Were you sitting by the window? I was wondering if there were any FTCers in the house. What did you think?
Thanks for the report. I have a reso a few weeks out.
You three really are amazing (ipsedixit too). There should be a badge for those who seek and find the newest restaurants.
Concur. Flavor-wise this pork belly was more buta arani than kakuni, except the meat wasn’t cooked tender enough to cut through with my spoon or fork (I was not issued a knife for this dish, which is usually a sign of confidence from the kitchen). My photo review will be forthcoming shortly…
Oh, and welcome to FTC!!!
Welcome to FTC, thanks for the report. I agree with you on the tsukune, the egg didn’t really add much to the dish.
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.
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
Great report @Chowseeker1999, seems like their fried dishes still needs some work and it’s a shame about the tsukune, they look so great in their pictures. I’ll have to try their kakuni next time.
Thanks @PorkyBelly. We probably would’ve skipped going, but a friend wanted to go and we had reservations already. Thanks for your early report and warnings and recommendations. That helped!
Dont Fuck with my @Chowseeker1999 when it comes to Fried Fucking Chicken!
Thanks @CiaoBob LOL.
I’m hoping it improves and there are some standouts (and great Sake) so far.
Courtney went with some fail safe choices for you that generally work great in all izakaya restaurants for that style of food.
Never tried the Hoyo Junmai Daiginjo (Kura No Hana also refers to the local sake rice) but Miyagi Prefecture sake tend to be on the lighter side, unless a brewery is fastidious enough to age them a year or two before release to make them beef up. I think this bottle is only available in 500 mL like the Koshi No Kanbai Chotokusen.
Dewazakura Oka is always a solid choice, a straight up Ginjo, but milled to 50% polish (Junmai Daiginjo upper limit rate). It’s quite floral, thus more appealing and easy to like. Another choice that will work great if you prefer significantly dryer sake, Izumi Judan (Tenth Degree) from Dewazakura, a great bone dry ginjo.
Kokuryu Junmai Ginjo (or Jun Gin as the characters say) is the perennial classic pairing with grilled food, whether izakaya or fusion. Hard not to like.
Now, the Kikuhime Yamahai Junmai, that’s super interesting for them to even offer that one. It’s not easy to find or get, and even if you can get it retail special order, it’s $60 to $70 a bottle (though I saw it at Takashimaya in Tokyo basement for like US$15, and the non Yamahai version of the Junmai for US$12 at a Shinjuku 7-Eleven…) I can see why it’s perfect with the kakuni, as Yamahai sake tend to have more acidity (sometimes a citrus twang/tone) to cut the fatty flavors, and this particular offering by Kikuhime has a particular funk to it from what I understand, that goes well with more heavier flavored foods (e.g. soy sauce braise, shuto/otsumami/marinated innards/fermented foods, greasy/fatty/heavenly proteins). This sake would probably also do very well at room temperature, and possibly be more aromatic and bolder warmed.
Thanks for the reviews on the food. It reminds me a little of Nomica in San Francisco…high pedigree chef, but perhaps trying too many different things or wanting to develop a style that ends up with inconsistencies and mixed results.
Thanks for the detailed thoughts and recommendations again @beefnoguy.
I’ll definitely keep the Izumi Judan Ginjo Sake in mind if I see it on a menu. Thanks!
Good to know about the Kikuhime Yamahai, I hadn’t seen it before, and it sounded intriguing from her description of it.
Have you seen the Izumi Judan on any menu here in the LA/OC area? Thanks!
$32.98 at Hi Time Wine in Costa Mesa
Distributor lists these LA area restaurants carrying it, best to check their websites or call to confirm.
Shabu Shabu Zen
Sushi Go 55
Yagi Japanese Restaurant
Yoji san Sushi
Thanks @beefnoguy. Surprising to see Animal have it (would’ve never thought they had a solid Sake Menu). I’ll keep it in mind the next time we’re at Mori or Animal.
I forgot to send you the Sake Menu. Curious if you have any recommendations or entries to avoid:
- Bushido Junmai Genshu - Kyoto
- Masumi Hiya Oroshi - Nagano
- Yuho - Ishikawa
- Tsuru Noe - Aizu Chushou - Fukushima
- Shichida - Nanawari Gobu 75 - Saga
- Kikuhime - Yamahai - Ishikawa - (Had this one already (listed in the review above)
- Kunimare - Ginpu - Hokkaido
- Seikyo - Takehara - Hiroshima
Ginjo & Junmai Ginjo
- Fukucho - Biho - Hiroshima
- Dewazakura - Oka - Yamagata - (Had this one also, above)
- Harada - Muroka Nama Genshu - Yamaguchi
Daiginjo & Junmai Daiginjo
- Hoyo - Kura no Hana - Miyagi - (Had this one also, pics above)
- Masumi - Nanago Yamahai - Yamagata
- Tamagawa - Kinsho - Kyoto
- Tsuki no Katsura - Honjozo Nigori - Kyoto
- Kamo Izumi - Ginjo Nigori - Hiroshima
- Gunma Izumi - Yamahai Junmai - Miyagi
It’s a decent spread. Looks like they are using about three different distributors to curate their sake list.
Yuho’s probably my favorite from the Junmai lineup (provided it is the purple label, not yellow which is the Kimoto version) and is perfect for izakaya and yakitori when mildly chilled. Super affordable too at retail to enjoy at home. Aizu Chushou Junmai is another good one that has characteristics similar to Yuki No Bosha’s Junmai.
Fukucho Junmai Ginjo is supposed to be pretty good too, a bit softer (owing to the use of Hiroshima water)
Nanago is very good, though I never paired it with izakaya style food. The higher acidity is exceptionally fun, like tartness in a good white wine.
Tamagawa might be interesting to try. The master brewer is a British expat (Philip Harper)…so that makes him the Ivan Orkin of the sake brewing world.
… and here it is.
A question for @beefnoguy: What is your take on draft sake? It’s a relatively new trend here in L.A. And I don’t recall seeing it much in Japan (or maybe I’m going to the wrong izakayas)…
@J_L: In short: it’s definitely an area worth exploring (assuming you mean nama sake (unpasteurized), and nama zume (single pasteurized). And yes it can be really fun! I understand that access to this type is a bit more challenging in LA, but let me see if there are places you can try them in the area and with what. A lot more on that later.