Maison Akira (Pasadena, CA)

Maison Akira
713 East Green Street
Pasadena, CA
Dining date: 2/3/11

My last dineLA meal of this past season was here at Maison Akira. Maison Akira has been somewhere I’ve been interested in trying, but not enough to actually plan a trip there. One of my high school friends recently moved to Pasadena, so it was a perfect opportunity to come try some of Chef Akira Hirose’s Japanese-French cuisine.

The dineLA menu was a 3-course meal, but I put up the pictures of everyone else’s food for the heck of it.

Amuse Bouche – tofu cake, uni, pesto sauce


This sounded pretty interesting, but I thought it fell flat. The flavors were rather muted in the cake, with mushroom and seaweed the most prominent. The uni was just okay, and the pesto didn’t really have the vibrant, fresh flavor I was looking for.

Côté Seared House Smoked Scottish Salmon with Japanese Eggplant Caviar

Sautéed Hokkaido Scallops with Shimeji Mushrooms in a Yuzu Kosho Jus

These were some tiny scallops, for sure. I thought the sear was good, resulting in a nice scallop. I didn’t get a lot from the yuzu kosho, though, so this dish was sort of one-dimensional for me.

Sautéed New Zealand Wild Tai Snapper in a Black Mussel and Seaweed Chardonnay Sauce

Angus Beef Château Steak in a Cabernet & Béarnaise Sauce with Gratin of Potato & Oyster Mushroom Sympatic

Maple Leaf Duck Breast Rôti, Sauce à L’Orange With Daikon Pot au Feu and Shiitake Mushroom

Snake River Farm ‘Kobe’ New York Steak in a Marchand du Vin Sauce with Potato Mousseline

The steak was very good; tender and flavorful with a really nice pan sauce. Disappointingly, the mashed potatoes were surprisingly bland and clumpy, and the vegetables didn’t add too much either. The plating reminded me of a frozen dinner, with the meat in the bottom, and scoops of potatoes and vegetables at each corner.

Vanilla Yuzu Cream Brûlée


This was a good creme brulee, exemplifying the French and Japanese influences of Hirose’s cooking. The yuzu lent a subtle tart flavor; I find yuzu to sometimes be overpoweringly sour, but I thought the custard and bruleed sugar tempered it well.

Crêpes with Baked Banana and Caramel Ice Cream

Hazelnut Chocolate Mousse Cake and Maccha Ice Cream

The cake was pretty good – moist and chocolatey. I didn’t get any hazelnut flavor in the cake, just from the nuts on top – I would have preferred them to be incorporated a little better. The green tea ice cream was pretty good.

I found Maison Akira to be disappointing. It wasn’t a question of execution; frankly, I found many of the dishes to be rather boring. I could see how his type of Asian fusion cuisine was more exciting in the 90’s, but it seems like it hasn’t really changed with the times. The dineLA menu didn’t include some of the dishes the restaurant is most famous for (like the miso Chilean sea bass and Grand Marnier souffle); however, these dishes did not exactly inspire me to return and try those out.

Mori Sushi (Los Angeles, CA)

Mori Sushi
11500 W Pico Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90064
Dining date: 2/19/11


Mori Sushi has the distinction of being one of three Japanese restaurants (Urasawa, Sushi Zo, Asanebo) to have garnered a Michelin Star in the latest guide…a distinction which seems to be indefinite. I’ve been to Mori once before, but for lunch. I ordered one of the sushi combos with some a la carte items, but I didn’t think I got an accurate representation of what Mori had to offer (I was underwhelmed).

One claim that struck me is that Chef Mori Onodera only buys fish and vegetables for the restaurant. The rice and soy are both homemade; quality control is of utmost importance. Even most of the plates used are handcrafted by Mori himself. Sounds like my type of place!

Three different omakase are available: we opted for the sushi omakase. This would have a couple of small plates, but primarily be sushi.

Homemade Tofu, Wasabi, Soy


Here we started with a simple starter with just three components – an excellent way for Mori to show off his homemade tofu, homemade soy sauce and freshly grated wasabi. The tofu was very mild in flavor with a subtle soybean flavor – the wasabi and soy were integral in drawing out some of the flavors.

Monkfish Liver and Kumamoto Oyster


Next was monkfish liver in a cucumber, scallion and seaweed salad, along with a fresh oyster, straight up. The monkfish exhibited a characteristic richness, delicious without being fishy. The oyster was good as well, though quite small.

Fish Soup shrimp, clams, cod

This would be the most “complex” dish of the night. A hot soup came to the table with shrimp, clams, cod, parsley and bell peppers. I tend to fear soups like these as it’s so difficult to cook the fishes appropriately while it’s sitting in hot soup. I thought the cod and clams were pretty spot on, but the shrimp were overcooked. The broth, however, was very nice – a subtle but present seafood flavor was accented by the sweetness of the bell peppers, as well as herbal notes from the parsley.

