Nice report @PorkyBelly. I was worried it might be bad (or very good). Sounds mixed.
(I’m reposting my visit here in post 3, to make it easier for new visitors to see all the pics.):
If nothing else, Los Angeles never ceases to amaze me with its wave after wave of new restaurant concepts, hole-in-the-walls, ethic eateries that seem to open up every few weeks. Enter Tsubaki, a new Izakaya for the modern era, that just opened this week.
Helmed by Chef-Owner Charles Namba (EN Japanese Brasserie, Chanterelle in New York, and Bouchon (Beverly Hills)), given the pedigree, along with Sommelier-Owner Courtney Kaplan (Decibel (New York), Domaine LA, Bestia), we weren’t sure what this Izakaya experience would turn out like. Reading @PorkyBelly’s early report, and we were even more worried.
As we entered, we were warmly greeted by what turned out to be Sommelier-Owner Courtney Kaplan, who was not only running around guiding diners with Sake pairing ideas, but also helping to wait on tables. Sommelier Kaplan mentioned she worked in Japan for a year, before coming back to the States. Her recommendations as Sommelier at Bestia were always spot on, so I was curious what a Sommelier might do for Japanese Sake.
I loved that Tsubaki wants you to choose your own Sake cup. A fun way to start the evening.
Hoyo - Kura no Hana - Junmai Daiginjo Sake (Miyagi, Japan):
This was a fantastic Sake to start the evening. It was floral, but subtle, a light natural sweetness, with an aromatic finish; just wonderful!
Sommelier Kaplan crafted the Sake Menu to focus on local Craft Sake in Japan, and it shows, with some unique and interesting selections.
Sakura Masu Tartare (Tasmanian Ocean Trout, Pickled Daikon, Salmon Roe):
This was refreshing, bright, and tasty. Sakura Masu is one of my favorite Fish, especially after an experience like Maru-san’s Sakura Masu at Mori Sushi.
While the Sakura Masu was quite fresh, its delicate, natural creaminess feels a touch “wasted” when you pile on Salmon Roe (salty, popping globules of deliciousness as well). But it works. And the Spring-like Kaiware (Daikon Radish Sprouts) gave a nice counterpoint.
The Sake pairing / recommendation was spot-on by Courtney, with the Hoyo Kura no Hana Sake pairing beautifully with this dish!
Sake-Marinated Foie Gras (Milk Bread, Pickled Crab Apples, Aged Soy):
This dish definitely started to show Chef Namba’s culinary background, and how Tsubaki might differentiate itself from the usual Izakaya (Japanese Pub). The Foie Gras Terrine was quite refined and creamy, and the Pickled Crab Apples added a nice crunch to make it stand out from the Foie Gras. The Aged Soy was a nice touch, but a bit unnecessary if you don’t like things on the salty side (the Foie Gras Terrine itself was nicely seasoned already).
Spreading it on an Asian-style Milk Bread was OK, but I’d have preferred a great, simple Baguette.
The Hoyo Sake pairing continued to stand up and work through this course as well.
Dewazakura - Oka - Ginjo Sake (Yamagata, Japan):
I’ve had Dewazakura before, but it had been a while. The Oka Ginjo Sake was a beautiful suggestion and transition to the next courses. There’s a delicate fruit-like quality on initial taste, with a much cleaner, slightly more dry finish compared to the Hoyo we just had. Wonderful!
Tsukune (Chicken Meatballs, Egg Yolk, Shichimi):
@PorkyBelly summed this up nicely: The Tsukune were nowhere near as good as Aburiya Raku’s amazing version, or even the more rustic, but also great version at Torihei. There was a crispness on the outside, but it was slightly dry-moist, crumbly, and just OK. Not bad, but when you’ve had bar-setting renditions in the same city, it’s hard to get excited about this version. I’d skip this.
2015 Francois Pinon - Trois Argiles - Vouvray - Chenin Blanc:
This was a request from my friend who wanted to try something from Courtney’s small curated Wine List on the back of the Sake Menu. Showing her Sommelier roots, this was an excellent entry. This Vouvray was sweet, aromatic and a great sipper and it worked well with our dishes at this time.
Nasu Nibitashi (Japanese Eggplant, Myoga Ginger):
This was a Chilled Eggplant dish. Chef Namba cooks this down to a creamy, almost custardy consistency, and it’s nicely seasoned. The Ginger really made this sing.
Kara-age (Buttermilk Fried Chicken, Honey Vinegar):
This was another “fusion” / tweak to the classic Kara-age dishes we’ve tried before, with the chef using a Buttermilk Fried Chicken recipe, and Honey and Vinegar. It sounded like a potentially interesting idea on paper, but execution was lacking:
The Japanese Fried Chicken was not crispy, nor crunchy. The interior was still moist and juicy (good), but some pieces were already dark (burnt batter), and oil-saturated. This was a far cry from the offerings at places like Torihei and a bunch of other old-school Japanese Izakayas we’ve visited before.
This is a case where you can see how one place might be doing a dish for years / decades, and they just have that taste; that experience; that only years and years of cooking the same thing built on a recipe even older, would yield. Kara-age is a simple, humble dish, and it just isn’t very good here. I’m hoping it’ll improve over time.
Kokuryu - Black Dragon - Junmai Ginjo Sake (Fukui, Japan):
This was something off-menu that Sommelier Kaplan brought out (the Sake Menu will rotate selections from time-to-time). The Kokuryu Junmai Ginjo was yet another wonderful progression in our exploration of Sake this evening. This was a stark contrast to the previous 2 Sake: It was smooth, clean and very dry.
