Hamasaku (Los Angeles, CA)

11043 Santa Monica Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90025
Dining date: 11/7/13

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Hamasaku’s been open for over a decade, although I feel like I only heard about it recently. The restaurant’s had a largely entertainment-based clientele (following its owner Michael Ovitz) and its most notable menu items are fusion sushi rolls, many named after celebrities and regulars. Not exactly my scene, but I’ve lately seen more and more positive reviews on the traditional Japanese items on the menu. Coincidentally, I was recently invited in for a visit.

Hamasaku is located in the rear of a strip mall in West LA, in between Century City and Sawtelle’s ‘Little Osaka’ (perhaps a good representation of the restaurant’s balance between traditional Japanese and American fusion cuisine). The kitchen is run by executive chef Wonny Lee, while head sushi chef Yoya Takahashi mans the bar. Both started at the restaurant within the last two years, injecting some fresh influences.

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A chef’s choice omakase menu was on tap this evening.

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Totoraku (Los Angeles, CA) [3]

10610 W Pico Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90064
Dining date: 7/23/13

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I haven’t been to Totoraku, the “secret beef place,” in just about two years. There are two main reasons for this: one, it’s very expensive ($200+) and two, I’m not actually able to make reservations. You see, only those that make some sort of impression and develop a relationship with chef/owner Kaz Oyama are able to get a table. Luckily, a friend of mine has the ability and invited me to go.

While somewhat exclusive, Totoraku’s menu is rather simple. It changes pretty infrequently, relying on a few staple raw beef courses and various cuts of beef that you grill yourself. The key to the meal is the quality of the beef, which is almost Japanese wagyu-like in marbling. It comes from a secret ranch that the chef won’t disclose, but it’s surprisingly domestic.

Aside from the beef, the chef is a known oenophile and bringing pricey Bordeaux to complement the beef and share with the chef has been an oft-used way to get a ticket for future entry. The wall separating the kitchen and dining room shows off some of his consumed bottles with names like Mouton Rothschild, Margaux, Haut Brion, La Tache and domestically, Harlan Estate and Opus One.

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Plan Check (Los Angeles, CA)

Plan Check
1800 Sawtelle Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90025
Dining date: 4/3/12

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Plan Check opened just over a month ago, bringing a ‘modern American’ gastropub to the Japanese-centric Sawtelle area of West LA. It’s a combination of ex-Umami Corporate Chef Ernesto Uchimura’s grub with drinks masterminded by Steve Livigni and Pablo Moix (Harvard & Stone, La Descarga, Black Market, Pour Vous). It’s one of the latest in LA’s gastropub movement and follows a similar template to many others – hire a noted mixologist to craft a bar program and serve interesting upscale bar food. Early on, the place has been packed so it seemed like a spot worth checking out.

Wooden tables grace the space, including one large communal table and a long counter that stretches the length of the bar and kitchen area. It was a full house on a Tuesday night, but the three of us were able to secure three seats overlooking the kitchen.

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The menu is made up of snacks, sides, sandwiches and composed plates (which were like small plates); we honed in on the latter two categories. We started with a little bit of charcuterie from the snacks section.

pickled chorizo sausage green garlic

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prosciutto americano

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The chorizo was interesting, with its subtle heat and a lightly sour flavor from the pickling. The prosciutto was pretty typical.

Two more snacks rounded out the first wave of courses.

oyster on the half yuzukosho cocktail sauce

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These were huge. Plump and tasty with the lemon and a zesty cocktail sauce.

warm crab dip dynamite sauce, masago, blistered tomato, toast

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The crab flavor came through on the dip with nice spreadable creaminess, but I wished the bread was toasted more for texture.

We also ordered  a selection of the sandwiches and all three of the larger plates.

