Saturday, November 28, 2009

Niwattori (Torrance, CA)

1231 Cabrillo Ave, Torrance, CA 90501
310.781.9200 (Yelp, restaurant has no web site)
Sat 11/28/2009, 07:00p-09:15p

Niwattori Exterior
Yes, this is my first post ever in the South Bay. For this "momentous" occasion, I've chosen Niwattori, a new izakaya-style eatery that opened in late September. The name, Niwattori (usually spelled niwatori), translates roughly to "chicken," and indeed, the restaurant specializes in dishes featuring its eponymous bird. Note however, that Niwattori is not a yakitori joint (a place that focuses on grilled chicken skewers).

Going in, I thought that Niwattori was owned by the same people who run Yuzu a few doors down. The woman in charge of managing the Niwattori, Kumada-san, assured us that that was not the case. The two do share certain ties, however--the chef at Yuzu is Kaz Akutsu, and Akutsu-san is largely responsible for the menu at Niwattori as well. Interestingly, he is the nephew of Seiji Akutsu, the owner of famed soba house Otafuku in Gardena (one of Urasawa's favorite restaurants). There is also, apparently, a passageway in the building linking Niwattori and Yuzu physically.

Niwattori Bar Niwattori Dining Room
Inside, the space is clean, contemporary, and is divided into a bar section, a main dining area, and some semi-private rooms.

Niwattori Menu Niwattori Menu Niwattori Menu Niwattori Menu Niwattori Menu
Niwattori's menu is shown above; click for larger versions. As you'd expect, it's skewed heavily towards chicken, with nary a meat or raw fish dish in sight. Note that otsumami refers to small dishes typically eaten while imbibing alcoholic beverages.

Asahi Super Dry
And speaking of booze, what better way to start than with a round of Asahis? Note that this is the real deal Asahi Super Dry, imported from Tokyo, not the stuff brewed by Molson in Canada that one usually finds Stateside. If you haven't had the genuine article before, I urge you to do a comparison between the two versions.

Potato Salad
Potato Salad [$5.50]
I don't think I've ever met a potato salad that I didn't like, and this was no exception. Pleasantly piquant in savor, the salad was heightened by the use of bacon, which lent a wonderful saltiness to the whole creamy amalgam, in addition to providing a nice crunchy textural element.

Nikogori [$3.80]
Nikogori usually refers to jellied fish (see a version made with fugu here), but Niwattori's uses chicken skin encased in a chicken broth gelée. Tasting it, I experience the unmitigated essence of chicken, which was subsequently tempered by the tart cucumbers pickles (kyuuri) and wakame seaweed. The momiji oroshi (grated daikon and red pepper), meanwhile, added a bit of heat into the equation.

Tori Wasabi
Tori Wasabi [$6.50]
Next was my favorite course of the night. What we have is tori sasami, or chicken breast meat, seared rare, served with wasabi, nori, and onions. The chicken was immensely tender, delicate even, and took on an almost sashimi-like character. Flavor-wise, it possessed the subtle spirit of chicken, which was superbly countered by the fiery wasabi. I had a similar dish at Kokekokko, but liked this version even better.

Shumai [$7.50]
Shumai is, of course, a Chinese dish, so it was interesting to see Niwattori's take on the classic. The Chinese usually employ pork as the filling, but here, chicken was the star, along with ginger, lotus root, and dried shiitake mushrooms. I rather liked the result, savoring the shumai's rich, savory, ginger-tinged flavor, offset by the sweet/sour ankake sauce and spicy karashi mustard.

Tsukune [$6.50]
Tsukune refers to Japanese-style ground chicken meatballs. Though they're typically prepared in a yakitori (grilled) manner, frying or baking are acceptable cooking methods as well. The version here was fried, and came dressed in a sweet, soy-based sauce. The result was a very savory, gritty, juicy experience. However, I found it rather heavy-handed unfortunately, with the sauce overpowering the chicken's natural sapor. The karashi did help in balancing things out, though.

Hakkaisan Honjozo
With our beers dispensed with, we moved on to sake, specifically the Hakkaisan Honjozo [$26]. Interestingly, we had it warm, which is something I almost never do, as heating is usually reserved for inferior-quality sakes. The Hakkaisan certainly was no such beast, and could've easily been served cold. As it turns out, the sake was indeed quite delicious hot. I thought that the heat tended to smooth out the flavors of the sake, accenting its nutty/earthy flavors while muting the floral and fruity flourishes.