Tako (Bincho-Grilled Octopus, Seaweed Vinegar, Charred Tokyo Scallion):
This was excellent: A smoky char and nice infusion of the grill, with perfectly cooked Octopus, being meaty, yet tender (not rubbery at all). By itself, I would agree with @PorkyBelly that it felt like it needed something else, but with the Kokuryu Sake recommendation from Sommelier Kaplan, this dish was elevated greatly!
While the Kokuryu by itself was clean and dry, having it with this Japanese Charcoal-infused smoky Octopus created an fantastic synergy! This was probably the best dish we had, if taken with the Sake pairing.
Uzura (Koji-Marinated Quail, Endive, Moromi Miso):
Their Quail was pretty good, with a nice char and smokiness as well. The Quail meat was juicy and tender, which was great, but by itself, it was “fine.” Not sure if we’d enjoy it just by itself with nothing else. But with the Kokuryu Sake pairing, this was another dish that stood out, but not as much as the Octopus.
Lamb (Japanese Chili, Turnip Rosemary Puree, Crispy Garlic):
Their Lamb was less successful. You really couldn’t taste the Lamb at all! Where it was from, this Lamb had zero gaminess, and all we could taste was the bitter char on the outside. The inside was juicy (which was great), but it could’ve been “meat” (of any kind) and we couldn’t tell the difference.
Whole Foods has a seasonal Icelandic Lamb, whose flavors are much more subtle than the usual Lamb they get from New Zealand, and even Icelandic Lamb had more taste than what we had here.
The Rosemary Puree was fantastic though! Ultra-smooth and creamy, this showed off Chef Namba’s skills and technique.
Kikuhime - Yamahai - Junmai Sake (Ishikawa, Japan):
This was wild! Courtney mentions this being “big” and there’s no better way to describe it. The Kikuhime Yamahai was bold, big, smack-you-in-the-face-type of Sake. By itself, especially after the Kokuryu we just had, it was a wake up call and a bit harsh at first. But she recommended it for the next course:
Kakuni (Pork Belly, Pumpkin, Mustard Greens, Arima Sansho):
Buta Kakuni is one of my favorite dishes at Izakayas: Simmered Pork Belly, how can you go wrong? However, reading @J_L’s experience on opening night, I was fearing the worst. So with morbid curiosity, we ordered Tsubaki’s version.
What a difference a day makes.
The Simmered Pork Belly was melt-in-your-mouth tender! Luscious, succulent, and just spot-on texture and tenderness, one of the better Kakuni we’ve had recently. But given @J_L’s experience (with it being not tender), I’m worried there are consistency issues that might be plaguing this kitchen currently, so buyer beware.
The actual flavors of the Kakuni Pork Belly were fine. It lacked the deeply satisfying, crave-worthy flavors found in Raku’s version, but in terms of execution this evening on tenderness and lusciousness, it was great.
And here’s where Tsubaki’s strengths show up again: That big, bold Kikuhime Sake we just had (that was kind of shocking on its own), paired beautifully here against the fatty Kakuni! Another excellent Sake pairing.
The last note about this Kakuni, even if they eventually get the flavors right: At $23 (+ tax & tip!) (@Starchtrade, they increased the price already LOL), it’s a bit absurd. As an example, Aburiya Raku’s meltingly tender, Kurobuta Pork Belly Kakuni, using quality “Black Hog” Berkshire Pork is only $13. We’ve had some great versions of Buta Kakuni over the years and at most Izakaya they are about the $9 - 13 range.
While it’s true that Tsubaki’s portion is larger (I’d say maybe +25% more), it doesn’t feel like it justifies the cost, which is more like $30 for this small dish, after tax & tip.
Hojicha Soft Serve Ice Cream:
They had a Hojicha (Roasted Japanese Green Tea) Soft Serve this evening. It was fantastic! Intensely infused with the tea, yet still creamy and sweet, it was quite unique.
Service (for just opening up this week) was excellent. Besides our main server (who was Sommelier-Owner Kaplan), other busboys and servers were always buzzing about, clearing plates, checking to see if we needed anything (without being intrusive).
Tsubaki at this point is mixed: There’s good potential, and you see excellence appear in their Sakura Masu (Tasmanian Ocean Trout) starter, in the Japanese Eggplant’s excellent custardy texture (showing cooking skills), the Grilled Octopus being just the right balance of smoky, nice crisped edges and tender, meaty interior is also noteworthy.
But then you have the disappointing Kara-age Fried Chicken, the mediocre Tsukune (Ground Chicken Meatballs), Lamb and muted flavors in the Kakuni Pork Belly (but excellent luscious texture!), and you’re not sure how this goes.
Hearing @PorkyBelly talk about the Tempura and Shrimp Rolls also being so-so (we avoided those thanks to @PorkyBelly), and you’re feeling even more unsure where this is going.
One thing is for sure: If you want to explore interesting Sake while carefully choosing some dishes, then Tsubaki is definitely worth stopping by and asking Sommelier Courtney Kaplan for recommendations. She is so knowledgeable and the Sake pairings were outstanding! It’s like having your own personal @beefnoguy K K in your back pocket.
Our experience at Tsubaki was absolutely made better by Sommelier Kaplan’s recommendations and coursing. Without that (or if you don’t feel like Sake), Tsubaki would’ve been far worse.
We’d rather go to Aburiya Raku or Morinoya over Tsubaki in terms of pure flavors, food execution, etc. But I’m hopeful over time the kitchen continues to improve, because the potential is there.
1356 Allison Avenue
Los Angeles CA 90026
Tel: (213) 900-4900