Saturday, October 03, 2009

Totoraku (Los Angeles, CA) [2]

10610 W Pico Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90064 (FoodDigger, restaurant has no web site)
Sat 10/03/2009, 07:00p-10:15p

Is Totoraku (a.k.a. Teriyaki House Pico, or simply "secret beef restaurant") LA's toughest reservation? I'd say so. Walk up and try to open the door, and you'll find it locked. Give them a call, and you'll likely only get an answering machine with chef/owner Kaz Oyama's voice. The machine, though, is key. Leave a message with your details, and maybe you'll get a call back from Oyama-san's wife Shizumi, if you're deemed to be "in the know," that is. Officially, you'll only be granted the ability to make a reservation if you've been to Totoraku prior (though some unscrupulous individuals have scammed their way in), which means initially, you have to get someone with "the card" to bring you. Thus, you understand the dilemma here--the City's best yakiniku remains elusive.

Dipping Sauces
Upon arriving at our table, we were greeted by a trio of dipping sauces: soy, lemon juice, and a sweet tare. Our servers would tell us which sauce to use with each course; however, the meats were easily good enough to stand on their own.

We arrived a bit early, and ordered a bottle Calpico (an uncarbonated drink with a yogurt-esque flavor) to wet our whistles. In addition to the Calpico, Totoraku also offers a selection of your typical soft drinks, but lacks a liquor license, hence...

Oyama-san is an avid wineaux (with a particular penchant for great vintage Bordeaux, Burgundy, and Champagne), so I'd advise you to leave your pink Yellow Tail at home. My reader was gracious enough to contribute two top-flight tipples.

First up was the 1982 Château Certan de May, a birth year wine for me from one of the finest houses in Pomerol. Despite an uncooperative cork, I do not hesitate in calling the Certan one of the finest wines I've ever tasted, impressive in its profound depth and clarity, showing beautiful notes of spice, chocolate, dark berry, and coffee over a silky, every-so-slightly tannic backbone. Oyama-san eagerly agreed with this assessment. After sampling the wine, he was positively beaming, gleeful even, and kept raving about the Certan throughout the night--it was glaringly obvious that Oyama-san was truly impressed. With this one bottle, my reader's ability to return was secured.

We decanted the 2001 Sloan for nearly an hour before consuming, and comparing it to the Bordeaux was a night-and-day experience. The Sloan was a much more robust, much bolder, much more in-your-face wine, with an absolutely intoxicating nose of currant and chocolate. These flavors continued onto the palate, joined by subtle hints of meat and tobacco, finishing strong with a tannic bite. A lovely wine, but one that could use a bit more time in the bottle.

Amuse Bouche Assortment
1: Amuse Bouche Assortment
Our meal began with a selection of nine appetizers, to be shared amongst us:
  • Sockeye Salmon - Salmon stuffed with avocado and sprouts, wrapped in soba. There was a nice interplay going on here between the salmon and the creamy avocado and tangy sprouts, though I would've liked bigger pieces to better explore the flavors.
  • Alaskan King Crab Gelée - The crab itself was sweet as expected, with the gelatin acting as a sort of glue that bound the pieces together. What was fascinating though was that the gelée had a distinct spicy finish that slowly built up on my palate.
  • Prosciutto di Parma and Cantaloupe - Lovely. The prosciutto was suitably savory, and was balanced nicely by the sweet, juicy melon.
  • Asparagus and Sweet Walnuts - An interesting contrast existed here between the bitter, delicate asparagus and sweet, nutty walnuts.
  • Seared Albacore - Deftly cooked albacore, heightened by a bit of spice and a crisp, vegetal wrapper.
  • Quail Egg with Caviar - Some egg-on-egg action: always a good decision. I loved how the salty, briny tang of the roe penetrated the subtle gravity of the egg.
  • Ankimo - A superb presentation of ankimo, with the liver's richness tempered by the crisp cucumber and light, tart gelée.
  • Steamed Abalone - My favorite of the nonet. The abalone had a wondrous texture, just tough enough, yet yielding. Its flavor, meanwhile, was simultaneously sweet yet smoky. It was served with zenmai (Japanese royal fern), which had a pleasing crunch of its own.
  • Shrimp and Matsutake - Perfectly cooked shrimp, elevated by the delicate earthiness of matsutake mushrooms.
Beef Tongue Carpaccio
2: Beef Tongue Carpaccio
This was the sole dish that I didn't have on my last visit to Totoraku. The tongue was sliced appropriately thin, giving the meat a surprisingly tender consistency that barely required mastication. The carpaccio was livened up by the application of scallion, which deftly complemented the beef with its bitter tang, as well as some sort of tart sauce (ponzu perhaps?). Very nice.

