Sunday, April 10, 2016

Hamasaku: One Who Creates Food from the Sea: Smorgasbarachirashi and Uni Udon Carbonara Extraordinaire

Sushi lovers on the Westside have plenty of great options, many of them on or near Sawtelle Japantown.  So when I first heard about Hamasaku a few years back, that it was owned by Hollywood mogul Michael Ovitz, and a 'celebrity hotspot' complete with rolls named after stars who frequent the place - it immediately became associated in my mind with 'probably overpriced', and 'probably packed with trendy over-sauced rolls with playful names'.

But one visit to the secluded, surprisingly serene spot in the back corner of a strip mall on Santa Monica, and I became a fan in spite of that all. 

The heavy rustic double doors shield the bustle of two of the busiest thoroughfares in LA (the mall is located by Santa Monica and Sepulveda) away from a peaceful, bright, airy space inside.

Though the menu is indeed full of specialty rolls, yes, one even named Rick Castle, after Nathan Fillion's character on the namesake TV series - they are actually good quality, clean and tasty, and prices are affordable.  Sashimi dishes are gorgeously plated.

But the thing that really sealed the deal for me: they also offer elegant, inventive takes on Japanese dishes, raw and cooked - that are some of the most creative and beautiful I've seen and tasted.

Let's start with the visual smorgasbord that is Bara Chirashi ($34) - served at lunch only, this is Hamasaku's beautiful take on the classic chirashi, where cuts of fish and other seafood are 'scattered' (the literal meaning of the word chirashi) with veggies and egg over a bowl of sushi grade rice.

And it's not all looks - there are treasures to be found with every bite from sea urchin to briny bursts of salmon roe, to yellow tail, snapper, bits of tamago (egg omelette) and other deliciousness.

The portion may not look gigantic, but an average sized person would definitely leave satiated without ordering anything else for lunch.

Then there is the unique dish I dream of and now crave on the weekly: Uni Udon Carbonara ($20) udon, uni, butter, shallots, shiso, seaweed, lime zest, egg white.  Definitely a contender for Best Drama of the year in terms of presentation - waves of sea foam like egg whites awash over a half sea urchin shell, crested by two orange tongues of uni for powerful contrast.

I love the skillful balance of levity and decadence here: the airy egg white counters the substantive bites of fresh, springy udon noodles in rich, creamy yet somehow still light and clean tasting carbonara sauce below. 

Definitely one of my new favorite uni dishes in LA, and one that I wish would be served not only at dinner (as I would happily feast on this three meals a day if I could).

As mentioned earlier, Hamasaku's specialty rolls are not ones that sushi lovers would find unpalatable: the Asylum roll ($25) for example, with toro, lobster, avocado, asparagus, cilantro aioli was fresh, only lightly sauced and delicious.  Is it the best sushi roll I've had in the area?  Not by a long shot - I would head to Kiriko down the street if looking for high grade rolls - but I would say Hamasaku exceeded expectations, and is a good option for client or group meals, where you need the whole experience package of upscale ambience, good variety of options for people who may have different levels of preference for level of raw / austerity in their sushi.

And speaking of variety, Hamasaku also offers charcoal grilled skewers at affordable prices: I'm a fan of the Duck breast robata yaki ($4) with yuzu kosho, and they also have everything from chicken to salmon skewers. 

Many Japanese restaurants focus more on the savory, so that when it comes time for dessert you are often faced with standard mochi  or ice cream or some combination thereof. 

I love that Hamasaku offers a delicious Green Tea Budino, that is so smooth and flavorful, I would count it amongst the reasons to return to Hamasaku soon.

One other thing of note, they do have counter seating, and I appreciate that the staff are very solo diner friendly, as someone often in need of places to have dinner while waiting for rush hour traffic to die down.  And you never know who you're going to meet the next seat over, and I don't just mean celebs: on my last visit, I met an awesome UCLA doctorate professor who often dines there solo as well, and had an enlightening conversation about chemistry and diet.

All in all, a great spot for power lunching, and solo dining. Despite the stars.

On a 7 point scale:
Flavor - 6 bites  
Presentation - 6.5 bites
Originality - 6.5 bites
Ambience -  6 stars
Service - 6 stars
Overall experience - 6 bites
Price - $$ (3 bite marks)
Probability of return visit - 100% 



11043 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90025
Ph: 310.479.7636
Parking: valet, in attached strip mall open air parking

Look for reservations, and points, at OpenTable

Hamasaku Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Sunday, March 6, 2016

SHIKI: Affordable Fantastic Omakase and Washoku in Beverly Hills?!?