Tori Nankotsu
Tori Nankotsu [$6.50]
Nankotsu refers to the cartilage, or gristle, of the chicken. Here, we had fritters of chicken tenderloin, with cartilage attached, deep-fried. Though the nankotsu didn't have much taste on its own, it did contribute a lovely (and loud!) crunch to the eating experience. The flavor came mostly from the attached bits of tender chicken, and was nicely countered by the sour tang of lemon.

Steamed Octopus and Watercress Salad
Steamed Octopus and Watercress Salad [$13.50]
Here we have an appealing salad of octopus, watercress, carrot, cucumber, and nori. I appreciated the octopus' supple, tender consistency, as well as its subtly sweet flavor, which was deftly countered by the pungent bitterness of the greens. Quite nice.

Tori Hakkaisan
Tori Hakkaisan [$10.50]
A fascinating dish, this was a grilled presentation of chicken that had been marinated in Hakkaisan sake kasu (sake lees, the residual precipitates left over from the sake-making process). The bird was wonderfully tender and succulent, abound in chicken flavor but with a finish imbued with the rice-y marrow of sake. Superb.

Tori 'Dokkan' Negi
Tori "Dokkan" Negi [$10.50]
Next up was deep-fried chicken, coated in a sweetish soy-based sauce, topped with green onions. Taken alone, the chicken was a bit too sweet for me, but its flavor was expertly balanced by the bitter tang of the scallions. I only wish that the pieces had been fried to a crispier consistency.

Gobo Isobe
Gobo Isobe [$5.50]
This was deep-fried gobo, or burdock, with dried seaweed, accompanied by two dipping salts--curry (kare shio) and green tea (matcha shio). The gobo itself had a delightfully firm, fibrous texture and a flavor that was mildly savory. I found that the curry tended to overwhelm the flavor of the burdock, but I did appreciate the matcha.

Hakkaisan Junmai Ginjo
Our final tipple was a flask of the Hakkaisan Junmai Ginjo [$26], which we had cold. I've had this sake multiple times before, and again, it did not disappoint with its clean, floral flavors and softly spicy character. Very nice.

Odenmori [$12.50]
A prototypically winter dish, oden consists of a variety of ingredients simmered in a soy-dashi broth, served with karashi. The contents of the pot here were chikuwabu (tubes of gluten, popular in the Kanto region), konnyaku (konjac gel), daikon, tamago, and ganmodoki (tofu fritter), among others. It was a hearty, heartwarming dish, with the ganmodoki and the hard-boiled egg being particularly tasty. Interestingly, one of my dining companions remarked that, due to the color of the broth, the chef must be from the Kanto (or greater Tokyo) area and that the oden might be more appropriately called by the obscure term kantoni.

Kinpira [$4.80]
Kinpira denotes a cooking technique of sautéing and simmering root vegetables in a mixture of soy and mirin (sweet rice wine). Burdock, carrot, and lotus root were used here, sliced in large-ish pieces, giving the veggies a nice bite. Their flavor was simultaneously sweet yet savory, with the sesame providing a lovely accent.

Shionikomi Shionikomi
Shionikomi [$4.50]
Here was a type of nimono, or stew, specifically a chicken skin stew in a salted broth, with lotus root, carrot, and konnyaku. They key here, for me, was the application of yuzu skin, which gave the whole commixture a charming, tangy finish.

Torisoba Torisoba
Torisoba [$6.50]
We finished with a bowl of ramen noodles in a hot soy-based chicken broth. The noodles themselves were nice enough, and I enjoyed the lightening effect of the vegetables, but the broth was on the salty side unfortunately.