This platter (perhaps designed by Mori himself) signaled the start of sushi.

Red Snapper marinated with kelp

We started with this solid red snapper. I first noticed (as I had during my previous visit) that the sushi pieces here are some of the smallest I’ve seen. The fish:rice ratio was good, but I wanted just a bit more fish and rice in each bite. The rice was perfect – warm and loosely packed, with just a little bit of textural feel.

Needlefish


I’m not sure if I’ve ever had needlefish, but I enjoyed this one as well.

Yellowtail


Characteristically tender and soft, this was a good bite.

Bluefin Toro


Yay for toro! As expected, the fish was silky smooth and melt-in-mouth. A good example of toro, though not really close to Urasawa’s.

Gizzard Shad


This piece was a little fishy, though I’m not really sure if that’s just characteristic of this type of fish. Very tender, however.

Bigeye Chutoro


I liked this chutoro (medium-fatty) example as well, smooth and tender; however, I enjoyed the bluefin toro a little more.

Japanese Mackerel


Another fish that was subtly fishy and very flavorful.

Sweet Shrimp


Sweet shrimp (amaebi) is typically one of my favorite pieces of sushi. This one, from Boston, was no exception; sweet with a squishy texture – I really enjoyed this one.

Squid


Octopus


The squid and octopus were both similar in texture – surprisingly quite tender, though a little…slimy. I was surprised by the octopus though, as I’m more accustomed to chewier textures.

Halibut Fin


Topped with yuzu, this piece was a lot chewier than I anticipated. I liked the flavors of the fish and yuzu, however.

Barracuda


The barracuda was seared with a blowtorch, giving this a nice charred, smoky flavor as well. Similar to the halibut fin, this was a little chewy, but I enjoyed it.

Salmon Egg


Not fishy at all. The eggs burst with a briny taste of the ocean. When I was younger, I didn’t enjoy these eggs but I’ve grown to actually really like them.

Uni (Hokkaido and Santa Barbara)


Loved that we were presented with two types of uni for comparison. The Hokkaido uni is on the left, while Santa Barbara on the right. I actually preferred the Santa Barbara uni (and thought its color was more brilliant), as it had a sweeter, cleaner flavor.

Red Snapper with yuzu

Lastly, we had another example of red snapper, this time with a yuzu accompaniment. I almost always like the citrusy fruit with fish, and it did not fail here.

Black Sesame Ice Cream


Made in-house. Loved this ice cream; it was rich and creamy, with just the right sweetness. The sesame flavor was very evident…just delicious.

Roasted Green Tea


I often see this tea at the end of Japanese meals; always something to look forward to. The roasting gives the tea a distinct flavor.

Food only, the omakase came out to $110 pre-tax/tip, which I thought wasn’t bad. Though, there wasn’t a wide variety of fishes served. My biggest qualm was that, personally, I thought the sushi pieces were too small. It was good for a few chews and that was it, and the 16 sushi pieces weren’t really a lot of food.

Nowadays, I always compare my sushi restaurants to Urasawa, which probably isn’t fair considering this meal was 1/3 the price. However, I think Urasawa, then Sushi Zo are a cut above; Mori and Sasabune are on the next tier for sushi.

Aburiya Toranoko (Los Angeles, CA)

Aburiya Toranoko
243 S. San Pedro St
Los Angeles, CA 90012
Dining date: 2/11/11

I dropped by Aburiya Toranoko on a spur-of-the-moment idea. My friend and I were wondering where to eat and she asked, “was there anything around here you wanted to try?” A lightbulb went off as I thought of Michael Cardenas’ new Japanese spot. But it was Friday night at 6:20 – surely they would be packed and unable to accommodate us. Upon calling the restaurant, we were told we could get a table…if we got there at 6:30. Luckily, I live 5 minutes away.

Aburiya Toranoko is next door to Lazy Ox Canteen, another of Cardenas’ concepts. It’s got a similar “hip” vibe to Lazy Ox, but the food is very different – izakaya-based traditional Japanese. The menu is separated into different sections: vegetable, seafood, beef/pork/poultry, sumiyaki, oden, rice/noodle/soup, and sushi. My friend’s vegetarian, so we were heavy on the first category.

“Takana” croquette with mashed potato and mustard leaf


The interior was a little cold, which was disappointing. However, the potato was nice and fluffy, and I enjoyed the crispy breaded exterior.

Cha-mame


The server explained this as a sort of gourmet edamame. I thought to myself, “they’re just charging more for edamame.” However, these were pretty good as far as edamame go, with a noticeable hearty soybean flavor.

Asparagus sumiyaki


The asparagus was perfectly cooked, leaving it tender with a really nice smoky flavor.

