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
Having been a solid half year, we wanted to see how Tsubaki was faring from its opening days. We were hoping things might improve…
Worst case, even if the food was about the same (from Chef-Owner Charles Namba (EN Japanese Brasserie, Chanterelle in New York, and Bouchon (Beverly Hills)), at least we knew we’d have a chance to explore some great Sake (and unusual picks) due to Sommelier-Owner Courtney Kaplan (Decibel (New York), Domaine LA, Bestia), who wowed us with some great recommendations on our 1st visit.
Seikyo - Omachi - Junmai Ginjo Namazake (Hiroshima, Japan):
This was a real treat: Sommelier Kaplan started us off with Seikyo Omachi, a Junmai Ginjo Namazake (unpasteurized Sake). This was only the 2nd time we had ever had a Junmai Ginjo unpasteurized before, and this was fantastic! Natural fruit notes (some melon-like qualities), almost sweet on the tongue, and nice and round. And it finished pretty clean & dry(!). One of the highlights of the evening.
Nasu Nibitashi (Japanese Eggplant, Myoga Ginger):
This was OK. The Eggplant was cooked to a nice tender, silky consistency, it was clean, not overly oily. However, it just tasted rather one note (sweet-savory).
Isojiman - Junmai Ginjo Sake (Shizuoka, Japan):
This was a nice progression and paired well with the 2 dishes that arrived at this time. This was the dryest and smoothest Sake of the evening.
Kinoko Kombu-Mushi (Forest Mushrooms, Garlic Oil, Katsuo Butter, Mitsuba):
This was much better. Perfectly sauteed Mushroom mix, fragrant from the Garlic and Butter, but we didn’t really taste any Katsuo or Mitsuba. Still, quite tasty.
Sogen - Junmai Sake (Ishikawa, Japan):
This had a bit of a long alcohol burn / finish. It was still an interesting Sake to explore, a lot fuller and bigger than the previous 2 Sake.
One sad note @beefnoguy and others interested in Sake, is that the Sake Menu has drastically changed since our last visit. There’s only 1 Junmai Daiginjo Sake left on the menu, and the vast majority of Sake (80 - 90%) is just Junmai or Honjozo (with some Nama and Nigori). Looking at the crowd and the tables, we noted not a single table ordered Sake (just Tea / Ice Tea, a couple tables had Beer).
Sakura Masu Yaki (Binchotan-Grilled Cherry Trout & Tokyo Scallions, Shishito Peppers):
There was a nice smokiness to the Sakura Masu, however, it was a touch overcooked. Flavor-wise, it was fine, but nothing really wow-inducing.
Shichida - 75 - Junmai Sake (Saga, Japan):
While we thoroughly enjoyed the stunning Limited Edition Shichida Muroka Nama Junmai Ginjo we had at Izakaya Ginji (it was amazing! Thanks again @beefnoguy), Tsubaki only had the Shichida 75, but it was recommended by Sommelier Kaplan, so we gave it a shot.
The Shichida 75 is vastly different than their Limited Edition Muroka Nama Junmai Ginjo: It’s a bit rougher, a noticeable long tail finish, and just not as wild and interesting as the Muroka. But it was still a solid Sake and paired well with our dishes.
Tako (Binchotan-Grilled Octopus & Tokyo Scallions, Shishito Peppers, Aioli) +
Kamo Shoga-Yaki (Ginger Grilled Duck, Garlic Oil):
The Duck Skewer (Chef Namba’s attempt at Yakitori / Kushiyaki) was… no bueno. The Duck was overcooked, chewy, and dried out. The flavor tasted kind of straightforward (like some Duck meat cooked over Charcoal), with very little additional seasonal or flavor profile.
The Octopus was fantastic! Perfectly cooked, tender, smoky, a light, inherent brininess. Probably our favorite dish of the evening.
Sempuku - Shinriki - Muroka Genshu Kimoto - Junmai Sake (Hiroshima, Japan):
Sommelier Kaplan mentions that this is milled to 85%, and according to the brewer is made with a rarer Shinriki Sake Rice grain. This was definitely another bolder Sake, maybe even earthy.
Looking at the Dessert Menu… we decided to trust our instincts and tried this for Dessert instead.
