part One of a two-part article.

YUZU Kaiseki Excellence

 

It took me two years to make it to Yuzu Japanese Kitchen.

Two years.

Sounds incredible even to me, since I pride myself in seeking out the best Japanese food in town, as soon as it arrives in town.

But I have an excuse. (It’s a lame one, but I’m stickin’ with it.)

And that excuse is: Yuzu is located on Silverado Ranch Boulevard. Yeah, that Silverado Ranch Blvd. — the one located way southeast of the Strip; the one littered with poker bars and fast food franchises. The street that considers the South Coast Hotel and Casino a fun time anchor tenant. A restaurant wasteland so vast it makes Henderson seem like Napa Valley.

You normally couldn’t get me on Silverado Ranch with a shotgun in my mouth and promise of free foie gras, but my buddy Martin Koleff told me I had to try Chef Kaoru Azeuchi’s cuisine, so off we were — twice in two weeks — to see for ourselves.

Martin and Rie Koleff, you may recall, are something of a Japanese restaurant power couple in Las Vegas. They both are long time veterans of our hotel F&B scene, and Martin was instrumental in first putting Raku on the national map. These days they are both involved in bringing the Joy of Sake event to Las Vegas, and if there’s such a thing as a Japanese restaurant mafia in town, the Koleffs are the capo di tutti capi to numerous chefs and restaurateurs, many of whom are not as fluent in English as they are.

When Martin or Rie tells us we have to try someone’s food, we listen. Usually. Unless it’s on friggin’ Silverado Ranch Boulevard, where, truth be told, we thought Azeuchi-san’s chances of survival were slim. But survive he has, prospered even, in his almost-hidden haunt behind a car parts store.

He’s done it by doing what so many non-Japanese chefs are afraid or unwilling to do: food his way, writ small, night after night, until he his audience slowly finds him. (Chefs are always telling me how they just want to open a little place and serve their favorite dishes. Yeah right, I always think to myself. With a few exceptions, the only people with the guts to go small and be patient are Asians in general and Japanese cooks in particular.)

Yuzu may be small, but what it’s doing is a very big deal, indeed. It’s not strictly a sushi bar (although there is a small one), and it’s not an izakaya in the Raku or Izakaya Go mold. What it is is our most Japanese of restaurants. A place that could be right at home in a Shinjuku alleyway; a place serving food so true to the rhythms and tastes of Japan that it’s almost shocking when a gaijin walks through the door.

There are many reasons to go here, the passion of the chef and quality of the ingredients being first and foremost among them. The Food Gal® tells us the noodle and teriyaki bowls at lunch are first class, but if you really want to see Kaoru-san strut his stuff, you need to reserve in advance for one of his kaiseki meals.

For the uninitiated, kaiseki refers to a very specific form of Japanese dining. It is the haute cuisine of Japanese cooking — seasonal eating taken to the nth degree — a multi-course meal that combines the artistry of the chef with a myriad of ingredients, presentations and techniques. Everything (and we mean everything) from the garnishes to the plating is thought through and presented in a way to enhance every sense — visual, aromatic, taste, tactile — that goes into your enjoyment of the meal. Many of the elaborate garnishes are symbolic, and all of the recipes try to achieve a zen-like state of communion between the diner and the food.

In other words, it doesn’t get much more complicated or serene than a kaiseki meal, but in the right hands, it is a transporting experience — creating an almost blissful connection between chef, raw material and consumer. There is nothing like it in Western dining, although the elaborate tasting menus of Keller, Achatz, Humm and others pay homage to kaiseki, none of them achieve the transcendence of  the Japanese chefs, who have been at it centuries longer. (Americans are too busy doing cartwheels in the kitchen and padding your bill.) Azeuchi trained for 16 years as a kaiseki chef in Japan, even getting the honor of serving the Emperor, so, needless to say, you’re in good hands.

What you will get will always depend upon the season and the chef’s inspiration, but whatever path is chosen by the chef, it will no doubt be the most delicious Japanese food you’ve ever had.

Our dinner started with the appetizer platter above, containing everything from an ethereal poached egg with caviar to grilled barracuda to uni rice topped with red snapper. From there, we proceeded to a sashimi platter of lobster, striped jack and halfbeak that was the equal of anything you’ll find at Kabuto and Yui:

 

Then came the queen of all mushroom soups: a dobin-mushi matsutake broth containing pike conger, cabbage and shrimp:

It was a soup so startling in its deceptive, smoky simplicity that everyone at our table was shaking their heads in appreciation.