In the zip code synonymous with luxury, is not the place where you would most expect to find affordable and authentic ethnic cuisine.  Yet there it is, against the odds and expectation: SHIKI, helmed by talent from the kitchens of two of the sushi spots most beloved by those in-the-know in the city from Asanebo to Sushi Gen.

I have a fateful visit to the dentist in the area, and a combination of slowly-fading anesthetic and increasing hunger pangs to thank for motivating me to wander into SHIKI.  Seeing their emphasis on "washoku" (literal translation: Japanese food, but apparently references traditional Japanese cooking emphasizing harmony, respect for nature and balance in satisfying all senses) featured on their menu was the first sign that this would be a 'hidden gem' - but I had to do a triple-take when I saw that the omakase was 'only' $60 - astounding for any higher end place in the city.  It would include two appetizers, and 10 pieces of sushi of the chef's selection.

There was a moment when I worried that it would be the standard, snooze-inducing roster of yellowtail, salmon, tuna, etc. etc.  But at $60, and with my love and trust of Asanebo and Sushi Gen, I decided it was worth a try.  And it turned out to be one of the best omakase I've had in the city, especially for this price.
Appetizer #1: Agedashi tofu with tempura - every bite here is prepared with care and pride, and it shows from the start.  This tofu is perfectly silky smooth inside, and nicely fried outside, placed into the most elegant dashi (broth) and topped with two pieces of (eggplant?) tempura and shaved radish and ginger.
Appetizer #2: Seared Snapper and Barracuda with vegetables this dish too, embodied the Japanese pursuit of perfection in every detail: sweet, flaky snapper and barracuda were enhanced with the smokiness (and structure) from torching, and again the refreshing, light yet complex dashi, and chilled bites of boiled eggplant, juicy earthy mushrooms, and bright leaves of perfectly cooked spinach.

Then the sushi started arriving piece by piece, traditional style where you can tell the chef respects every beautiful cut of fish he puts in front of you.  Sushi #1: Snapper
I was lucky enough to be placed in head chef Hiro's care, and I need not have worried about the faux omakase some other popular sushi spots serve, where the courses are the same every day, to every diner. These would be the freshest cuts of the day, and I like to think, served based on the chef's interactions with you (he watches your reaction to each piece for feedback before serving the next one).

Here's what I got for the rest of my omakase rolls:
Sushi #2: Squid with ginger and ponzu.- loved the fresh crunch and well balanced savory/sweet with a kick from the ginger and wasabi
Sushi #3: Tuna
Sushi #4: Seared toro (one of my favorite bites of the meal, decadently fatty with just the right amount of smokiness and the whole thing just melts in your mouth and makes your eyes roll back as a gentle moan inadvertently escapes from your lips)
Sushi #5: Barracuda, gorgeously seared and sliced / shaped in such a way that it was somehow evocative to me of an origami armadillo
Sushi #6: Baby toro with ponzu jelly, scallion and ginger
Sushi #7: Sea perch torched for smokiness in perfect balance with the natural sweetness of the fish (chef described it as 'like white fish toro')
Sushi #8: Ikura (salmon roe) marinated in sardine dashi and steamed.  This was another creative departure from the traditional roll - the process of marinating and steaming both pulled back the bright brininess typical of salmon roe, and intensified the umami by introducing another fish element.  Delicious.
Sushi #9: Octopus brushed with a sauce made from tea, lentils and gyoza sauce - this one really exhibited the creativity of the team - they do traditional sushi really well, but also will do some creative things I've never seen at any other sushi spot.  Chef Hiro explained that with this one, they do cut the octopus a little bit thicker, intentionally so that as you bite into the piece and the 'meat' breaks apart, it releases the aromas upwards into your palate.  A fantastic piece to experience!
Sushi #10: Uni (sea urchin) from Santa Barbara, of course one of my favorite bites as an uni addict!!!

I would have been satiated just with the $60 omakase, but I was enjoying the meal so much that I went for the add-on (which by the way was only $20 for an extra 5 pieces of sushi!!! Amazing deal!) 

Extra sushi #1: Amberjack
Extra sushi #2: Shima aji

Extra sushi #3: so, I loved the seared toro so much that I decided to ask for another piece within my extra 5, risking the chance at trying one more type of fish that I might have also fawned over - because I knew I would not be able to sleep that night without having another bite of that proof of divine design. 

Extra sushi #4: chopped toro with pickled radish  this was an interesting one without rice, and a lovely crunches of radish sending bursts of acidity to cut through the fatty fish.  Tasty.

