Charcuterie plate? Check.
House-pickled vegetables? Check.
Flat breads from a wood-fired oven, located just outside the kitchen, in view of the dining area? Check.
Main Street Santa Monica’s Fork in the Road opened in late 2013 and had all the essential ingredients to make it a hit with “food enthusiasts” (my alternative term for “foodies”), like Waterloo & City or Gjelina. Yet it had only a smattering of pre-opening coverage from Eater LA, one mention on LA Weekly’s Squid Ink blog, and nothing I could find in LA Times’ Food section, which isn’t that unusual as the Times can’t possibly cover every new restaurant that opens in the greater Los Angeles area.
However, with the number of food bloggers in L.A., I was surprised to not have found any independent reviews of the place longer than a paragraph blurb. What’s more surprising was lack of recon on Chowhound LA, which, with its grassroots army of food enthusiasts, generally covers much more ground than the above publications. I could only find a handful of mentions on the board, all of them positive, but light on details, so my wife and I decided to check it out for ourselves one early evening last week.
We arrived about a half an hour before their Happy Hour wrapped at 7 PM, without reservation, with the restaurant and bar about half full. We were seated at the bar, and, after perusing the menus, we ordered three items from the Happy Hour menu and one additional, not realizing exactly how much food we would get. This is definitely a place for sharing.
Salmon Tartar[sic] Jar ($8 at Happy Hour, $15 otherwise), with capers, beets, dill crema, toast: Served in a large, squat mason jar, garnished with edible flowers and house-pickled vegetables, with more on the side in the jar lid, this dish made my wife very happy, as she loves all things salmon (see: our salmon-centric birthday lunch). I managed to get a few bites, and I found the tartare to be very well balanced, with the brininess of the fish cut by the tart capers, and the earthiness of the beets balanced by the crema. The pickled vegetables were excellent, especially the caper berries, which I am always excited to encounter. An amazing deal at $8 during Happy Hour!
Charcuterie ($13 at Happy Hour, A.Q. otherwise), with pickles, mustard, relish, olives, sourdough: A selection of salumi, including prosciutto and salami, with cornichons, more caper berries(!), a great chutney-like relish, this was a larger-than-expected charcuterie plate. Not sure how much the as-quoted price would be, but for the portion, this was another great deal at $13 during Happy Hour!
Mushroom Flat Bread ($12 at Happy Hour, $15 otherwise), with truffle, manchego, garlic confit: You can’t go wrong with these ingredients. This arrived after we polished off most of our first two dishes, which were no small amount of food. A generous portion in itself, the flat bread probably measured 6″ by 18″. We ended up taking most of it home and had it cold as a midnight snack, and it held up surprisingly well.
Pig Tail ($15), with red hot, cheddar tot’s[sic], smoky blue, celery. This was our one non-Happy Hour dish. Having sampled pig tails from the likes of Animal, Night+Market, Spice Table, Tar & Roses in Los Angeles, and Tosca Cafe in San Francisco, when I saw it on the menu, I knew I had to order it. While the accoutrements are obvious nods to buffalo wings, and therefore may invite comparison to Animal’s preparation, unlike Animal, or any of the aforementioned establishments, the pig tail I had at Fork in the Road was not prepared bone-in. Instead, the tails were cooked until the meat falls off the bone and then made into essentially giant croquetas de jamon, with crispy breading on the outside, and the tender, fatty, flavorful meat on the inside. This was a creative, and, more importantly, delicious, dish! (The bottle held more hot sauce, to be applied as needed by medicine dropper.)
Truffles ($1 each), with organic chocolate, smoked almond: Since we were quite stuffed by this point, we opted for a light dessert. We didn’t expect a show in the form of a burning rosemary branch. The truffles were good, though I didn’t get too much of a sense of the smoked almonds.
The conventional wisdom among some food enthusiasts seems to be that Main Street Santa Monica is not worth much culinarily, and perhaps that’s why Fork in the Road has been somewhat overlooked by food media. I definitely think the place deserves a little more attention than it seems to be getting online. But it seems to be doing alright. It has 4 stars on Yelp across 100+ reviews, 5 stars on Facebook with nearly 800 Likes, and it usually look busy when I’ve driven by.
Fork in the Road may well be that real neighborhood spot that people who live nearby actually walk to, rather than a destination restaurant that requires valet parking. And that’s fine. Let it fly under the radar of the fooderati. I know I’ll be back!
