Monday, January 24, 2011

Aburiya Toranoko (Los Angeles, CA)

Aburiya Toranoko
243 S San Pedro St, Los Angeles, CA 90012
Mon 01/24/2011, 08:00p-11:35p

Aburiya Toranoko Exterior
Without a doubt, Lazy Ox Canteen was one of the most acclaimed additions to the Downtown dining scene within the past year or so. The man behind Lazy Ox is one Michael Hide Cardenas, head of Innovative Dining Group. Over the years, IDG has introduced Angelenos to such "hip" places as Sushi Roku, BOA, Robata Bar, Katana, and Delphine, so it's nice to see that Cardenas is now focusing more on the food than the scene. Cardenas' latest project is Aburiya Toranoko (grill house of the tiger--yes, we're still technically in the year of the tiger), a foray into the world of Japanese izakaya cuisine (he himself is half-Japanese, and used to work as a teppan chef) formed in partnership with auto parts mogul Eugene Inose, head of Pro-Motion Distributing. The restaurant officially opens on January 26th, but I was invited to a complementary pre-opening preview on Monday (following a grand opening party on Sunday, which I did not attend).

Cardenas once served as the GM of Matsuhisa, so it's no surprise that Toranoko is helmed by a couple Nobu protégés. The Executive Chef/Partner is Hisaharu Kawabe, a 15-year veteran of the Matsuhisa empire. He's aided by Kitchen Chef Manuel Taku Sugawara and "Sushi Sous Chef" Koji-san. The General Manager is another Nobu-ite, Mikio "Tommy" Tomioka, while Kurtis Wells (ex-Hatfield's) takes charge of the beverages. Overall, the staff aims to instill a Lazy Ox-esque vibe to the place: casual, no frills, affordable, and non-sceney (unless you consider hipster a scene).

Aburiya Toranoko Interior
Toranoko sits literally right next door to Lazy Ox. The space maintains a similar atmosphere, with an über-long communal table, leather banquets on one wall (beneath a huge Murakami-inspired mural on brick, painted by graffiti artist Prime), a bar along another, and the sushi station in the back. Total capacity is around 100.

Aburiya Toranoko Menu Aburiya Toranoko Beverage Menu
The izakaya menu is vast, broken down into seven distinct sections. There's something for everyone here, from your California Roll- and edamame-eaters to the more adventurous types who prefer fermented squid guts (shiokara), pig's feet (tonsoku), or stewed beef tripe (motsu nikomi). To imbibe, we're talking about plenty of sake, wine (red/white/sparkling/plum), beer, and Japanese-y type cocktails. Click for larger versions.

Orion Draft Lager Coedo Premium Lager Iwate Kura Bakushu Oyster Stout
We chose to start with some biru: the Orion Draft Lager [$9], sort of an archetypal Japanese rice lager; the Coedo Premium Lager [$8], a happoshu made from sweet potatoes; and Iwate Kura Bakushu Oyster Stout [$8], the most interesting of the bunch, with prototypical stout flavors of chocolate and coffee, finished with an intriguing tang (oyster?) on the close.

White fish sashimi with pomegranate
White fish sashimi with pomegranate [$12.00]
The meal got off to a strong start with a superb presentation of sashimi. The whitefish's fresh, delicate flavor played well with the sweetness of the pomegranate seeds, and I appreciated the slight astringent component contributed from the greens. What was even better, though, was the dish's subtle bit of creeping heat.

Colorado black pork kakuni braised
Colorado black pork kakuni braised [$8.00]
Kakuni refers to a dish of braised pork belly, similar in nature to a Chinese hong shao ro. As expected, you had rich, dark, sweet, and umami-tinged flavors paired with a melt-in-your-mouth tender consistency. Disks of daikon, meanwhile, came prepared in a similar manner, while the smudge of mustard and topping of scallion helped temper the substantial weight of the meat.

Yanagita seafarms uni goma tofu
Yanagita seafarms uni goma tofu [$8.00]
Goma dofu is a dish that I first tasted at Urasawa, and basically consists of a mix of water, sesame paste, and kudzu powder. The tofu was mild and dense, with soft overtones of sesame finished by subtle hints of uni and soy. One of my dining companions even described this as "like a poem," though I wanted a more forceful presence from the sea urchin.

Pork and vegetable okonomiyaki pancake
Pork and vegetable okonomiyaki pancake [$8.00]
Okonomiyaki arrived in a tasty, textbook preparation, a fitting version of the ubiquitous "Japanese pancake" teeming with sweet, savory, and smoky flavors. A multifaceted affair, deftly balanced by the inclusion of beni shoga pickle.

Negima chicken and green onions
Negima chicken and green onions [$4.00]
Negima specifically refers to a yakitori dish made with chicken and negi (leek). The bird here was soft, rich, and heavily flavored, an amalgam of sweet and soy flavors to pair with the leek.