Extra sushi #5: sea eel - from Japan; this is not the oversauced eel that you get at lesser sushi spots - but a fresh one, lightly sauced so that you can still taste the eel itself, and served hot.

And as a reward for my seemingly endless stomach, Chef Hiro also gave me a block of tamago (sweet egg omelette)

Although all that sushi was a lot of food already, I wasn't ready to leave without tasting a few bites from the washoku menu.

Not having known that the first appetizer of omakase was going to be tofu, I also ordered the Goma tofu: unfortunately turns out this was a bit too dense and 'sticky' for me.  I definitely preferred the agedashi tofu.
Momotaro with blue crab, in ume dashi dressing with ohba leaf (half portion $3 + $6 supplement for crab).  a beautiful perfect tomato - jewel toned inside - is served with fresh bits of blue crab in a vinegar-based dressing.  Momotaro is a Japanese tomato that is less acidic than the ones served in American salads, and only slightly sweet. This was a lovely way to feature the humble tomato, but I didn't find this dish as mindblowing as the next one (hmmm, no ingredient based bias there...;))

Then there was the show stopping Uni Shiokara sea urchin brined, then steamed and made into a paste and served with neat, crispy strips of toasted seaweed, and fresh wasabi.
You put a bit of the uni paste inside the seaweed, add a bit of wasabi, then down it goes like a Japanese taco.  The brining, steaming and pasting technique is interesting in that it made the texture more dense, and amplified the natural funk of fresh uni and made it more pungent (in the best way).

Serving it with toasted seaweed to add crisp crunch to counterbalance the richness of the uni paste was perfect.

Loved this dish!!!!

There were so many more washoku dishes I wanted to try, including a few A5 wagyu ones, but I'd tested the limits of my stomach capacity, and by this time I'd also pushed past their official closing time.  But I vowed to be back again soon!

(And for sake / Japanese whiskey fans: SHIKI also serves tasting flights of sake for $18, as well as award winning whiskeys like Yamazaki, and interesting ones like Akashi White Oak.)

All in all, omakase at SHIKI is a fantastic deal that I would definitely return for, even without a dentist visit as my excuse to be in the area - I would drive out for this, one that I now consider among my favorite sushi (and washoku) spots in the city.

On a 7 point scale:
Flavor - 6 bites  
Presentation - 6.5 bites
Originality - 6 bites
Ambience -  6 stars
Service - 7 stars
Overall experience - 6.5 bites
Price - $$$ (3 bite mark)
Probability of return visit - 100% 



410 N. Canon Drive, Beverly Hills, CA 90210
Ph: 310.888.0036
Parking: lunch: free for first 2 hours; dinner: $5 flat fee for entry after 6pm, in public structure below Crate & Barrel (short walk)


Shiki Beverly Hills Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Monday, February 15, 2016

Bourbon Steak: Power Lunching at The Americana by Michael Mina (Yes, in Glendale!)

Suburbia: a 'safe haven' typically for those who find predictability and conformity comforting.  In the food & bar space, this usually means chain restaurants serving familiar, passable middle-of-the-road fare, consistently.

The Caruso group, whether or not you're a fan, has undisputedly done a lot to disrupt the concept of a shopping mall and its potential to be a shop/eat/play destination at a much higher quality than we'd  seen in most other complexes in California.  The Americana at Brand is one example where management has strategically brought together global brands, and better diversity in sit-down dining options.

Bourbon Steak is one that I would say I am most excited about, and the biggest reasons are right there in and behind the name.  Their craft cocktail / bar program is sophisticated, especially those featuring a well curated selection of lesser known bourbon and whiskey.  And their steaks are dry-aged and I would say among the best that I've had in the city, but they don't stop at the one thing - other dishes on the menu take popular staples and elevate them to a new level with unexpected combinations of flavors, and clear pride in quality of ingredients (befitting of renowned chef Michael Mina, owner).

The first thing we encountered when seated in the elegant dining room was the Bourbon / Whiskey cart, from which Bourbon Steak offers tastings, right there tableside.  But, since we were there to check out the new lunch menu, and hadn't eaten anything that morning - we forced ourselves to wait, and do the tasting for dessert.
That of course did not stop us from checking out their cocktail list.  When our hostess (who is also the sommelier there) heard that I'd been getting into Japanese whiskys, she recommended one of the seasonal specials: Golden Crane ($18) with Akashi white oak Japanese whisky, honey, lime, and True Roots smoked ginger syrup.  A light, refreshing and instantly addictive take on the classic Penicillin.  I  loved the gorgeous, perfectly balanced smokiness that draws the nose more than the palate with the carefully controlled sweet and tart.  All in a smooth delivery that is all about levity.  If there is any another place that serves cocktails of this caliber in Glendale, they've hidden it well.  I couldn't get enough of this one and already decided we'd be back soon for another round, before we'd even gotten to the food.