Fork in the Road
2424 Main Street
Santa Monica, CA 90405
It’s been nearly a year since I’ve written about Night+Market, the ultra-popular West Hollywood Thai “street food” restaurant, and quite a lot has happened in the past year. Most significantly, Night+Market Song, the long-awaited Silver Lake location debuted in March. Helmed by power-couple Kris Yenbamroong and Sarah St. Lifer, back-of-house and front-of house, respectively, Song has been receiving accolades from the start. While less convenient a location for me personally, I made a point to dine there a handful of times since opening but had not been back very recently. Having my sister, her husband, and their toddler son visit this weekend was the perfect excuse to have a big meal with them and my own clan.
Arriving right at 6 PM on a Saturday, we squeaked in before the crowds built. By the time we left shortly before 8 PM, a large crowd had gathered outside waiting for tables. I was in charge of ordering, and with some direction from the lovely Ms. Sarah, I got a good variety of dishes, including all four items on the Specials menu that night, starting with…
Pla Meuk Tod Gratiem ($12), wild Thai baby octopus, battered & fried, topped w/garlic & chile oil; served w/sriracha: This was one of the specials of the night. My friend Chris, who recently had this dish, said it reminded him of the Cantonese classic, Salt and Pepper Squid, and I have to agree. The batter was light and crisp, the octopus was tender yet snappy, and the dish had a mild heat that snuck up on you. The sriracha, perhaps made in-house, was smooth and a little tangy.
Larb Tod ($10), fried pork, pork liver, pork blood “meatballs” w/garlic oil & rau ram: This was once a Specials but now appears on the regular menu at Song. It reminded me more of a sausage patty than a meatball, and it’s not as mineral-y as straight liver. It’s a good gateway offal dish.
Moo Yang Nom Khon ($9), fatty pork shoulder, soaked in condensed milk & fresh turmeric overnight, grilled & served over cucumber relish: A relatively new addition to the regular menu, the cut of pork in this dish is very similar to the very popular Pork Toro dish, which is made with neck or jowl meat. As a very flavorful, yet non-spicy, dish, this was a big hit with my kids, and really with everyone at the table.
Khao Pote Ping Ping ($7), grilled sweet corn brushed w/coconut milk & seasonings: This was another dish from the Specials menu. The corn was indeed sweet and perfectly cooked. This was an excellent dish in its simplicity. It’s also vegan. Only gripe I have with it is the price. $7 for three half-cobs isn’t highway robbery, but seems a little pricey to me.
Nam Khao Tod ($9), crispy rice salad w/sour pork, raw ginger, onion, peanuts, cilantro, bird’s eye chili: This is one of my favorite dishes at Night+Market, where it was a consistent presence on the Specials menu before becoming a regular menu item at both locations. A rather spicy dish, the two youngest at the table did not partake, but the rest of us really enjoyed it!
Pork Toro ($7), grilled fatty pig neck w/’jaew’ Northeastern chile dip: As mentioned above, this is one of Night+Market’s most popular dishes. Known as kor moo yang in Thai, this cut of meat is also very popular in Korean BBQ, where it is known as hangjungsal. While I love this dish, I think I liked the Moo Yang Nom Khon slightly better, though my wife felt the opposite. Regardless, there wasn’t a speck of either dish left by the end of the meal.
Gai Tod Naeng Noi ($11), fried chicken thighs served with namprik maengda (waterbug relish): Another item from the Specials menu, the fried chicken thighs were crisp on the outside, moist on the inside, but of course everyone wanted to talk about the Thai relish made with the steamed innards of waterbugs. I had had the namprik maengda last year at Night+Market in WeHo, and I found it to be innocuous. It has a floral and/or herbal taste, nothing that you’d imagine a bug tasting like. I also found it to leave a slight tingling in my mouth, more like from eucalyptus than from chiles. The relish at this meal was really tasty; it was more smokey than what I had before, and I used the generous portion of relish long after the fried chicken thighs were gone, on the corn and with other dishes, it was that good!
Moo Sadoong ($9), grilled pork, basil, lemongrass, garlic, fish sauce, lime, chile, onions, cilantro, rice powder: Another popular dish on the regular menu, the ‘Startled Pig’ (the English translation of the dish’s name) is just multitude of flavor bombs in one dish. It is also is quite spicy but can be made relatively mild. It’s great on sticky rice. I highly recommend this to anyone who loves pork.
