This past Sunday I was invited to a night of Japanese culinary and cultural celebration by my friend Bill that began with my first experience with Izakaya (Japanese tapas) and ended with a dance performance at the Japanese American Cultural Center in Los Angeles.
We chose the restaurant Aburiya Tokanoko because of its across the street proximity to the theater but also because we had both been reading exemplary reviews of the place that offered more than sushi and was rumored to have a bar staffed with an exquisite mixologist.
The restaurant, dimly lit and bustling with street energy, offered a New York meets Tokyo style ambiance with its graffiti mural along one wall and triptych above the sushi bar that was reminiscent of old traditional Japanese tiger, nature and warrior paintings. The service was a tad bit slow but the meal was memorable.
I love places where you can order a bunch of small plates and share them. We quickly chose a round of dishes that appealed to us, deciding to forego the sushi since we could get sushi anywhere and there were too many delights on the menu to tantalize us away from that usual fare. I imagine all of our dishes, if they had been dumbed down a bit in ingredient and price, could easily mirror things we might find at two a.m. on any Tokyo street side food vendor's cart. Although I thought our order wasn't going to be enough for dinner, as sizes here range on the very small side of the scale, I was pleasantly full at the end of our meal. It reminded me that when you order a bunch of small things and enjoy them with relish, taking your time between bites of creatively concocted cuisine, you actually have enough time to feel full and not overindulge.
Pickled Octopus with Cucumbers
Perfectly seasoned with just the amount of sweet pickled tang, this cold and refreshing starter was full of julienned, chewy bits of octopus and thin slices of refreshing cucumber intensified by the subtle nuttiness of sesame seeds that packed a lot of punch in each bite.
Eggplant with Sweet Miso
This was my favorite dish of the meal. I love eggplant and order it whenever I see it on a menu, always surprised at the myriad ways it can be cooked, seasoned and textured. This now competes with the the warm julienned eggplant, mozarella, corn and olive oil salad I ate daily at a bistro in Venice, Italy six years ago as my top eggplant dish. Boiling hot chunks of eggplant swimming in a creamy, warm sweet miso paste and topped with the added crunch of sprinkled sesame seeds. I will order this again and may make a special trip just because of this dish. Comfort food in small bites.
"Chikuwabu" Fish Cake
My dinner companion was not that fond of this dish but I liked it. For those who are not into "fishy" tastes, stay away, but those who love the taste of the ocean like I do, order away! It's an acquired taste for sure. A dense, chewy roll swimming in a sauce of pure briny delight, made even better when powered up by a dab of the accompanying specially made yellow wasabi sauce. The sea, the fire, and the flesh in one concise mouthful.
Extremely spicy little plump and delicious shrimp full of fire that popped in the mouth and seared the tongue.
BBQ Pig's Feet
The restaurant serves up an alternative chef's specials menu nightly depending on whatever they have around for that day. We asked the waitress what we should order for the evening in this spirit and she pointed to an adjoining table where the patrons were slurping bones joyously. So we ordered the BBQ pork feet in the spirit of Anthony Bourdain and were pleasantly surprised. Although you had to literally wield around bones and between toes to get the elusive slivers of gelatinous, chewy, and tiny chunks of meat amounting to probably only a few bites in the overall experience, it was fun and very tasty in a sweet caramelized meaty way.
Shiso Leaf Vodka Infused Martini
The place has the ordinary list of good sakes, Asian beers and rice or traditional wines and my dinner companion who is a straight up martini man stuck safely with those. I am typically a Sapporo girl in joints like this but because I am always tantalized by the words "expert mixologist" I decided to try a cocktail. My first attempt, the Ginger Dream Martini, was a disappointment. It tasted like watered down champagne absent of vodka. But my second attempt, the Shiso leaf infused vodka martini was incredible. Floating with a giant leaf, it tasted verdant, bitter and green like the forest and is something I would definitely drink again.
Although we also ordered the White Fish Sashimi with Kiwi, we were both not pleased with the thinnest ever slices of fish that were almost transparent and swimming with a thick kiwi sauce that was way too sweet that it overpowered the fish that was hardly there to begin with.
I would like to go back to see if this is the case with all the sushi or not and will definitely go back for a fresh round of untried tapas in the future until I conquer the entire menu!