From there we progressed through six more courses, ranging from grilled ribbons of A-5 Miyazaki wagyu (wrapped around more ‘shrooms and wasabi), to a steamed dish (steamed scallop cake draped with a latticework of wheat gluten), to eel tempura, to a “vinegar dish” of seared mackerel that was a bracing combination of tart and smooth:

Each dish was a model of precision, and each left you hungry for more. A big deal is made of the rice dish, for good reason. Rie Koleff (who acted as our personal sake sommelier throughout the meal*) explained that rice always signifies the ending of the meal Japan. This dish was, like much Japanese food, subtle to the point of invisibility:

….but like much Japanese food, once you stop looking for in-your-face flavor, and start appreciating the nuances, you quickly find that you can’t stop eating it. I don’t think a simple bowl of rice and fish can taste any finer, or be found anywhere in Las Vegas.

Those nuances are the key to Japanese eating. I call it deceptive simplicity because you are always getting much more than meets the eye. Especially in a kaiseki meal. Here, you are treated to an education in the centuries-old traditions in the Land of the Rising Sun: the reverence for seafood, the harmony of vegetables and the keen awareness of the seasons. In a nutshell, everything that Las Vegas is not. This is eating as a form of secular religion, and if you’re open to the experience, you will be transported in a way that no other Western meal can match.

The kaiseki at Yuzu is not a formal affair. (You are on the outskirts of Hendertucky after all.)  Because Kaoru-san flies in many ingredients from Japan, it is necessary to book at least three days in advance. The price you want to spend determines how elaborate it’s going to get. The ten-course, sixteen dish affair we had runs about $175/pp, but for $50/pp you can get a fine introduction into one of the greatest dinners in all of Las Vegas. ELV’s meal was comped.

YUZU JAPANESE KITCHEN

1310 East Silverado Ranch Blvd.

Las Vegas, NV 89183

702.778.8889

http://www.yuzujapanesekitchen.com/

 

* There is a nice selection of sakes on hand but you will probably not get your own sake sommelier. Sometimes, it’s good to be king. ;-)

(End of) Summer Dish Review – Tofu at YUZU JAPANESE KITCHEN

With Summer on the wane, and  triple digit temperatures about to go the way of truth in political advertising (at least until next June), we will end our tour of our favorite summer dishes with a flourish over the next 2 days — and highlight plates of food (and restaurants) that astonished our picky palate over the past three months.

Case in point: the house-made tofu at Yuzu Japanese Kitchen. So warm and nutty and fresh, it took me straight back to Tokyo.

Yuzu is one of those places I had heard about, wasn’t in any hurry to try.

Why? Because it’s on Silverado Ranch Road in southeast Las Vegas. A neighborhood which is to tasty food what Mitchell Wilburn is to sobriety.

Everyone in town knows that getting me east of the Strip and south of Russell Road is harder than getting Donald Trump to read a teleprompter, but go there we did, and most impressed we were.

It was a quick meal on a week night, so we didn’t get to take the full measure of the place, but the sashimi platter was first rate, and this eel stew:

 …provided just the right respite from the summer heat, despite its authentic eel-i-ness.

(The Japanese believe the vitamin-rich unagi (fresh water eel) is just the thing to alleviate summer suffering. It is what you are supposed to eat on the Day of the Ox – usually around July 30 – to aid in your strength and vitality in the hot weather months.)

We missed the Day of the Ox by a couple of weeks, but the dish was so enticing in its simmered eel-rich broth, that we can’t wait to see what chef Azeuchi-san will whip up for his kaiseki menu.

As good as those were, though, what really knocked us out was his tofu. This is as far from the bland blob you’re used to as Tokyo is from Tonopah. When done right, fresh tofu achieves a subtle, malt-like nuttiness (and elusive richness) that compels bite after bite. This tofu was done right.

As I’ve written before, one of the most admirable things about the Japanese chef mindset is the dedication to getting it right. Not getting it close to right, or right enough to get by, or close enough for government work, but really, really right.

Perfection is, of course, elusive and impossible, but the Japanese think striving for it is an art (and religion) of its own.

You get the feeling when you sit down here, and take a bite of that tofu,  that Azeuchi-san is striving for it.

YUZU JAPANESE KITCHEN

http://www.yuzujapanesekitchen.com/