Khao Pad American ($14), Thai strip club fried rice w/frozen peas ‘n’ carrots & raisins. Topped w/a sunny-side-up egg, served w/wiener blossoms & chicken wings: The final item from the Specials menu, this was a fun dish! The fried rice was sweet with the raisins, but it worked. The hot-dog-topus were amusing! I didn’t get to try the wings, but my younger daughter seemed to love it. Not sure what makes this “strip club fried rice” since it seems more to me like “dorm kitchen” or “fridge/pantry leftovers” fried rice, where you just take whatever you have on hand and whip up a meal that’s a bit rough around the edges yet oddly satisfying.
Pad Thai, ($9), rice noodles, sweet radish, tofu, crushed peanuts, chile powder: Our last dish of the night is not something I’d usually order, but I wanted to make sure those in our party who didn’t eat spicy had options. The truth is that Night+Market’s pad thai works because of its simplicity, and I polished off quite a bit of this dish myself as everyone else was starting to get full toward the end of the meal.
As you can see, Night+Market Song, like Night+Market before it, is a great place to bring a large party. There’s such a wide variety of dishes, and many are in the single-digit dollar range, so order a bunch and experiment! Having said that, I’ve also been to both locations alone, ordering just two dishes and getting out for under $30 including tax and tip for dinner, and leaving satisfied!
Night+Market Song is truly a labor of love for chef Kris Yenbamroong, to leave the well-oiled machine of Night+Market WeHo and enter a space somewhat off the beaten path, where he’s the chef every night. Apparently, Kris thrives under that pressure, because he’s turning out great new dishes as well as executing on the classics flawlessly. I need to make a point of returning more often!
3322 W. Sunset Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90026
In a cozy, 24-seat space next to venerable Sushi Gen in Little Tokyo, b.o.s. (beef. offal. sustainable.) has been trying to entice potential diners to experience their beef-centric, nose-to-tail concept since late 2013. Despite positive reviews by press, blogs, and customers alike, business never really picked up, and, unfortunately, b.o.s. will be serving their last supper on Saturday, September 27.
This past week I had the privilege of dining at b.o.s. for my first, and possibly last, time. I had met owner Jun Isogai and chef David Bartnes at the Plate by Plate benefit back in August, and was already in discussions to set up a tasting menu for a small group of friends when the announcement of their closure dropped. But rather than dwell on the whys and wherefores of the demise of the restaurant, I hope to inspire you with this post to give b.o.s. a try before the end of the month.
When b.o.s. first opened, the menu had an omakase-style tasting menu option, but one is no longer listed. However, a tasting menu can still be arranged with the restaurant with advance notice. For our dinner, we had a budget of $300 for five people, and our goal was to sample the wide range of dishes available at b.o.s. Jun and I narrowed the tasting menu down to 9 dishes from their a la carte menu that highlighted the breadth of nose-to-tail dining, including one large-format dish. I also asked if chef David could create a dish just for our dinner, whatever inspired him at the moment.
Here was the progression of our meal:
Carpaccio of Tongue, pea sprouts, avocado, pickled shallots, Issan dressing: While it isn’t totally indistinguishable from “regular” cuts of beef, if people can get over the idea of eating tongue, the taste and texture can come close to thinly sliced steak. The tongue in this dish was sliced translucently thin, and had a delicate texture to match. The flavors were light and bright, with just a touch of heat.
Sizzling Thai Tongue, Thai aromatics, lime chili sauce: The second dish of tongue was quite different from the first, beyond the obvious hot-vs.-cold preparation methods. Unlike in the carpaccio, the slices were thicker and thus meatier, so they did not overcook on the cast iron plate. With the aromatics, this dish could pass as a simple beef stir-fry, a great “gateway” dish for offal-phobes.
Crispy Curried Calf Brain, butternut squash purée, arugula gremolata, grape compote: Encased in a crisp breadcrumb shell, the calf brain had a relatively neutral taste, but its texture was creamy and fluffy at the same time. The compote was unlike any I had tasted, not overly sweet, with a great astringency that contrasted with the creaminess of the brain.