PCB (plan check burger) akaushi red wagyu beef, americanized cheese, ketchup leather, savory onions, mixed pickles, crunch bun

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I thought the burger was cooked well but it wasn’t really memorable in any way. I’ve heard a lot of talk about the ketchup leather, a fruit roll-up type method of bringing a ketchup flavor without getting the bun soggy (as actual ketchup may). A novel idea, I suppose, but I didn’t notice a significant difference. It ended up being a fairly standard burger, executed just fine.

pork belly pimento grilled cheese twice cooked pork belly, spicy green pimento cheese, inverted crunch bun

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The pork was pretty good on its own but I thought the dish as a whole was a bit on the bready side. The thick slides of bread did have some light texture, though I didn’t feel the pimento cheese was very assertive.

pastrami poutine pastrami bits, pastrami gravy, cucumber pickles, melted swiss

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The smokey peppery flavor of the pastrami was good, but I was looking for more of a gravy here to bring it all together. Also, the fries were on the softer side – with a poutine I always prefer them crispier to hold up as they soak up any oil/juices.

smokey fried chicken jidori chicken, smoked milk gravy, yam preserves, spicy pickled okra

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The chicken had a nice smokey flavor and was quite juicy. I think the top two pieces were fried crispy but the bottom one (the one I got) had a mushy, soggy exterior. Sweet yams were a nice pairing.

short rib pot roast red wine, bone marrow turnover pie, sweet n sour mirepoix

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The pot roast itself was good, although fairly typical. Tender, fatty and pretty flavorful. The bone marrow turnover pie was fun, tasting very much like a beef pot pie.

grilled rockfish rock shrimp tempura, flaked wasabi, citron tartar sauce, grilled cucumber, bonito

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I thought the fish was cooked well, imbued with a smoky flavor. I thought the bonito was an interesting addition, adding much more depth of flavor. The tempura shrimp was good too, but I think it added more for texture than flavor.

veggie chips yucca and plantain, avocado

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I found the plantain and yuca chips to be fairly greasy and undersalted. The avocado spread was tasty though.

stuffed mushroom roasted portobello, swiss cheese fondue, crispy kale, steak sauce

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The portobello was meaty and kind of juicy, while the swiss cheese fondue was a good accompaniment. Steak sauce added more savory depth to the bites. One of the better dishes.

We also sampled a couple of desserts.

cruller donuts cooked to order, cream, fruit

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These were basically churros shaped like a cruller donut. I liked the churro, though it was slightly on the oily side, while a light whipped cream was a good pairing.

ice cream bars milk cereal

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This was also one of the highlights of the night. From Milk on Beverly, the ice cream had a sweet milk flavor with crispy cereal on the exterior. Whimsical and addicting. Pricing was a 33% markup over the ones at Milk.

We tried a pretty good selection of cocktails as well as their housemade moonshine sodas. I found the cocktails to be much more interesting. This first one, Tropic Thunder, was my favorite with a good balance of spicy and fresh citrus between the jalapeño and lemon. Yummy.

Tropic Thunder jalapeno infused kanon vodka, mango, lemon juice, sugar

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Fuji Apple yamazaki 12 yr, apple brandy, almond syrup, fresh lemon, peach bitters

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Godzilla pisco porton, midori, orgeat, lemon, lime

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Spaghetti Western vida mezcal, tapatio, red bell pepper, lime, agave, beer

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Bento Box brugal rum, licor 43, nigori sake, bitters

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Moonshine with Cherry Coke

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Moonshine with Tangerine Soda

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Plan Check was a letdown, especially considering our meal was almost $100pp all-inclusive (though to be fair, I’m sure we ordered more than the average customer). Were my expectations too high? Maybe, but they weren’t really that high to begin with. There were a few solid dishes (rockfish, stuffed mushrooms, cruller donut, ice cream bar) but they were outnumbered by the underwhelming ones. I think conceptually most of the dishes sounded good, for example the pork belly grilled cheese and pastrami poutine could’ve been big hits. However, something was lost in translation between the concept and plating since the end results didn’t come close to the heights they promised.

800 Degrees Pizzeria (Los Angeles, CA)

800 Degrees Neapolitan Pizzeria
10889 Lindbrook Dr
Los Angeles, CA 90024
Dining date: 2/15/12

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800 Degrees opened early last month, a new concept via a partnership led by Umami Burger’s Adam Fleischman. After a dinner at LudoBites, somehow the topic of 800 Degrees came up. It was open late (until 2am everyday), was nearby, and would be relatively quick. We were sold.

