Friday, March 11, 2011
Foodie Fridays: Aburiya Toranoko
First order of business is to send thoughts and prayers out to those affected by the devastating tsunami today. This post is dedicated to Japan.
I started salivating immediately when I first got wind that Michael Cardenas, head chef of the Lazy Ox Canteen, one of my favorite L.A. dining spots, was opening a new restaurant. I discovered that it was to be called Aburiya Toranoko, and it would serve Japanese izikaya-style cuisine, as well as sushi. To top it off, I learned that it was located conveniently right next door to the Lazy Ox. This meant there would be no time or effort necessary to Google-map the new location—time and effort that could be much better spent studying the menu on the restaurant's website and drooling some more.
In the age of the celebrity chef, the name of a restaurateur or executive chef/taste-maker has become increasingly important information when making the difficult decision of where to dine. It often guides diners’ stomachs and wallets more powerfully than the type of cuisine, the location, or even the atmosphere. (Who wouldn’t prefer dinner from a truck named Ludo over an overpriced and oversalted dish on a white table cloth?) Point being, the Cardenas name carries a lot of weight with my palate, and so I embarked with an empty stomach and high expectations down to his latest culinary establishment in Little Tokyo.
So what did I think? Was I as impressed as I was the first time I sat down to eat at his flagship restaurant next door? The short answer is, yes—absolutely! The décor is hip and fits in with the downtown LA scene. It’s welcomes you with a sheik industrial design complete exposed brick, colorful graffiti and a lively bar. The combination of the minimalist wooden communal table and the extravagant chandelier indicates this is a choose-your-own dress code kind of place.
The most exciting thing to spot, however, was the chalkboard menu listing the several LIVE dishes for the day. The evening we visited, the offerings were octopus and eel: fresh, delicious, and still squirming.
Our entire party ordered shots of the live eel. Our waiter carefully instructed us to pour some of our sake inside each shot glass, squeeze in some lemon juice, and proceed to chug. For some of you this may sound absolutely repulsive, but for the adventurous eaters out there, it’s a must. It’s sweet, light, and packed with a punch of flavor. Of course it's not the kind of shot you want to do rounds of—but you should definitely try it once.
As for the white fish and pomegranate, I haven’t always been the biggest fan of fish and fruit, but the sweet pomegranate juice and the texture of the seeds was a bright compliment to the buttery white fish. The flavor of the white fish was still the star of the dish and the pomegranate did not overpower.
If Cardenas was my private chef or roommate, I’d probably ask him to make the seared tuna for me everyday. It set the bar for how to prepare this type of dish. Savory and served warm, the fish melts in your mouth. It was paired with delicate pieces of fried spinach leaves. A wispy and delightful texture, not at all short on salt or flavor. I’d take a bag of these over potato chips any day.
Next was the Japanese style Jidori fried chicken, lightly salted and served with a couple of lemon wedges. No need for more description than that; pretty much the best chicken nuggets you'll ever eat. :)
The braised Colorado black pork was a standout dish. Braised for hours, it almost falls apart when you put it in your mouth—it’s that tender. I imagine this is what Japanese comfort food would be like but I can’t say I have much experience with that myself. It felt classic and simple but the flavors, true to Cardenas' style were layered, complex, and elevated. I wish I had the recipe.
In regards to the sushi, a picture says a thousand words, so check out these beauties:
And for desert, we tried the green tea pudding, which we had heard a lot about. Although this was my first time eating this sweet and rich custard-like dessert, I wouldn't be surprised if pudding made like this becomes an alternative to cupcakes and frozen yogurt.
Toranoko not only boasts quality traditional Japanese food, but is innovative and contemporary in a way that only Cardenas could pull off. I suggest we all spend some more time eating well in Little Tokyo. We're lucky to have such a wonderful culinary mecca right in our own backyard.
Aburiya Toranoko, 243 S. San Pedro St., Los Angeles, CA 90012. 213.621.9500, www.toranokola.com, MAP.
Photos by Aurora Tang.
NEXT TIME on Foodie Fridays: We'll be sampling glammed up Thai street food at Night + Market, the latest venture from Talésai's Kris Yenbamroong.
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