Los Angeles, CA 90034
By now, most food enthusiasts in town have heard of Totoraku, an invite-only yakiniku restaurant in West LA that takes pride in its exclusivity. Some say that an invite to the restaurant is as hard to obtain as one to Noma; one has to be invited by a friend of the chef or a previous diner who had “earned” the right of a return visit, and said nominator has to personally vouch for you. While an invite to Yamakase isn’t nearly as hard, the principles are similar. It’s technically an invite-only restaurant, but technically all you have to do is fill out a reservation request form on the restaurant’s website. They actually replied to my request within a hour, and I confirmed shortly after (although I’m not sure if my request for a month out made the process easier).
Yamakase operates out of a nondescript location in the Palms area (without signage, obviously). The man in charge here is Kiyoshiro Yamamoto, who used to work at The Hump before its closing. There is only one seating a night (although Yama-san said that there are sometimes two seatings on weekends), where diners can expect a kaiseki-esque meal of around 20 courses at approximately $200/person. The beverage situation here is BYOB, and pretty much every diner takes advantage of the policy. For our dinner, Lawrence and I decided to pick up a 6-pack of Asahi Black and a small bottle of sake from the Mitsuwa on the way (nothing fancy, but went well with our long dinner). The restaurant is just one long counter that seats up to 10 diners, and everything is prepped and prepared by Yama-san behind the counter (including the hot kitchen items – behind the counter is a full kitchen). We had 19 courses for our dinner a little over a week ago, and below is each course listed in order:
Cucumber Topped w/ Ikura, Osetra Caviar, & Hokkaido Uni
Nice start to the meal, to familiarize us w/ what’s to come. It’s nice seeing Hokkaido uni, since I’ve been having the Santa Barbara/San Diego varieties. Brings a different, delicious brininess to the table.
Hotaru Ika w/ Plum Sauce & Mountain Peach
Hotaru ika – it’s so hot right now. While most places serve it w/ a mustard miso of sorts, Yama-san served the firefly squid w/ a plum sauce that went well. The yamamomo is there as a “chaser.”
“Sunomono” of Tairagai, Jellyfish, Water Shield, Sea Beans, & Seaweed
A refreshing course w/ some ingredients unfamiliar to us. Kind of has a slime-on-slime effect here like a combination of yamaimo & okra, and a nice contrast in the firm, meaty texture of the pen shell.
Kyoto Tofu 2 Ways: (top) w/San Diego Uni & Soy; (bottom) w/ Marinated Tomato, Olive Oil, & Truffle Salt
2 wonderful one-biters here. The tofu from Kyoto is creamy and silky, like tofu “flower.” The subtle flavor of the tofu was enhanced by the creamy uni and sweet & tart tomato, respectively.
Steamed Ice Fish Wrapped in Cherry Blossom Leaf
This was an interesting dish. I’ve never had cherry blossom leaf before, and it had a grape leaf texture. Not much in terms of flavor, however, and the steamed ice fish itself was light too. In fact, the thing that stood out the most here is the “spicy” dried sprouts on top.
Kusshi & Quail Egg 2 Ways: (top) w/ King Crab & Sesame Cream; (bottom) w/ San Diego Uni, Yuzu, & Truffle Salt
Another duo of awesome one-biters, with Kusshi oysters being the central ingredient here. The sesame cream used in the top spoon is like a cross between the sesame paste familiar to us Chinese and a “dynamite” sauce – quite nice when contrasted with the yuzu/truffle salt flavors from the bottom spoon. Quail eggs were soft-boiled to almost a poached consistency.
Hirame w/ Yuzu & Himalayan Salt; Engawa w/ Ume Paste
Beautiful knifework w/ the halibut slices here, which went well w/ the yuzu zest and Himalayan salt shaving that Yama-san applied right before serving. To the right are 2 meaty slices of engawa (halibut fin) from the same fish, served with a ume paste.