Grilled Miso Heart, king oyster mushrooms, yuzu miso vinaigrette: Another great “gateway” dish, the heart is an even more innocuous cut of meat than the tongue, in my opinion. Beef heart tastes like really lean beef with a very fine texture. Grilled rare, it retained a great tenderness. Pairing it with the “meaty” king oyster mushroom was a great choice.
Sweetbread Tacos, salsa verde, pico de gallo, sriracha sour cream, pickled radish: The only true disappointment of the night, this dish came highly recommended by other customers, but I found it to be just passable. The breading was too thick and the sweetbreads a bit dry. If only the tacos came with the excellent crispy calf brain instead…
Housemade Turkish Sausage, small intestine casing, ground beef, rice, herbs, spices, w/housemade harissa, yogurt sauce, shaved baby carrot salad: I mentioned requesting a “chef’s choice” dish, and this was what chef David prepared for us, inspired by a recent trip he took to Turkey. The sausage was rather lean without being too dry, and a bit crumbly, almost like chorizo. The inclusion of rice in the filling reminded me of meat-filled dolma. This was a table favorite!
Fried Tripe “Calamari” & Small Intestines Chicharrón, cilantro garlic yogurt dip, Issan dressing: This was one of the more offal-y dishes of the night, specifically the small intestines. Mind you, they still tasted fairly mild, but I’m more used having intestines from pigs, whose diets not as clean as cows! This was yet another delicious, accessible dish!
Roasted Bone Marrow, housemade furikake, 61° egg, sesame gochujang: Marrow is not an unusual dish these days, and I originally eschewed it when setting up our menu, but Jun was generous enough to bring some out for us to try, on the house. Boldly, chef David accompanies the already unctuous marrow with a similarly textured 61° egg. This pairing works surprisingly well, with the different fats and proteins actually mellowing each other out rather than making the dish too heavy.
Braised Veal Cheek Pasta, shiitake mushrooms, braising sauce, olive oil poached tomatoes, housemade pappardelle: This dish would have fit the nose-to-tail progression better at the start of our meal, but as a somewhat heavier dish, coming out later made sense. I wasn’t sure how the pasta would be here, but I was pleasantly surprised by how perfectly al dente it was for my tastes. I don’t usually eat veal, and I would have expected it to be more delicate, but the meat had some heft to it.
Whole Braised Oxtail, w/ras el hanout, farmer’s market vegetables: This was our one large-format dish, advance order required. Before chef David brought it out to the table, we could see him plating it at the chef’s counter, building our anticipation! The oxtail itself probably measured 18″ long, and was quite a sight! None of my fellow diners had seen a whole oxtail before. And it tasted as impressively as it looked. The braising accentuated the deep, rich, beefiness of the meat, the gelatin in the bones and fat in the meat made it tender and moist. It was undeniably the best oxtail I’ve had!
The bigger surprise was how wonderful the vegetables were. Surrounding the oxtail was an assortment of roasted heirloom carrots and peewee potatoes, 130° poached tomatoes, and pickled cauliflowers seasoned with North African spices. The tomatoes, which were still snappy like raw tomatoes but had a more concentrated flavor from the poaching, were terrific. I especially liked the pickled cauliflower, which were crisp and tart!
Beef Tendon Risotto, w/English peas, pea sprouts, radish, lardons: Since we started off with tongue, I would have thought we’d end with tail, beyond the fact that the oxtail would be an incredibly tough act to follow. But I was quite happy with our last dish of the night, and quite impressed with chef David’s execution of the two Italian dishes he served us. Like the pasta, the rice was cooked perfectly, so that while it gave off enough starch to impart some creaminess, the individual grains still had some bite to them. The rice was also packed with flavor from the beef stock that I assume was used in cooking it. This was a great end to an amazing meal!
I am genuinely saddened by the closure of this ambitious restaurant. The dishes at b.o.s. are not gimmicky at all, something that even I, an offal-phile was wary of, and the food was just downright delicious. I was impressed with owner Jun Isogai’s pragmatism and positivity in the face of b.o.s.’s end, and with chef David Bartnes’s inventive and inspired cooking.
Jun told me after our meal that the nose-to-tail concept was his own, and when he was looking for a chef to execute his vision, he didn’t necessarily go looking for a chef who already knew a lot about offal. Instead, he wanted to find a great chef who would just be inspired by the ingredient. When he met David, the chef had never cooked with many of the ingredients he deftly handles now, like beef heart, but Jun said David told him that he just had to put the heart in his hand, and he will figure it out. A romantic notion, but after tasting his cooking, I believe it.