There are plenty of pizza options in LA, but this one’s a little bit different. It’s essentially fast-food pizza, but customizable and made-to-order with fresh ingredients; I think comparisons to Chipotle are fitting. It reaches a medium ground between the quickness of a Domino’s or Pizza Hut and the higher end pizzas at something like Mozza. Kind of like Pitfire Pizza, but even cheaper and more customizable.

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The pizza creation process is assembly line, with one’s preferences taken throughout. Three base pies are available (margherita, bianca, marinara at $5-6) at the first station, where fresh dough is rolled out.

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Next a whole host of toppings are available, completely optional, most $1 each. Don’t want toppings? Fine. The Pizza Margherita is $6.

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Once ready, the pizza is baked in the wood-burning oven for just a minute or two, all while the customer watches. Pretty cool.

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Also cool is this futuristic looking soda machine – various “base” sodas and flavored syrups are available. It’s all about customization here, apparently.

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Between our group, we ordered up a variety of pies.

Margherita with Salame

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Bianca with Sausage

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Margherita with Meatballs, Proscuitto, Arugula

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Margherita with Artichokes, Salame

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How were the pizzas? Pretty good actually. The dough was soft, had some nice char, and had a nice chew. I thought the toppings were good, but none were particularly memorable. Overall, it was good pizza at a great price, fast. Very satisfying. I’m a big fan of the model, and gauging other reviews, it seems like the rest of the city is too. I fully expect expansion soon and potentially on a large scale…not unlike Umami Burger.

Tsujita LA (Los Angeles, CA) and Ramen Yamadaya (Culver City, CA)

Tsujita LA
2057 Sawtelle Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90025

Ramen Yamadaya
11172 Washington Blvd
Culver City, CA 90230
Dining date: 1/16/12

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I first tried Tsujita over the Veteran’s Day holiday. Trying to fit two lunch spots into one larger meal, Tsujita happened to fall into the second slot where a humongous line awaited us. Sadly, the tsukemen (dipping ramen) ran out while we waited in line, and we were left with the good-but-not-great ramen. I knew I’d have to return to really try Tsujita. Over the MLK holiday we again went for a two-spot luncher, with Tsujita first this time. We arrived at 11am (opening) to ensure we would not be denied. Perfect timing! We got in without any problems.

Three tsukemen options are available – “regular,” one with extra seasoned boiled egg (ajitama tsukemen) and one with extra chashu (chashu tsukemen). Coincidentally, we all ordered the same thing – the chashu. A few accompaniments awaited us at the table – in my opinion, I didn’t think they were even necessary.

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I marveled at the bowl that came out – noodles were topped with thick-cut chashu, a piece of nori and a lime wedge. Accompanying the noodles was a dark and murky broth, filled with a soft-boiled egg, pieces of chashu and a not-so-hidden layer of fat floating on the top.

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I had my first bite and was sold immediately. The noodles were thicker than usual with a wonderful chew, while the broth displayed a heady, rich porky and bonito flavor. It was well-balanced between the pork and fish, and I’m sure the fat helped made for an incredibly savory and comforting slurp that screamed umami. Apparently, pork bones are simmered for 60 hours with the bonito added at the end. The chashu was wonderful as well, thick and meaty – they just melted when heated by the hot broth (it should be eaten quickly since the fat will congeal if sitting out too long and the broth won’t be hot enough to melt it). Simply addicting.

The soup thickened and got richer over time as the noodles soaked up the liquid. By the time the noodles were gone, it was pretty much a gravy at that point. The lime was particularly clutch when it reached this consistency, helping to add a fresh citrus dimension as well as some acidity. Finally, they’ll add water to your leftover “gravy” for a drinkable soup – it wasn’t quite so much for me, still packing an incredible salty, porky punch. Personally, it needed to be consumed in small quantities per mouthful.

After some deliberation, we made the short trip to Ramen Yamadaya.  We’d be ordering entirely different things, but we were still somewhat fearful that it would disappoint given what we had at Tsujita.

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Ramen Yamadaya is a newer ramen restaurant to the SoCal scene, opening its first branch in Torrance in 2010. I’ve consistently heard good things about it, and its popularity has helped them already open up additional locations in Culver City, Westwood and Costa Mesa. The specialty here is the 20-hour-cooked tonkotsu broth, making for a rich and porky ramen.

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It was my first time so I opted for the ramen. The rest of the party ordered some different items, less similar to what we previously ate at Tsujita.