As an amuse, a trio of fries came to our table with three different toppings and dipping sauces: this is a signature tray from Michael Mina, and I loved the truffle parmesan fries the most (without the sauce). (They serve a lunch-sized portion for $5)

Then there was Michael's Tuna Tartare ($19) another signature dish of the chef's, which is not your regular old found-on-every-trendy-restaurant-menu tuna tartare.  His is served with asian pear, quail egg, scotch bonnet, pinenuts, and sesame oil: an unexpected combination of spice (from the scotch bonnet chiles) and subtle sweetness (from the pear) with savory, tender yet structured morsels of fish, and crisp crunch from the pine nuts  The plate is mixed again tableside, and served with toast points. Definitely one of our favorites from the meal, and a favorite take on the dish vs anywhere in the city.

The Duck Spring Rolls ($14) at first, we were skeptical as to whether it would just be a western take on the Chinese staple, with a simple substitution of protein, but this dish was SpEcTaCuLaR.  Using a french technique, feuilles de brick, with the wrapper - that repelled fry oil - they were able to achieve a cleaner crunch, which was perfectly balanced with the freshest lettuce wraps the rolls were wrapped in.  Ginger-chili dipping sauce brought just the right amount of heat to the whole umami / subtly sweet dish.

The Chilled Crab Soba Noodles ($22) similarly mixed cuisines, with Japanese soba served with thai chili and asparagus, carrots, tomato, peanuts.  This one was pretty, and a good option for those looking for a bit of a lighter healthier dish, but not as wake-up-the-next-day-craving-seconds-good as the other appetizers.

While Bourbon Steak also offers an affordable 3-course prix fixe business lunch for $28 that allows office workers to do quick ins-and-outs, it was the Wood-Fired Grill section that really drew our attention: the Ribeye 18oz ($54 - picture to the left is just half of the steak, as I split one with  @foodventure to allow us to taste more dishes) was dry-aged in house, beautifully marbled and seared perfectly to smokey char outside, and juicy, tender, gorgeous medium rare inside.  This was definitely the best steak I'd had in the SFV, and one of the best in LA.
For those not on corporate cards / client lunches, the burger section offers relatively more affordable quality a la carte: The Blue Burger ($19) with blue cheese, caramelized onion, truffle aioli, mushroom.  The patties in Bourbon Steak's burgers are mixed with A5 wagyu, so they are super packed with luscious fat and flavor! 

This wagyu and blue cheese fan was definitely satisfied.

Aside from steak and burgers, pastas are also on the menu. We loved the flavorful Duck Bolognese ($26) with black pomodoro, fresh house made tagliatelle.

We tried the Chocolate Pot de Creme to sample a dessert (tasty), but all the anticipation had been building towards the bourbon cart for the finish! 

And yes, the bourbon cart is available for both lunch and dinner!  They will regularly put three bourbon / whiskeys on rotation, and you can get a tasting flight of all three for $30. The cart is brought tableside, with silver platters of ingredients to pair with each drink.

As you can see in the video below, each one is torched to release aromas designed to accentuate corresponding flavor profiles in each spirit.

Here are the pairings from our tasting:

  • Larceny with orange peel

  • Templeton Rye with cinnamon

  • 1792 (aged 9 years) with sugar cubes - this one was my favorite with caramel notes and the smoked sugar evoked the tops of creme brulee

To help customers discover / learn more about top shelf whiskeys, Bourbon Steak runs a special promotion, Whiskey Wednesdays, where you can taste three featured labels for $5 each. Can't think of a better way to get through hump days.

All in all, a fantastic spot for a real Mad Men style power lunch, or just a highly indulgent one when mere mortals have the occasion to splurge.  And for those who want to learn more about whiskys / bourbons from very knowledgeable, world class service staff.  Happy Hour is daily from 4-7pm which is a great time to get access to the fantastic cocktail program as well.

With Hollywood heavyweights like Disney, Warner Bros, Universal and Technicolor all in the surrounding neighborhoods, I could definitely see Bourbon Steak being a go-to for power lunches, client dinners and elevated happy hour.

Deals alert: 

*Disclaimer: this meal was hosted.


Bourbon Steak
237 S Brand Blvd, Glendale, CA 91204
Ph: 818.839.4130


Parking:  Structure at The Americana at Brand

Look for reservations (and rewards points!) at OpenTable.


Bourbon Steak Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato


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