If you have a chance to try b.o.s. before it closes, please do. I wish all the luck in the world to both Jun and David in their future ventures, whether together or separately.
424 E 2nd Street
Los Angeles, CA 90012
Acknowledgment: With “offal” in my name, b.o.s. has been on my radar since it opened, but I just hadn’t had a chance to try it up until now. A few months ago, I had an idea to crowdfund a restaurant review. I knew this wouldn’t be a sustainable model for monetizing my food writing, but I figured I’d give it a try. Of course, right as I was about to kick off my campaign, the “Potato Salad” Kickstarter thing went viral, so I held back for a bit, but after a few weeks I decided just to gogo for it, and the campaign ended with $100 in its funds!
So, this meal was fully funded by two individuals, each contributing $50. After fees, I received just under $88. My portion of the bill was $60 for the food, $3 for an iced green tea (I’m not a big drinker), plus tax and tip; I left $85. The remaining $3 may not have covered gas for the drive (1.5 hours there, 30 minutes back–gotta love L.A. traffic), but I absolutely can’t complain! My benefactors have decided to remain anonymous, but they (and I) know who they are, and I want to say “thank you” to them one more time!
If someone asks you what Santa Monica is known for, as far as food goes, there are a few ways to go. If you’re a gourmand, you’re likely to mention destination restaurants like Tar and Roses, Rustic Canyon, or Melisse. If you’re a New England expat, though, perhaps the newly opened Dunkin Donuts is on your mind. But “gourmet burgers” and “cheap eats” are probably not your first or second thoughts, and certainly not together.
However, even if you don’t realize it, Santa Monica is kind of known for gourmet burgers. Within the city borders lie The Counter, Father’s Office, Hole in the Wall, Pono, Stout, Umami, to name a few. But they are definitely not cheap eats! In fact, it is unlikely you can lunch at any of these establishments for under $10, considering the burgers themselves start at $9 (or higher) and just go up from there!
There is one place in town quietly peddling a gourmet burger that holds its own against the above high-end specialists, and it can be had for only $5!
The Misfit, a restaurant and bar in the space previously occupied by Anisette Brasserie, at the base of the historic Clock Tower Building off the Third Street Promenade, has a “Bar Fly Lunch” special Monday through Friday, where one dish a day is available for $5. The menu lists only three rules you must follow to take advantage of this deal: 1. only at the bar, 2. no holding seats, 3. done at 4 PM (doors open at noon).
The gourmet burger in question is available on Tuesdays for $5 at the bar. The eponymous Misfit Burger (regularly $14) is made with grass-fed beef from Bartels Farms in Oregon. It’s dressed with cheddar, dijonnaise, and caramelized onions, and served on a sesame brioche bun. A fried cage-free egg is available gratis on request, and gluten-free buns or “protein” style serving options are available as well. The burger itself is quite good and a decent portion, probably weighing in at a third of a pound. The fixings are classic and complement rather than overwhelm the burger.
If burgers aren’t your thing, The Misfit still has you covered. Two of the five Bar Fly Lunches are non-burgers/sandwiches.
Continuing on, Wednesdays‘ special is a Shredded Kale + Quinoa Salad (regularly $11). Chicken or salmon may be added for an additional $4 or $6, respectively. On the healthier side compared to the burger, the salad is composed of the aforementioned main ingredients, plus sunflower seeds, grapes, preserved lemons, manchego, and parmesan. The dish is good but needs something in it to contrast more with the natural bitterness of the greens and cheese; the grapes help, but they aren’t quite enough.
Thursdays keep the health kick going with an Heirloom Brown Rice Bowl (regularly $10). Replete with organic red quinoa, black beans, feta, pistachios, dandelion greens, with a poached egg cut right in front of you over the salad, and a bold smear of harissa against the side of the bowl, this is a well composed dish for ovo-lacto vegetarians, and anyone who wants to eat healthier without compromising on flavor. The dandelion greens are particularly good!
Returning to meat-between-buns is Fridays‘ Ahi Burger (regularly $15), made with carefully ground sushi-grade tuna, seared, and topped with avocado, and spicy mayo. You don’t come across many ground tuna burgers; most are just grilled solid filets of fish. I was surprised at how well the patty held together. With the other ingredients, this is a spicy tuna roll in burger form, which sounds like it shouldn’t work, but it does!