Yanagita Seafarms uni goma tofu


Jonathan Gold recently raved about this dish. Uni and tofu? Sure, why not? The tofu was very rich, almost like peanut butter, with a hint of toasted sesame. The uni added a bright, fresh sea flavor which went really well with the tofu, while dark soy completed the bite.

Kinoko zosui porridge of rice and egg


Favorite dish of the night. I might come back here just to have a full bowl of this. I’m not totally sure what all the ingredients were, but the rice porridge had strong earthy tones from mushrooms and a dashi-like umami feel to it. I liked that the rice wasn’t broken down too much; it still had just a little bit of bite to them. Yum!

Oshitashi spinach and shimeji mushroom


I don’t think there was too much to this dish. The spinach and mushrooms were both okay, and the bonito didn’t really add too much to it. Not my cup of tea.

Jidori fried chicken


I find myself always ordering chicken karaage when it’s offered. What can I say – I love fried chicken. I thought this was a well executed version, but not really as flavorful as I had imagined. I was maybe looking for some type of sauce because I found myself getting tired of it.

Avocado and cucumber roll


As advertised.

There were definitely some hits and some misses. The menu is extensive and I only had a chance to try a few select dishes, so I owe it to myself to make a return trip to try more of what the restaurant has to offer. Or, I might come back and end up having a whole bowl of that porridge to myself!

Katana-Ya – 12/30/10

Katana-Ya
430 Geary St
San Francisco, CA 94102

Katana-Ya is generally regarded as one of San Francisco’s top ramen houses, if not the best. The line to dine here begins before the restaurant opens (see picture below), and remains late into the night (often past midnight). Reminds me of LA’s Daikokuya. I was a little wary, however, as San Francisco does not really have good Japanese food, in comparison to its SoCal couterpart. I didn’t even have my first bowl of ramen until I moved to Los Angeles.

We arrived a few minutes before the restaurant opened at 11:30 on a Monday. This picture was taken right as they were opening the doors. Clearly, it’s a popular place. Luckily, our party of 5 was able to squeeze in and secure the last remaining table.

The restaurant is located within a block of Union Square, which is a festive place during this time of year.

We ordered a couple of appetizers to start with.

Gyoza

I found these to be fairly standard. Not exceptional but not really bad either. The wrapper had a good chew to it, but the browning was a little uneven, a little burned at parts.

Chicken Karaage

This was a pretty good chicken karaage. A crispy exterior covered really moist and juicy chicken thigh meat.

Shoyu Ramen

Here came our much-anticipated ramens. Each bowl has the option of shoyu, miso or shio – this was shoyu. I would say this bowl was fairly pedestrian. The flavor of the soup was decent – it had a hearty soy flavor without being too salty. I didn’t think it had too much depth though. I would have preferred the noodles to be a little more chewy too; they weren’t overcooked, but they weren’t al dente.

Katana-Ya Ramen (Shio)

The eponymous ramen is this bowl filled with fried gyoza, chicken karaage, corn and egg. The shio broth was pleasant, though somewhat light in flavor. I’m not really a fan of fried things in my soup – my preference is to have them on the side to dip on the spot.

The ramen at Katana-Ya is fairly mediocre to the ramen standards I’ve been accustomed to in LA. Having said that, it’s a decent bowl that could satisfy a craving on a cold day. I wouldn’t say it’s worthwhile to wait in that line though…

SugarFish Downtown – 11/6/10

SUGARFISH Downtown
600 W 7th Street
Los Angeles, CA 90017

I’d been hearing a lot about SugarFish’s latest location in downtown with everyone raving about fresh, delicious fish at reasonable prices. Given that I live and work in downtown, it was only a matter of time until I paid a visit. SugarFish is a more casual and streamlined version of the upscale Sushi Nozawa in Studio City, notoriously home to the “sushi nazi.”

I’ve been to a SugarFish location before; I visited the Marina Del Rey location soon after it opened a couple years back. I left unimpressed. I thought the fish was pretty good, but I was restrained by three “Trust Me” fixed menus that included tuna cut rolls and cucumber cut rolls (something I often perceive as a ‘filler’) and no way to order extra food a la carte. I remember leaving hungry after eating the fixed menu, and not being able to order more food (outside of another fixed menu).

I’m told all of those issues have long since been remediated, and it showed at the downtown location. The fixed menus, which frequently change, features an attractive lineup of nigiri and hand or cut rolls – no more cucumber rolls (though, it is available a la carte). If a custom menu is preferable, all of the sushi is offered a la carte as well.

We started with one of the fixed menus, “The Nozawa.”

Organic Edamame

We started with a plate of edamame served at room temperature and lightly salted.