House made shiokara marinated intestines
House made shiokara marinated intestines [$5.00]
Shiokara is a delicacy made from fermented seafood internals, and not surprisingly, it was one of the more adventurous dishes of the night. As you'd expect, the shiokara was very salty, very briny, with a strong lingering fishiness. I believe the version here at Toranoko was made from ika, so it had a somewhat chewy texture typical of the squid.

Mochi kinchaku rice cake
Mochi kinchaku rice cake [$5.00]
Next up was a mochi glutinous rice cake enrobed with a deep-fried soybean curd sheet. The mochi itself had almost no taste, and thus most of the flavor here came from the tofu essence of its wrapper.

Skin [$3.00]
Chicken skin, or torikawa, was next. Crisp and savory, with a slight bitter char, just like you'd expect.

Takana croquette of mashed potato and mustard leaf
Takana croquette of mashed potato and mustard leaf [$8.00]
Korokke (croquettes) of mashed potato were tasty, with a very pure, mild potato flavor nicely complemented by the heavy savor of its accompanying dipping sauce.

Natto kinchaku
Natto kinchaku [$4.00]
Natto is a dish of fermented soybean, and was, for me, easily the most challenging dish of the evening. This was actually my first time having natto, and I wasn't a huge fan, finding the flavor extremely pungent, way stronger than any cheese I've had, and quite unlike anything else that I've ever eaten. Definitely an acquired taste.

Kikusui Aged Funaguchi Ginjo Nama Genshu, Niigata
Sake out of a can, now this was a first for me. The Kikusui Aged Funaguchi Ginjo Nama Genshu [$13] is a one-year aged namazake genshu, or unpasteurized, undiluted sake. It actually wasn't bad, a viscous, sweet, eminently drinkable sake perfect for quaffing.

Vegetable [$8.00]
Vegetable rolls were appropriately light and bright, with the crisp flavor of the veggies playing nicely with the seaweed. Nice crunch here, too.

Toranoko french mountain potato fries with plum aioli
Toranoko french mountain potato fries with plum aioli [$7.00]
Here were some frites made from yamaimo, or Japanese mountain yam. The fries yielded an intriguing texture--slightly crunchy, gritty, and mucilaginous all at the same time. They didn't have much flavor of their own, so the included aioli was a necessary accoutrement.

Cherry tomato in bacon
Cherry tomato in bacon [$4.00]
Tomato and bacon, grilled--hard to go wrong here. Indeed, I quite liked the globules, with their sweet, juicy succulence paired with the sharp saltiness of bacon. Yum.

Tender beef
Tender beef [$5.00]
Tender beef, ironically, could've been more tender. I also wanted more seasoning, more kick, more beefiness from the dish, though I did like the bit of overarching citric tang.

Kinoko zosui porridge of rice and egg
Kinoko zosui porridge of rice and egg [$8.00]
Zosui is basically a rice soup, prepared here with egg and kinoko (mushroom). It was arguably my favorite course of the night, a hearty, heartwarming concoction of mild rice and earthy, savory mushroom, heightened by the tang of the included greenery. This was something that I could just eat a whole big bowl of.

Heart [$3.00]
Hatsu, or chicken heart yakitori was up next. The meat was appropriately flavorsome, with a snappy, slightly chewy consistency to boot.

Hisa Kawabe, Tommy Tomioka, Josie Mora
Chef/Partner Hisa Kawabe, General Manager Tommy Tomioka, Josie Mora.

Tsukune meatballs
Tsukune meatballs [$6.00]
Tsukune is a yakitori skewer of ground chicken. The flavors here were particularly deep and heady, and the bird went wonderfully with its accompaniment of raw egg yolk.

New Union farms sizzling mushroom with red cheddar cheese tobanyaki
New Union farms sizzling mushroom with red cheddar cheese tobanyaki [$9.00]
It's been years since I've had a mushroom tobanyaki, so I particularly relished this dish. The shrooms--oysters, enokis, and shiitakes--were unabashedly decadent, dripping with buttery goodness, yet still showing off characteristic mushroom flavor.

Live freshwater eel / Kohada / Shiromi Shiromi / Kohada / Live freshwater eel
Live freshwater eel [$13.00]
Kohada [$8.00]
Shiromi [$6.00]
Sushi time! We ordered the day's specials, unagi (eel) and kohada (gizzard shad), as well as the shiromi, or whitefish (fluke on this night). The eel was the standout of the trio. It was perhaps the most unique presentation of the fish that I've ever had, with a pure, exquisite flavor unadorned by the application of the typical sweet sauce. I also appreciated its crisp, delicate skin and subtle yuzu notes. The shad, meanwhile, was archetypical of the style, with a firm flesh and delightfully fishy essence. Finally, we had the hirame, very soft in texture, with a mild flavor--quite nice.