Circling back to the beginning of the week, and probably my favorite of the specials, Mondays‘ $5 Bar Fly Lunch is a Crispy Chicken Sandwich (regularly $14). Made with Jidori chicken breasts, and dressed with a fennel apple slaw and spicy mayo, this dish is a winner (winner, chicken d–oh, never mind). The breasts are plump and juicy, with a really crisp breading on the outside. This is one of the better chicken sandwiches I’ve had–much better than Plan Check’s, in my opinion!
For sides, The Misfit makes some pretty decent shoestring fries (regularly $6 on the dinner menu, I believe it’s cheaper at lunch at the bar). One order of fries is large enough for 2-3 people, so, if you’re solo, be prepared to take some with you. But if you don’t want to fill up on fries, and one order of the special is not quite enough, you can order multiples! I saw a guy eat three ahi burgers at the bar on a Friday once.
But save some room, because each meal at The Misfit (Bar Fly Lunch and otherwise, I believe) ends with complimentary salted chocolate chip cookies! They’re not the best in the world, but they’re decent, and free!
So what are the downsides? The bar is first-come, first-serve, so you might find it difficult to sit together if you have a large party. Also, the place is pretty generous with the burger/sandwich toppings, making for pretty messy eats. However, unlike some of the fancy burger joints mentioned earlier, The Misfit does allow modifications, so if you want to go light on the dijonnaise or have the fennel apple slaw on the side, you can!
The Misfit also has a day-long happy hour, well drinks for $5 until 7 PM and discounts on other drinks. Since I had to go back to work on the occasions I visited, I mostly imbibed Kombucha Dog‘s pleasantly funky Wild Berry Ginger Kombucha, on tap at The Misfit for $4 during happy hour! The 1% ABV means they have to card you, but at least you won’t smell like a lush back at the office.
Oh, if you have little ones, they are allowed to sit at the bar to take advantage of the deal. Makes them feel real grown up. Just be sure to cut them off after a few Roy Rogers and Shirley Temples.
225 Santa Monica Boulevard
Santa Monica, CA 90401
2006 Sawtelle Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA 90025
Sushi has never been more ubiquitous in Los Angeles. A quick Yelp search, limiting the query just to sushi bars in the “Sawtelle” neighborhood (defined generously as the area bounded by Wilshire/National to the north and south, and Sepulveda/Centinela to the east and west), produces 26 results! It is in this crowded field that Sushi Tsujita debuts.
Reservations at the 10-seat bar are already difficult to come by, so buzz is certainly on the side of the two-week old restaurant. With the success of the two noodle shops just down the block, can Tsujita pull off a hat trick with their entry into high-end sushi?
From the moment you arrive, Sushi Tsujita gives you something to talk about, even before stepping into the restaurant proper. The chandelier in the “enclosed patio” (as the website calls it) imbues the space with a hip, lounge-y vibe. Indeed, I witnessed members of a large reservation of 10, mingling there with pre-dinner drinks while waiting for their entire party to arrive, and it was very much a party!
The interior design is a polarizing topic, at least on Chowhound; some have gone as far as to swear off the restaurant because of it. The truth is that the walls, which I described as “geometric and geodesic” in my Eater LA piece, is not nearly as distracting in person as it might appear from the wide shots of the interior. If you’re sitting at the bar, you will be focused on your itamae, or, more specifically, on the food he is serving.
Even at a banquette, while interviewing Tsujita’s general manager Kenta Ikehata, I did not find the designs to be a distraction. However, if you’re truly put off by the walls, just close your eyes while eating. Even if you like the decor, many of the dishes you will taste may cause you to do so anyway, as you pause to savor them.
The kuromaguro akami zuke, lean Atlantic bluefin tuna (from Boston), marinated for 4 hours in soy sauce, is one such dish. The incredibly deep, concentrated flavor of the fish, along with its unfortunate ecological baggage, is the definition of “guilty pleasure”. Even if you’re accustomed to dropping a few Benjamins per meal on sushi, it may be the best tuna you shouldn’t be eating.