Tuna Sashimi (Big Eye)

This was the first fish course, featuring some vibrant colors. The fish was tender and delicious, and the green onions added some nice flavor and texture.

Albacore Sushi

This was my first bite of sushi, and it was actually my best. The fish melted in my mouth as it was so tender. The house ponzo added just a little more depth of flavor to this already-delicious bite.

Salmon Sushi

I enjoyed the sesame topping, as it added a little nuttiness to this sushi. The salmon was good.

Snapper Sushi

This snapper featured a chili ponzu. Another tender piece of fish was heightened by a little bit of heat from the chili ponzu.

Yellowtail Sushi

The yellowtail had a mild flavor, but was silky smooth. Teeth not necessary.

Halibut Sushi

This halibut was topped with yuzu rind, which imparted some nice citrus. Fish is almost always better with citrus tones, and this was a clear example of that.

Toro Hand Roll


We next got into the hand rolls. We were instructed to eat these as soon as impossible to avoid the seaweed from getting soggy. The components that struck me first were the crisp seaweed wrapper and warm rice. Very nice. The toro was good as well.

Crab Hand Roll

Next was this hand roll featuring blue crab. The cool, sweet crab was surrounded by warm rice and seaweed, making these some tasty bites.

Sweet Shrimp

The daily special on this day was sweet shrimp…happens to be one of my favorite! I loved the fresh shrimp for its sweetness and delicate mouthfeel.

This concluded our fixed menu, but we ordered a couple of things off the a la carte menu.

Large Scallop

The waitress strongly recommended these, and they didn’t disappoint. A yuzu ponzu topped these scallops, which were tender and flavorful. I found the rice to be too loosely packed on these pieces, however, as the rice broke apart just as I picked it up. Definitely a no-no.

Uni

Lastly, we tried this Catalina Island uni. I always see Santa Barbara uni, so it was interesting to see Nozawa prefers this variety. Something about the kelp that the uni eat in the area, apparently. Cool and refreshing, this was a very strong display of uni…not fishy at all. I can’t say I could choose this over Santa Barbara uni – they’re both excellent.

This was a good amount of food; I was actually content after the fixed menu finished. I have to say I was pretty impressed by this meal, even the service was notably strong. My dining companion would attest to the fact that I kept talking about this meal throughout the night…after we left the restaurant. Part of it may be due to the less-than-steller experience I had last time a while back (lowering expectations), but the fish was fresh and had good, clean flavors. At relatively reasonable prices (the Nozawa is the most expensive fixed meal at $38), I expect Sugarfish Downtown to become quite popular. And soon.

Chaya Downtown – 10/7/10

Chaya Downtown
525 S. Flower St.
Los Angeles, CA 90071

I work downtown, and Chaya Downtown is in my regular rotation of lunch spots. I really enjoy their bento box, though it’s fairly steeply priced at $24. The box includes a meat, a fish, sushi and a salad. Surprisingly, you can substitute out the salad for an extra serving of meat or fish, something I always do. Chaya’s DineLA lunch menu had a few dishes that sounded pretty good to me, so a visit here was an easy choice.

Hawaiian Albacore Poke seaweed and sesame soy vinaigrette

This dish started the meal off well with its light, clean flavors. The vinaigrette added a nice acidity, while some chili oil presented a touch of heat. The fish was tender – I enjoyed the large chunks.

Soy Braised Angus Beef Short Rib wasabi mashed potato

This was one of the three entree options. The short rib was cooked beautifully – extremely tender and not overly fatty…I’m not sure how they did it. The wasabi mashed potatoes had a nice amount of heat, though it wasn’t as smooth and creamy as I would’ve liked.

Two Way Rice Bowl Shrimp Tempura Bowl and Tuna Sashimi Bowl

Another of the entree options was this rice bowl duo – tempura and a chirashi bowl of tuna.

Herb Poached Salmon sundried tomato puttanesca sauce, braised tuscan kale, fennel

The third entree choice was this salmon, which I didn’t try.

Profiterole Sicilian pistachio ice cream, valrhona chocolate sauce

I had high expectations for these profiteroles, made with pistachio ice cream. Perhaps unfairly, I thought of Bouchon’s excellent rendition. However, this was not Bouchon. The pastry was a little soggy and the ice cream, while good, didn’t have a very strong pistachio flavor. The chocolate sauce, which was supposed to be made of valrhona chocolate, tasted like Hershey’s chocolate sauce.

Green Tea Cup Cake green tea frosting

Greek Yogurt Sorbet fresh strawberry and mochi

I’m not a fan of tart frozen yogurt, so I didn’t really care for this. The sorbet was interesting, having the consistency reminiscent of frozen custard.

My Chaya meal started strong, but unfortunately disappointed with dessert. Overall it was okay, and for $22 a pretty decent deal. I likely will not be coming back during this DineLA stint though.