Overall, I left Niwattori generally pleased, especially considering that the place just recently opened. One of my dining companions, who's much more well-versed in Japanese cuisine than I, agreed, but remarked that he'd like to see the chef employ lighter, more Kyoto-influenced touches with the food. I see his point, especially with regard to dishes such as the tsukune, oden, and torisoba. In the end, it was nice to have some dishes that you don't see on menus all that often, and to experience the breadth of what's possible using chicken in a non-yakitori setting.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Rivera (Los Angeles, CA) [3]

1050 S Flower St, Los Angeles, CA 90015
Wed 11/25/2009, 08:00p-11:50p

Regular kevinEats readers may recall that my first visit to Rivera in April of this year was for lunch. After a promising meal, I vowed to return, and did so in July, when I had a fantastic dinner. Despite the splendid eats, I wasn't planning on returning to Rivera in 2009...that is, until I was invited by Wesley of Two Hungry Pandas to this special dinner. You see, Chef/Owner John Rivera Sedlar has been hard at work developing a new menu for the coming winter months. The Chef was interested in garnering some feedback for a few of his new dishes, and somehow, Wes was able to finagle his way into securing a preview of the new viands (as a result, some, but not all, of the dishes were comped). Joining us were Wes' partner in crime Evelina, Christine of Folie à Choisauce, Danny of Kung Food Panda, and Nathan of Binary Tastebuds.

Rivera Menu Rivera Specials Menu Rivera Drink Menu
Above, we see Rivera's menu, a list of specials (the new items), and the drink list; click for larger versions. The main carta was much the same as before, so we were mainly interested in Sedlar's four new creations, consisting of three starters and one main. Unfortunately, according to Sous Chef Joe Panarello, the sweetbreads dish, "Quechwa," was not quite up to the Sedlar's standards yet during our visit, so we'll have to take a rain check on that one.

piquillo relleno
The amuse bouche consisted of a single piquillo pepper, stuffed with a commixture of Gruyère cheese and chorizo, accompanied by vino de Jerez and avocado oil. It didn't look like much, but delivered where it counted: on flavor. I immediately noticed a powerful interplay between the rich, creamy, salty stuffing and the sweet, tangy pepper enrobing it. The bite finished with a savory flair, accented by a slight bitterness from the char. ¡Hola! indeed.

After the amuses were dispensed with, we ordered a round of Tejocotes, a new drink that Chef Sedlar had created with Rivera's bartender extraordinaire Julian Cox (who, by the way, was having dinner with his family at the table next to ours). The drink is basically Rivera's take on ponche, a traditional Mexican fruit punch served during the holiday season. It starts with a hot concoction of tejocote (Mexican Hawthorn) fruit, piloncillo (a.k.a. panela, basically unrefined sugar made from evaporated sugarcane juice), prunes, canella (cinnamon bark), and tamarind, among other ingredients. Once the admixture cools, Del Maguey Crema de Mezcal and Fee Brothers West Indian Orange Bitters are added to create the final cocktail. The end result is a delicious, sweet 'n' spicy ponche with a hint of smoky mezcal and even a bit of sour Chinese suan mei character on the midpalate; it's a medley of flavors that's simultaneously powerful yet mysterious.

caballito de sopas dobles
This course usually consists of two contrasting soups, served at different temperatures (for example, on my last visit, warm lobster bisque and chilled fennel-apple soup). This time, obviously, there was only a single potage, the reason being, according to our server, that the Chef was unable to find suitable quality ingredients for the second soup he had in mind. I had no problem with this, as the solitary butternut squash soup presented was easily the best example I've ever tasted. I always tend to find butternut squash soup too sugary, so I really appreciated the wonderful savory character of the version here, superbly set off by the use of cumin, and accented texturally by the popcorn.

tortillas florales
The Tortillas Florales have become one the restaurant's most notorious dishes, and a meal at Rivera almost requires that we start off with an order. The tortillas are, of course, homemade, using ground dried corn. They're then embedded with flowers and herbs, browned on a griddle, and served warm, accompanied by the creamiest "guacamole" you've ever had. The taste is classic, earthy, yet profound; pair a bit of that delightful "Indian butter," and you're set.

conchas conchas
The first new item that we tried was this presentation of oysters, Kumamotos (my favorite) to be specific. The use of the various vegetables added a wondrous, bright accent to the sweetness of the "conchas," while the mezcal contributed a woody depth to counter the brine--very good. Evelina wanted a second order of these!