A momotaro tomato dish will likely trigger comparisons to Shunji Nakao’s signature Agedashi Tomato Tofu dish, but they could not be more different for having the same main ingredient. Nakao’s “tofu”—as molecular-gastronomic as he gets with his creative, non-sushi dishes—is an exercise in contrasts: soft yet crisp, sweet yet savory.
Sushi Tsujita, however, takes the natural sweetness of the vegetable (fruit!) and amplifies it. The result is a glistening orb, sitting in its own juices, bereft of its skin and tender enough to be eaten just with a spoon, topped with a wine-soaked blueberry in place of the proverbial cherry on top.
The momotaro tomato may turn out to be the most decadent course in your meal, perhaps moreso than the melon compote dessert. But, it also serves as a palate cleanser, before sashimi is delicately placed on the dark, wide “stage” of a platform that sits at eye-level in front of you instead of the traditional wooden geta.
Two pieces each of chutoro, medium-fatty tuna, and hata, grouper, take the stage, the latter sandwiching a translucent, perfectly circular slice of sudachi, a Japanese citrus similar to yuzu. The fresh wasabi is ground so fine, it looks like lime paint on the stage-cum-paint palette. The server presents a dish of “sashimi soy sauce” for the fish, which is as marvelous as you’d expect, the sudachi seasoning the hata just so, but equally marvelous is how well each course is composed, and how effortlessly itamae and servers move you along from course to course.
Service is essentially impeccable, no prior soft-open period or friends & family nights required. It’s funny to see some of the same t-shirted waitstaff from Tsujita’s two ramen-ya dressed smartly in black button-down shirts with sharp platinum ties, but if they have any issues switching gears between the disparate dining environments, they do not show it. Early reports did indicate that free tap water was not offered or served, only expensive bottled water. However, that initial misstep had already corrected itself by the second week.
Bottled-Watergate aside, Sushi Tsujita is not without its misses. The shari, or sushi rice, can be a little inconsistent, in temperature and texture. It starts warmer than room temperature earlier in the nigiri service, but is noticeably, though not significantly, cooler with the later pieces. The hangiri, wooden bucket that holds the shari, I saw behind the bar seemed rather small, and I did not notice it being replenished during meal, which might have contributed to the temperature issue. Also, while most of the fish were superb, I had a piece of kohada, gizzard shad, that was quite a bit saltier than it should have been.
Is Tsujita three-for-three on Sawtelle? I’m going to say, “Yes.” I was cautiously optimistic leading up to my visit. I have to say I am pleasantly surprised, both by the quality of the food was and also by how well run the restaurant was for being in operation less than two weeks. A part of it, I think, was going with proven waitstaff from their other restaurants, but a bigger part is likely the decision to hire seasoned itamae from the L.A. area. If you’ve frequented Shunji Japanese Cuisine, or Katsuya (or is it Katsu-Ya?), you might just recognize one or two of the faces behind the bar.
So, you may be wondering, what is chef Shigeru Kato‘s role in the restaurant? Since his English is not as strong as the other itamae, he seems to mostly interact with Japanese-speaking clientele. However, his role appears more to be as executive chef, directing the meals the other itamae are preparing. He is also wholly responsible for selecting and procuring the fish that the restaurant uses.
Last, but not least, Kato-san makes the traditional closing dish for a sushi meal, the tamagoyaki, or egg omelet. As made famous in Jiro Dreams of Sushi, tamagoyaki is said to be the showcase of a sushi’s chef’s skill. I don’t know about that, but I do know that tamagoyaki preparations can vary greatly, from Kiriko’s spongy soufflé, to Q’s pound cake, to of course the ubiquitous layered omelets served everywhere. Kato-san’s is unlike any tamagoyaki I’ve had. It is dense, not as moist, and has an almost bread-like consistency. It is hardy enough to be hand-torn when served. It is also pretty darn good.
Additional photos below.
Dinner: Omakase only, currently, available in three levels: $120, $150, $180. A variety of dishes, from an opener of steamed awabi (abalone), a trio of amuse-bouche, and an anago shinjo (fish cake made with sea eels) soup, are served before moving onto sashimi, nigiri, and dessert. Expect dishes to change regularly based on available ingredients.
Lunch: Service starts on Tuesday, August 26. A variety of price points are available, including a $15 chirashi bowl that’s limited to only 15 servings per day.
Disclosure: My meal was gratis, drinks and gratuity not included.