Beef Tataki & Beef Throat Sashimi
3: Beef Ribeye Tataki & Beef Throat Sashimi
Following came a duet of barely-touched beef. First was the tataki, done up with a lovely char that provided a savory contrast to the meat's mild interior. This was even better when paired with a bit of grated ginger. The throat sashimi (of two cows, apparently) was more interesting, with a great, crunchy texture and a subtle flavor that was superbly accented by soy and scallion.

Beef Tartare
4: Beef Tartare
Our final raw course was Oyama-san's interpretation of yukhoe, or Korean beef tartare. Though rump steak is usually used for this dish, I'm not sure what was employed here. Nevertheless, it came with a number of accoutrements, including raw quail egg, daikon, cucumber, pine nuts, and Japanese pear. I proceeded to mix up the various items into one absolutely ambrosial amalgamation, one of the best tartares I've ever had in fact. I loved the multi-faceted interaction between the savory beef, the tang of the veggies, and the overarching sweetness of the pear--superb.

And with that, it was time for the gauntlet of grilled gyu to get going. Fired by binchotan charcoal, the grill cooks quickly, so be sure not to overdo your meat, lest you be chided by Shizumi-san!

5: Tongue
To the uninitiated, tongue (tan) may sound unappetizing, but it was actually one of the highlights of the meal for me. Totoraku's was a quintessential example: topped with scallion and salt & pepper, stupendously saporous with an almost foie gras-esque aftertaste, heightened by a delightfully rubbery yet yielding texture. As good as the tongue was on its own, it was even better when paired with a dash of the included lemon juice.

Filet Mignon
6: Filet Mignon
Here we have some generous chunks of filet mignon, paired with peppers, onions, bell peppers, and mushrooms. Compared to the tongue, the filet was much more subtle in flavor, lean and gossamer in its beefiness, brightened up with a touch of soy. Grilled rare, the meat was nearly melt-in-your-mouth--I wish I would've remembered to try some raw!

Crudités Momotaro Tomatoes
7: Crudités
Along with the filet came an assortment of raw veggies, helpful in tempering the weight of all this meat. First up was a bowl of lettuce, cabbage, carrots, cucumber, and radish, served with a sweet miso dip. Next were Momotaro tomatoes, some of the juiciest, sweetness tomatoes I've had--we asked for seconds.

Outside Rib Eye
8: Outside Rib Eye
We now move on to the more marbled meats. Outside rib eye is also known as rib eye cap, and vis-à-vis the filet, it was far more luxurious, richer, fattier, oiler, and stronger in savor--an escalation from the tenderloin to the sure. No sauce was necessary here; the included salt & pepper did a great job in elevating the beef's flavor.

Inside Rib Eye
9: Inside Rib Eye
Compared to the outside rib eye, the inside version was slightly chewier and not quite as decadent. Flavor-wise, the beef came with its own marinade, which did an admirable job in complementing the meat's flavor while not overwhelming it. However, I must say that I preferred the outside.

Short Rib
10: Short Rib
Next was karubi, Japan's interpretation of the omnipresent Korean kalbi short ribs. This, however, was different in that it was served sans bone, and was far less marinated. The result was a less heavy-handed meat, more refined than galbi with a perfect ratio of lean to fat, blessed with just a touch of sweetness and a supremely tender consistency.

Skirt Steak
11: Skirt Steak
Our final cut was harami, or skirt steak, from the underside of the steer. Though it's often known as a tough but tasty cut of meat, Oyama-san's version was suitable tender, with a enchantingly beefy, yet lean and light flavor.

Kuppa Soup
12: Kuppa Soup
Our final savory course of the night was this spicy egg and seaweed soup, a derivative of Korean gukbap ("rice soup"). It was a heartwarming concoction with a nice bit of spice, thanks to the use of Chinese chilies.

Selection of Ice Creams and Sorbets
13: Ice Creams and Sorbets
Dessert at Totoraku consists of your choice of ice creams and sorbets, which I suspect are housemade. We had one of each flavor: pistachio ice cream, espresso ice cream, white chocolate/raspberry ice cream, lychee sorbet, blueberry sorbet. My favorites were the pistachio (replete with bits of the nut), white chocolate, and lychee.