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Chicken Kara-age

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Ramen Yamadaya tonkotsu kotteri

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I tried a small piece of the gyoza and chicken and found them to be rather typical variations. I wanted slightly more meat and less cabbage flavor in the gyoza, and I thought they could’ve been crispier too. However, the star for me was the ramen. Going for the extra-fatty kotteri option, the broth indeed was rather heavy, milky and fatty. Full of flavor, indeed. The fresh garlic was an awesome accompaniment, providing a fun garlicky bite to the rich broth. The noodles were perfectly cooked, lending a nice chew and soaking up the flavors of the broth. Two kinds of chashu came with it – a leaner, thinner cut shoulder and a thicker, marinated belly cut. I didn’t really like either. The shoulder was a little dry and flavorless, while the belly’s marinade had an overpowering flavor that masked the meat. Still, a very good bowl of ramen.

Ramen Yamadaya is good, and is worthy of a return trip on an emptier belly. Still, I’d be hard pressed to come here unless Tsujita is closed or out of tsukemen. I’ve never had tsukemen before and it was a bit of a game changer for me. I can’t say if it was a good example of the dish, but I just found it simply delicious. At this point, I actually prefer it over any of the bowls of more “typical ramen” in LA.  There’s an inherent playfulness in dipping the noodles into the soup at-will, and I found myself conflicted between slurping everything up as soon as possible while it was hot, and consciously slowing myself down to savor every bite. I’ll be back for sure.

Tsujita LA (Los Angeles, CA)

Tsujita LA
2057 Sawtelle Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90025
Dining date: 11/11/11

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Tsujita is one of the latest high-profile ramen shops to open in LA this year. As far as I know, this is the first American location for Japan-based Tsujita, which serves its own version of a tonkotsu ramen. The restaurant opened in August, only serving its Japanese fusion dinner menu to guests…which did not include ramen. Why? Because the restaurant wanted to make sure its ramen was just right before serving it for lunch hours only. Sounded like they were serious about their “artisan” noodles and it quickly became somewhere I wanted to try as soon as possible.

The lunch menu is as simple as it gets; ramen and tsukemen (noodles are brought out separately and dipped into the broth upon eating) are both available, with a few ramen add-ins and rice bowl combos. While ramen is clearly a draw, the restaurant seems to be even more notable for its tsukemen. I was excited to try both.

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Having the Veteran’s Day holiday off, I wanted to make it count. After lunch #1 at Baco Mercat in downtown, we rushed across town to Tsujita to find an impressive line out the door. Apparently, others on holiday had the same idea. Dammit. While in line, they ran out of tsukemen (and many of the sides). Dammit again. We came all the way over here to try the restaurant, so we decided to stick around and try the ramen.

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A number of table-side toppings were available to add into our soups. The server recommended the hot leaf mustard with the ramen.

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Negi Ramen green onion ramen

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Char-Siu Ramen extra char-siu

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The bowl of ramen looked beautiful, carefully and deliberately put together. The soup clearly had a lot of depth with a nice porky flavor and a milky consistency. The noodles were very good too; I forgot to order ‘hard’ noodles but they still displayed a chewy consistency. The chashu was good too, tender and meaty…not too fatty. It’s really hard to compare to old standbys like Daikokuya, Shin Sen Gumi and Santouka.  They’re all similar, yet very different. Tsujita seemed to be a bit more refined (and more expensive), and I thought the flavors may have been a bit cleaner. Personally though, I still prefer Daikokuya for the noodles, the in-your-face fatty broth, and all the oft-overlooked side dishes.

Kaedama (Extra Noodle)

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I opted for extra noodles, which included extra soup too for $1.50. I’m not sure what happened here; the noodles were in one large clumpy ball, and individual strands were virtually inseparable. What was left was rather mushy. For a restaurant so deliberate in its actions, I wondered if this was intentional, but it seemed the noodles just weren’t stirred at all while cooking. Major disappointment.

In all, I had a very good bowl of ramen (aside from the refill). Not exactly a bowl I’d drive cross-town for again, but very satisfying if in the area. I was pretty disappointed that they ran out of tsukemen so I guess I have to return for that. Will wait for the crowds to die down a bit, though.