Hanahato - Junmai Kijoshu (8 Year Aged Sake(!)) (Hiroshima, Japan):
I had never tried any 8 Year Aged Sake before, so we were excited to see what this was about. Sommelier Kaplan did note to us that this was more like a Dessert Wine, than a standard “Sake” that one might think about.
It was a stark, dark color, and taking a sip… it was really familiar… I kept wracking my brain but then remembered what this reminded me of: Taiwanese Shaoshing Wine.
I had a good friend in college (who was from Taipei), and she introduced me to Shaoshing Wine. This tasted like a more refined version of that.
So after 6 months, Tsubaki remains about the same as our last visit: Decent-to-Solid Japanese Tapas plates, but tasting like a new interpretation of the classics (with the chef’s pedigree from Bouchon), with the star being the interesting Sake Menu (and off-menu selections) that Sommelier Courtney Kaplan has constructed.
It is a true delight and interesting to hear her introduce and discuss various Sake being offered, with some unique tastes and standouts in each of our visits.
But looking around this evening, as noted above, not a single table had ordered Sake except for us (it was filled with the local hamster clientele), and with the Sake Menu changes since our last visit, it feels like the very highlight of the place is being overlooked and underappreciated.
1356 Allison Avenue
Los Angeles CA 90026
Tel: (213) 900-4900
Catching up on a visit from a few months back. We were in the mood to explore more Sake so we headed back to Tsubaki to see what Sommelier Courtney Kaplan might have brought in.
While the main reason to come to Tsubaki is for the Sake, we decided to see how the food might fare and if it improved.
Sake Suzuke (Ginger Pickled Scottish Salmon, Avocado Cream, Fennel Shiso Salad):
The Pickled Scottish Salmon was extremely tender, maybe even too soft (perhaps due to the pickling?), with a slight brininess. The Avocado Cream felt a bit unnecessary, but the Fennel Shiso Salad was a nice pairing.
Shichida - Muroka Nama Junmai Ginjo Sake (Limited Edition) - Saga, Japan:
We were so delighted to see that Courtney got in the 2018 Limited Release for Shichida - Muroka Nama Junmai Ginjo Sake! I fell in love with the 2017 version last year thanks to @beefnoguy when we visited Izakaya Ginji. It’s only released for the Spring season and then it’s gone.
Taking a sip: The 2018 Muroka Nama Junmai Ginjo feels even more “raw” and electric. WOW! It’s almost fizzy, truly wild, bright, and yet it calms down and finishes so clean! Shibumi had this Sake last year as well, so I’m guessing they might’ve restocked it for this year (hopefully). Although by now, it might be done with for the year. If you get a chance and see this offered around town, give it a try.
We stuck with Sake for the rest of the night (and they were all a delight).
Sawanoi - Tokyo Kurabito - Kimoto Junmai Ginjo Sake - Tokyo, Japan:
Sommelier Kaplan explains to us that this particular Sake from Sawanoi is brewed with a “super old fashioned style,” which was intriguing. It was fruity and citrusy, and strangely had a bit of a Yogurt taste (evoking that feeling / taste). It was really interesting and we’re glad to have tried it. Delicious.
Gokyo - Arabashiri - Junmai Nama Sake - Yamaguchi, Japan:
This was really fragrant with a big aroma. Easy drinking and another interesting Sake we hadn’t tried before. Refreshing.
Tenryo Koshu - Junmai Daiginjo Sake - Gifu, Japan (Aged Sake):
Courtney explains that this Tenryo Koshu Junmai Daiginjo Sake has been aged 3 years(!). After so many bottles, my memory started fading. But I remember this being smooth and almost silky and easy drinking.
Kamo Izumi - Red Maple - 2-Year Aged Nama Genshu Sake - Hiroshima, Japan:
Sommelier Kaplan mentioned that this Nama Genshu from Kamo Izumi was aged 2 years below freezing, before being released. I recall citrusy notes and a strong taste, but still balanced. Another fascinating Sake to try.
Overall, my favorite was the Shichida Muroka Nama Genshu Sake for 2018. It’s so distinctive and fun and wild, and yet it finishes so cleanly.
If you’re ever in the mood for trying some interesting Sake off the beaten path, stop by Tsubaki when Sommelier Kaplan is in and let her guide you through some interesting choices.