patates xips
And now, a "snack" of Rivera's "potato chips." Popping one into my mouth, I first noted the expected saltiness of the xips, which was then followed by the creaminess of the chipotle-lime complex. The most interesting facet here, though, was the finish, which was dominated by the intense, positively lingering brine of the sturgeon caviar. Note the stencil, my favorite of the night: Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough..., attributed to our dear friend Bernie Madoff.

melon de mar melon de mar
The second brand new item presented to us was this poached Maine lobster tail. The langosta itself possessed a lovely, supple body and a light, bright flavor with just a hint of sweetness. My favorite part of the course, though, was the application of habanero sauce. It gave the crustacean a bit of heat on the finish, which only seemed to intensify as time went by. Further spice was provided by the cuboids of green chili gelée, while salt-topped mosaics of compressed cantaloupe and honeydew contributed a sweet-salty flair.

tony manzana blood sugar sex magic la bamba
By this time, our Tejocotes had been all tapped out, so another round of cocktails was in order. Danny went with the Tony Manzana [$14], made with apple juice, applejack, honey, and ginger; upon tasting it, I called it "adult apple juice," a sentiment exactly echoed by Christine (great minds think alike?). Wes, meanwhile, ordered one of his favorites, the Blood Sugar Sex Magic [$14]. Comprised of rye whiskey, red pepper, agave nectar, and basil, it had a delightful piquant tang that deftly tempered the power of the whisky. Finally, I had the La Bamba [$12], consisting of pisco, curaçao, apricot eau de vie, and pineapple. It started with an intensely citrus-y nose, followed by a creamy, sugary, aggressive attack, leading to a bit of heat on the finish--quite good.

And now, our third and final newbie of the night. We have a triplet of scallops, topped with preserved lemon, atop eggplant purée and vadouvan (Indian spice blend) sauce. The scallops themselves were deftly cooked to a firm yet pliant consistency, and flavor-wise, their sweetness was heightened by the eggplant, while the vadouvan lent a spicy tang to the bivalves. And if you're wondering, the stencil represents the word "arabesque" in Arabic, written in ras el hanout (a mixture of herbs and spices found across the Middle East and North Africa). When applied to the scallops, it lent a marked Moroccan tinge to the dish.

bee's nuts
My final cocktail was the Bee's Nuts [$12]. Made with Amontillado sherry, Rhum Agricole, and Bärenjäger (a honey liqueur), it had a initial sweetness, back by a mild sherry finish, with the nuts adding an additional textural element--nice.

duck enfrijolada
With all the new dishes done with, we decided to order some items from Rivera's old menu. First up was the Duck Enfrijolada, an amalgam of shredded duck confit, cheese, and puréed black bean, encased in blue corn tortillas, dressed with a deep aubergine Cabernet-chili sauce and sprinkled with flower petals. I would've been happy just eating the duck by itself, but the spicy-sweet-earthy beans, combined with the tempering effect of the tortillas, clearly took the duck to another level. The purple potatoes were icing on the cake. It's little wonder that Sedlar often refers to this as his signature dish.

We have here a beautifully-cooked filet of sea trout, savory and moist, with a delightfully crisp skin. The fish was delicious on its own, but was even better when paired with the pungent saffron-infused quinoa. Meanwhile, a corn husk basket held a colorful medley of vegetables, which proved to be a great counterbalance to the gravity of the fish.

maya puerco pibil sous vide
maya puerco pibil sous vide [$26.00] | BANANA LEAF BRAISED PORK SHOULDER, PERUVIAN POTATOES
Christine insisted that we try the puerco pibil, and having greatly enjoyed the dish on my last visit, I did not oppose the request. The dish comes to us from the Mayans, and is traditionally made by slow-roasting pork in a banana leaf. Rivera, though, utilizes a sous vide cooking process, one that elevates pork shoulder to another level of decadence: fantastically tender, stupendous pork-y in sapor, with just the right amount of fat. A masterful mix of sweet and savory flavors, the pork was superbly balanced by the various veggies--purple potato, sweet potato, shallot, radish--linked by aji amarillo.