The price for this bovine overload? $135 per person, sans tip and tax. You might suspect that some of the cost is associated with the exclusivity of the place, and you'd probably be right. But keep in mind that, in terms of yakiniku or Korean BBQ, I've had no better than at Totoraku (even Urasawa-san agrees with me on this point). The fact that the place has been open for 10 years (with no advertising, actively turning away customers in fact) attests to that. I don't know if it's the source of the beef (not wagyu, by the way), or the way Oyama-san prepares it, but the quality of the meat is simply a cut above. This isn't an everyday, everyweek, or even everymonth place; it's an experience, one of the most unique in the City. If you ever have the chance to worship at this temple of beef, jump on it.


Blogger mattatouille said...

i liked your presentation of this meal at totoraku. I still haven't been, mostly because of the prohibitive price and of course the difficulty of procuring a table. I guess I'll have the opportunity one of these days. until then I can live vicariously through your posts. btw, I'm uploading the photos of the icecapade, I reenacted it.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009 2:15:00 AM  
Blogger Tricerapops said...

great rundown (as always). i was lucky to have a meal here once, and the wine labels/bottles all around are a tribute to oyama-san's love for wine.

i'm curious - would you say the sloan held up better for the fare, or was the certan a better choice?

Tuesday, October 06, 2009 8:29:00 AM  
Blogger sygyzy said...

What's really intersting about Totoraku is he isn't even using Kobe or Wagyu. It's just "regular" beef. Great meal. I can't wait to go back.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009 11:17:00 AM  
Blogger citynitz said...

Awesome pics as usual Kev, this place looks out of this world! Jealous indeed! =)

Tuesday, October 06, 2009 2:05:00 PM  
Blogger dhkm said...

Nice post as always. Even it is not Wagyu, but if you need to use the AACO rating system what score you going to put the beef at. see link for rating info


How to Score Wagyu for Marble Score

Get to know/buy you meat

Tuesday, October 06, 2009 10:42:00 PM  
Blogger Steve said...

Totoraku is a total fraud, but a shrewd businessman. If he didn't create this aura of exclusivity, he would never be able to charge such extravagant sums for the privilege of eating raw throat meat, etc. The fact that his customers bring him such esteemed vintages is even more ridiculous. For the $180 I spent (and had the very same meal that you did), I'd expect food that was not bland. I'll stick to Park's BBQ.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009 8:41:00 AM  
Blogger Foodie Traveler said...

Hi Kevin,

Glad you had such a good experience. Great pix and descriptions as always!

I went with a large group and was not as impressed as you. I found the unwritten admittance price of a glass of very expensive wine arrogant. Also arrogant is that they seem to take pride in the way the space is not at all fixed up. Ambiance matches that of a strip mall pizza joint. But of greatest significance is the price and quality of the food. I felt the starters were "meh." We actually left hungry as there was no rice offered. For less than half what you paid, you can have a full-on Washu-grade Yakiniku dinner with all manner of sides, including some great raw steak, liver, tongue "sashimi" as starters, at Sansui Tei in Torrance. They have all the same cuts "outer" and "inner" ribs, etc and I think it is far better than Totoraku and only about $60/pp. They have a full a la carte menu, but the full-on experience is off menu you have to know to request it. Let me know if you want to get a group together and we can set it up.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009 12:41:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why don't you stop being greedy and invite some of your readers..! No, Im serious. Seriously serious. Dead serious.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009 5:32:00 PM  
Blogger Food, she thought. said...

why...Why...WHY did I read this while hungry? Ribeye tataki looks insane. Thanks for the coverage.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009 5:37:00 PM  
Blogger Food, she thought. said...

PS: whet your appetite, wet your whistle! Gotcha!

Thursday, October 08, 2009 8:36:00 AM  
Blogger H. C. said...

Nice round-up and photos wow at all that beef... it may look too much for me to handle, but may be the place to go right after Easter should I choose to go vegetarian over Lent again!

Friday, October 09, 2009 5:00:00 PM  
Blogger kevinEats said...

Matt: What did you like in particular about the presentation? I'll let you know next time I organize something here. As for you icecapade, I was looking forward to photos of you unleashing your rage on the ice block. ;)

Tricerapops: Drinking it alone, I preferred the Certan. However, we had it early in the meal, so it may not have held up as well with the more strongly-flavored cuts of meat.

sygyzy: Yep, Oyama-san has said on many an occasion that it's not wagyu. The question then is: where does he procure his seemingly "regular" meat?