1356 Allison Avenue
Los Angeles CA 90026
Tel: (213) 900-4900
We were in the mood for Sake and with Summer wrapping up soon, we were curious what Summer Sake or interesting finds might be available from Sommelier Courtney Kaplan, so off we went to Tsubaki.
We had a wonderful time exploring Spring Sake with Sommelier Kaplan a few months back, and this year’s release of Shichida - Muroka Nama Junmai Ginjo Sake (Limited Edition) was so fantastic that we weren’t sure what could top that on this visit.
It is always a fascinating time exploring Sake with Sommelier Kaplan. Her knowledge of brewers, types of rice and yeast they use, and methodologies and why things taste the way they do makes for an informative, fun evening.
Kameizumi - Eternal Spring - Namazake Genshu Junmai Ginjo (Kochi, Japan):
Courtney talks about the brewer and the surrounding area on Shikoku, but notes to us that the Summer releases just aren’t as bright, unique, standout as the Spring releases (like the Shichida Muroka Nama Junmai Ginjo). The Kameizumi Namazake is refreshing, with lots of flavors and an almost “wandering” aspect to the flavor. It’s not as focused nor effervescent as the Shichida Spring release we had, but it’s a nice start with a clean finish.
Ohyama - Tokubetsu Junmai Nama Sake (Yamagata, Japan):
This was another Summer release Draft Sake, and it was fascinating comparing the two, side-by-side. This was a bit more of a sharp initial taste, but rounded out nicely and finished smooth.
Sempuku - Shinriki 85 - Junmai Muroka Genshu Kimoto Sake (Hiroshima, Japan):
Sommelier Kaplan mentions this is one of her favorites on the current menu, using a Shinriki Rice, and the Muroka (No Charcoal Filtration) gives this Sake a very distinct flavor and taste. It was earthy(!), almost evoking a taste of Mushrooms, slightly musty (in a good way).
It was fascinating.
Mana 1751 - True Vision - Yamahai Tokubetsu Junmai Muroka Genshu Sake (Fukui, Japan):
Courtney was kind enough to give us a sample of this Sake that she was debating on introducing to the Sake Menu. @beefnoguy that classification seems to be one of the longest I’ve seen so far for a bottle of Sake. She warned us this was going to be “different” and she wasn’t sure herself.
Taking a sip: This Sake is just weird. It’s all over the board, and not very sippable. It’s got a big alcoholic kick to it, an almost tart quality with a long finish that is not that enjoyable. We were glad to have tried it, but it’s probably something we wouldn’t order.
Kani Chahan (Duck Fat Garlic Fried Rice, Dungeness Crab):
This sounded delicious. Taking a bite, there is zero Wok Hei (Breath of the Wok). There’s more Wok Hei at any of the Sam Woo BBQ’s we’ve tried recently than this dish. It’s too wet, soggy.
However, the actual flavor of the Rice is tasty: Duck Fat, Dungeness Crab and Rice? How can you go wrong? Well, with zero Wok Hei, it just made for a tasty Sauteed, Wet Rice.
Otokoyama - Kita no Inaho - Daiginjo Sake (Hokkaido, Japan):
Brewed in honor of Otokoyama’s 150th Anniversary, this Kita no Inaho release is nothing like the more commonly found Otokoyama Sake you might be used to. After trying a wide range of flavors and styles this evening, finishing off with this limited Daiginjo Sake was perfect!
The Kita no Inaho was so smooth, with an interesting 2nd layer of flavor coming through on first taste, and then finishing so cleanly. My favorite for the evening.
Nanbu Bijin - Umeshu (Iwate, Japan):
We finished things off with a gracious pour from Sommelier Kaplan of Nanbu Bijin’s Umeshu (Japanese Plum Sake) from Iwate, Japan. The one interesting note about this Umeshu is that Nanbu Bijin does not add any Sugar to its Umeshu, and the result is still a shockingly delicious sweet-tart drink that tastes like liquid Dessert.
We can’t wait to see what the Fall Sake offerings might be like this year.
1356 Allison Avenue
Los Angeles CA 90026
Tel: (213) 900-4900
Update 4: Spring 2019 Sake releases