No assembly required – just hairy crab served as is (although de-assembly is certainly required to eat). These crabs are considered a delicacy (I’ve seen whole crabs served as is on the menu for $80-$100 at various restaurants), and the flavor is certainly worthy of reputation. Here, Lawrence and I split essentially half of one. We feasted like kings.
Bluefin Tuna from Spain
Just a “cube” of bluefin tuna (which was used in several dishes that night), served w/ housemade soy and fresh wasabi. Forbidden love in its simplest form.
Bluefin Toro Tartare w/ Blue Crab, Quail Egg, & Fresh Wasabi
Besides the kegani and wagyu, these one-bite spoons were the highlight of the dinner, each one fully-loaded with various components and flavors.
Chawanmushi w/ Hirame, Sumi Ika, Uni, Dungeness Crab, Sweet Shrimp, & Gingko Nut
This was probably the most complex chawanmushi I’ve ever seen/tasted. It was quite mild upon first bite, but then the multitude of briny flavors came into play, which became apparent when we found out the number of ingredients involved. When asked, Yama-san began listing each ingredient…slowly (he might have even forgotten one or two here).
Ankimo w/ Ponzu & Sesame Cream
A hot preparation of monkfish liver w/ the same sesame cream we had in an earlier course, but somewhat reduced by the accompanying ponzu. Wonderful ankimo, but I wanted it to be just a tad bit more “melty” (like I’ve had at Sushi Zo).
Toast w/ Frozen Toro, Blue Crab, & Truffle Cheese
Yama-san got playful here (said he had been experimenting w/ this dish). It was a piece of white toast, served with blue crab, truffle cheese, and a slice of frozen toro. The toro slowly began to melt w/ each bite of this creative play on a cross between grilled cheese and blue crab/toro hand roll. I still like my toro to be not frozen, but I certainly appreciated this dish.
A5 Kagoshima Wagyu w/ Shimeji Mushroom, Daikon, Yuzukosho, & White Pepper
The ban has been lifted! Enough of the American/Australian imitators, what we have here is legit “Kobe” beef, with the requisite heavy marbling. Yama-san grilled the beef, then sauteed it lightly with shimeji mushrooms and daikon. The yuzukosho helped cut down the fattiness (it actually didn’t taste very heavy, which was good when Lawrence and I basically split an entire steak), and the white pepper added a slight kick.
The bluefin tuna/toro nigiri were great, with some of the credit going to the wonderful tuna that Yama-san had been using throughout the night, and some going to the wonderful shari used. But if there’s one real “negative” to the meal, it’s that we didn’t see a wider variety of fishes used, especially w/ regards to nigiri. Next time, I hope to try a wider variety of sushi courses.
Toro “Don” w/ Blue Crab, Kani Miso, & Hokkaido Uni
To finish us off, Yama-san threw together this amazing bowl of some drool-worthy ingredients. A truly creamy, savory, and briny overload here, and a nice-sized bowl at that. Lawrence wanted another one of these (in hand roll form).
Mountain Peach Sorbet
The sole dessert offered was a light sorbet, which I believed was mountain peach. It was refreshing, and a nice follow-up to the fairly heavy course beforehand.
Koshino no Kanbai Muku Sake
The dinner ended up being $208/person before tax & tip. At first, we were thinking that it wasn’t cheap (and it obviously wasn’t), because it wasn’t as if we received an Urasawa-sized kaiseki of nearly 30 courses. However, the kegani and wagyu courses alone had to be $50+/person, so yeah, it was more than worth it based solely on ingredients. And that’s not even why you came to Yamakase. You came to see a master itamae at work, a one-man show doing it all before your eyes, while graciously describing everything and being an all-around wonderful host and storyteller. In fact, Lawrence and I loitered around for another hour after dinner, drinking some of Yama-san’s wonderful sake (which he provided on the house, and urged us to kill the bottle) with the man himself, chatting on and on without knowing that it had been four hours already.
It was an honor and pleasure dining at Yamakase, and now that we have THE card, we can bypass the website and call/text Yama-san himself directly for reservations! But the next visit will have to wait…