Rin 'Organic', Fukushima
Our final libation of the evening was the Rin "Organic" sake from Fukushima [$25]. This was a more balanced sake compared to the Kikusui above, with more acidic and alcoholic notes to complement the sake's rice-y sweetness.

Tiger shrimp tempura with curry aioli
Tiger shrimp tempura with curry aioli [$12.00]
Shrimp, unfortunately, arrived overcooked, making for a tough, rather than supple, consistency that I took issue with. I did, however, enjoy the paired curry aioli.

Sauce yakisoba with pork
Sauce yakisoba with pork [$9.00]
Here was sosu yakisoba, or the Japanese riff on Chinese chow mein. I enjoyed the noodles and pork, but found the topping of yakisoba sauce too saccharine for my tastes. The beni shoga pickles, though, did do a nice job in countervailing some of that sweetness.

Jidori fried chicken with oroshi sesame
Jidori fried chicken with oroshi sesame [$9.00]
Karaage of Jidori chicken was expectedly delicious. I found the bird tender, succulent, and laced with hearty umami-tinged flavor. I could've eaten an entire bucket.

Green tea pudding
Green tea pudding [$6.00]
Our sole dessert consisted of a green tea pudding topped with various berries. I rather enjoyed it, finding the slightly astringent nature of the green tea a fitting complement to the sweetness of the fruit. A nice way to cap off the evening.

Based on this early preview, it looks like Toranoko is off to an encouraging start. The place has a cool-casual vibe, a promising menu, and some lovely flavors to work with: deep, lusty, and rustic--down home Japanese. As for what's next for Cardenas, apparently he's still working on two more restaurant projects for LA, including a tapas-focused Spanish concept with BLVD's former chef, Perfecto Rocher. Keep an eye out for those in the coming months.

Hisaharu Kawabe, Michael Cardenas
Hisaharu Kawabe, Michael Cardenas


Anonymous Darin said...

Oyster stout?! Now that's an interesting one.

Great variety of dishes here - I'll be sure to be check in very soon.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011 8:43:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The stuff looks good, reminiscent of my many many late night Tokyo meals. Is it actually part of IDG? I've never been a fan of Sushi Roku, Katana, BOA etc. They're style over substance. Particularly Roku which is actually very mediocre sushi. Lazy Ox is great though, too bad I hate to go downtown to eat (too far).

Wednesday, January 26, 2011 8:50:00 AM  
Blogger Charlie Fu said...

was dinner free/discounted as a preview? thought they didn't open till today (and your pictures show a very empty restaurant).

Wednesday, January 26, 2011 10:59:00 AM  
Anonymous Marian the Foodie said...

OOOO! Bookmarked! I want to check this place out

Wednesday, January 26, 2011 12:58:00 PM  
Blogger kevinEats said...

Darin: Yeah, they say that it's brewed with oysters. I thought I tasted some brine on the finish, but maybe it was because I was looking for it.

Andy: I may be wrong, but i don't think that Toranoko (or Lazy Ox for that matter) falls under the IDG umbrella. I think they're more of Cardenas' "passion projects."

Charlie: Yeah the food was comped (mentioned in first paragraph!), though not the sake. The restaurant officially opens today. The place was fairly packed; it's just that I took the photo at the very end of the night.

Marian: Right on. BTW, thanks for setting up the event yesterday!

Wednesday, January 26, 2011 8:07:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Kevin, how would you say Toranoko compares with Izayoi and Honda-Ya? For yakitori, I'd stick to Kokekokko-- especially if you are or go with a regular :)

Thursday, January 27, 2011 1:37:00 PM  
Blogger KrisDub said...

'the izakaya menu is vast'... more like overwhelming! I'm going to have to get over there and check it out. Thanks for the heads up.

Friday, January 28, 2011 2:25:00 PM  
Blogger lynn said...

woah this place looks awesome! i love the grafitti too

Friday, January 28, 2011 2:34:00 PM  
Blogger kevinEats said...

Daniel: For sushi, I'd probably give a slight edge to Izayoi, and the other stuff is comparable. Haven't been to Honda-Ya, so no comment there. As for Kokekokko, it's still my place for the best yakitori, but only if you're VIP status.

Kristen: Overwhelming indeed. It's best to tackle with a few people. ;)

Lynn: Check out some of Prime's other work here!

Sunday, January 30, 2011 6:53:00 PM  
Blogger Cookie Chomper said...

before I make a trek just for this, rate it, 1-10. izakaya standard

Wednesday, February 02, 2011 10:42:00 AM  
Blogger kevinEats said...

I dunno, 7? I don't have much experience with izakayas, so I lack proper bases of comparison.

Monday, February 07, 2011 1:07:00 AM  

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