Jackie: Thanks. Wanna come next time?

Dason: The meat looks like it'd be in the "5" range, so decently marbled, but not overly so.

Steve: I can see why you disagree with Totoraku's business practices, and I'm fine with that. But the rib eye, the short rib, bland?

Andrea: I've heard good things about Sansui Tei, and would be interested in trying it out. Definitely let me know if you organize a dinner there.

Anon: That was the original plan, smart ass--a blogger dinner with a few spots reserved for readers.

Liz: Nice catch--I've made the change. ;)

HC: You read my mind. In the original post, I was thinking about writing something to the effect of Totoraku being a fitting first meal for someone who wishes to ditch vegetarianism and start eating meat again.

Monday, October 12, 2009 1:58:00 AM  
Blogger nelehelen said...

kevin.. kevin.. kevin.. i really need to stop reading your posts during work hours... i need to wipe down my keyboard haha.. great post!

Monday, October 26, 2009 12:51:00 PM  
Blogger kevinEats said...

Helen, I just noticed that you have a blog now. Keep it up!

Tuesday, October 27, 2009 3:12:00 AM  
Blogger nelehelen said...

kevin - blogging is SOOO difficult.. I love reading others, but it seems I have no patience to write my own. =) I'll definitely need to step it up a notch - haha. Thanks for the words of encouragement (Sorry for the very late reply!).

Next time you head to Totoraku, please invite your readers! *ahem* me *ahem* haha as I live down the street ;)

Thursday, January 21, 2010 2:22:00 PM  
Blogger kevinEats said...

Helen, there might be something upcoming with Totoraku. Will let you know!

Friday, January 22, 2010 12:32:00 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

kevin, i've wanted to check out totoraku for sometime. how do you pick which readers will join in your various outings?

Friday, January 29, 2010 2:37:00 PM  
Blogger kevinEats said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

Friday, January 29, 2010 9:34:00 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

Thursday, February 04, 2010 10:30:00 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Hello, I was wondering if by any chance you could give me some advice on how to get into Totoraku. Coming up on March 2nd is my wifes birthday and I would love to take her here give her the best meat and food people have been talking about. I do not know anyone that has been there before, so I think it may make it a little harder to get in. Can you please give me some advice and thank you so much!


Thursday, February 04, 2010 10:32:00 AM  
Blogger kevinEats said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

Friday, February 05, 2010 12:28:00 AM  
Anonymous Jimmy Bones said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

Sunday, March 28, 2010 10:41:00 AM  
Blogger kevinEats said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

Thursday, April 01, 2010 7:36:00 PM  
Anonymous Bucktown said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

Monday, April 26, 2010 12:53:00 AM  
Blogger kevinEats said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

Monday, April 26, 2010 7:21:00 PM  
Blogger RVD said...

To be honest, I am a bit skeptical. I've had a lot of meat in my years such as American steak places (Cut, Delmonicos, Del Friscos, 3 Forks (in Dallas), Sullivan's (Chicago), Chicago Chop House, etc. I've also been to pretty much all of the reputable Korean beef places in Korea as well as the US. The specialty beef places in Korea (kkot deung shim) are freaking awesome...but very expensive (usually runs about $200+/person for decent quantity).

But heck, I'm game. If you ever organize a dinner here, I'd be honored if you let me know.


P.S. I wrote one of the early Urasawa reviews on chowhound that I believe you read ( and again

Tuesday, June 29, 2010 12:46:00 AM  
Blogger kevinEats said...

I imagine that Totoraku will be comparable in quality to the specialty places in Korea. It's definitely a cut above your typical KBBQ joint here in the US, and likely superior to most yakiniku restaurants as well. I've been another four times (with others paying, including one meal with Bobby Flay!), so unfortunately there are no plans to return in the near future.

P.S. I definitely remember you from CH. ;)

Wednesday, June 30, 2010 4:52:00 PM  
Blogger RVD said...

btw, i finally did make it out here a few months ago. Cool place, good meat, etc. Chef Kaz-san has my number in his cell phone now :)

Tuesday, October 25, 2011 1:04:00 AM  
Blogger kevinEats said...

Hey Dan, what did you do get into his cell?

Sunday, October 30, 2011 10:10:00 PM  

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