Intermezzo: pomegranate | CLOUD
Before dessert, a palate cleanser was brought forth. Described as a "pomegranate cloud," it was akin to a fluffy foam, infused with a delicate tanginess.

torta xocolata
We began with a chocolate torte, which can be thought of as a sort of flourless chocolate cake. It was incredibly dense, rich, and sugary. Thank goodness for the pineapple (bathed in white rum), which added a much needed counter to the sheer luxuriousness of the xocolata.

baba cachaca
baba cachaca [$8.00] | CITRUS, DULCE DE LECHE
A repeat from last time was the Baba Cachaça, basically a yeast cake saturated with cachaça instead of rum, then filled with crème fraîche and supremes of citrus fruit. The baba cake itself was a bit less decadent this time around, though still marvelously sweet, with just a bit of alcoholic character. It was aptly offset by the tartness of the various cuts of citrus.

bizcocho de avellana
Our final course of the evening was a sort of frozen hazelnut-chocolate sponge cake, topped with orange-cava sorbet and ethereal wisps of what I imagine must be sugar. This was my favorite of the trio, and I appreciated how the tartness of the sorbet balanced out the weight of the bizcocho. I also enjoyed the various textures at play here.

Samba Lounge
As mentioned above, Rivera's resident mixologist Julian Cox was seated next to us. Sitting next to him was Eddie Sotto, a Walt Disney Imagineering veteran who's the restaurant's designer as well as part owner (Bill Chait is the remaining principal). Interestingly, Sedlar and Sotto first collaborated at Encounter, the restaurant inside LAX's iconic Theme Building. Working with architect Osvaldo Maiozzi and interior designer Deborah Gregory, Sotto was largely responsible for the various environs inside Rivera. We were able to speak with Sotto and Sedlar about the three distinct areas within the restaurant, and the three different culinary plans being developed for each environment.

Above, we see the so-called Samba Lounge, which serves as Rivera's main space. Here, you'll find the restaurant's glass-walled wine cave, the ever-popular mixology bar, a 40-foot row of banquettes (where we were seated) backed by an electronic mural, as well as an octet of Sotto-designed bronze-and-leather Tequila Chairs. Chef Sedlar informed us that, eventually, this area will serve a selection of South American fare, which will include a tasting menu option.

Playa Bar and Communal Table
Attached to the Samba room is the Playa Bar and adjacent communal table. Inspired by the Pacific and Caribbean coasts, the idea here is to have a no-reservations-required area where guests can watch food being prepared at the raw bar. By early next year, the hope is to have a menu comprised of Mexican-tinted specialties.

Sangre Room
The final environment is the Iberian-inspired Sangre Room, easily the most formal space, with its placid vibe, white tablecloths, conquistador helmet lamps, and striking blood red chandelier. The name, which translates to "blood," is a nod to the Spanish conquest of Latin America. The menu here will expectedly be Spanish in origin, and may even be a tasting menu-only affair.

Rivera Super Añejo Tequila Rivera Super Añejo Tequila
In the Sangre Room, the most obvious design elements are the two golden walls of tequila, described by Sotto as "drinkable architecture." The tequila is Sedlar's own handcrafted super añejo, which is protected under lock and key and only available to members (their names are inscribed on the bottles). Sedlar offered us a whiff from a bottle, and it was heady and intoxicating indeed. He hinted that servings of the extra-aged tequila would be available as part of the tasting menus here.

Rivera Kitchen
We were then given a tour of the kitchen. Above, we see the hot station. The cold station sits immediately across from it, which is also where you'll find the immersion circulators.

Rivera Stencils
Wesley was particularly curious about Rivera's infamous use of stencils, so Sedlar obliged with a brief demonstration. I'll note that the stencils are created with a specific plate in mind. Including messages as part of the plating is a somewhat novel concept, one that I don't think I've seen elsewhere. We asked Sedlar about his reasoning behind it, and he responded that the idea is to stimulate conversation at the dinner table. This is why the stencils often refer to controversial topics: Madoff, the Stimulus Package, immigration, etc.

In the end, this was another strong meal at Rivera. Based on the strength of the three new dishes we tried, I'm excited for the rollout of the restaurant's revamped menu. I'm especially curious about the tasting menu options that will eventually be offered here, given my preference for the degustation format. My only concern is that the establishing of three different menus for three different dining areas may overextend the kitchen. Sedlar noted that the full implementation should be complete early next year--we'll be eagerly awaiting.

Rivera Exterior