*** Update: Kagura has completely changed their menu. They are now focusing on Tonkatsu. Review here.
One of the things I miss most about Tokyo is the modern Kappo restaurant, the relaxed, but stylish Koryouri-ya which are as convenient to go to as a corner convenience store. A Kappo restaurant specializes in the Culinary Arts, focusing on the chef's and kitchen's ability to provide refined Small Plates focusing on the key disciplines within Japanese cuisine: A Kappo menu will usually have dishes featuring their skills for Cutting, Steaming/Stewing, Grilling, Frying, etc. The more stylish Tokyo Koryouri-ya are similar, featuring some great small dishes, and the lines can be blurred.
While there are quite a few restaurants in Southern California carrying the Kappo moniker, they generally feature a more humble setting, and basic service (nothing wrong with that), but few have been able to provide the feel of a stylish Tokyo Kappo-ya or Koryouri-ya. So it was with great surprise when we walked into Kagura, during its Grand Opening, and found a stunningly elegant Koryouri-ya in the heart of Southern California!
The first thing that grabbed our attention as we walked in was the gorgeous Bar and Decor. Clean, simple lines and a design aesthetic that was reminiscent of Tokyo.
Kagura's creative and extensive menu is the work of Chef Hiro Matsushita, who hails from Tokyo, Japan. He trained there for over 15 years before coming over to Kagura. As we perused the menu, there were quite a few interesting and innovative-sounding dishes. Our group tonight included a few Japanese Cuisine Hounds, and we were all excited at the menu. We quickly placed an order and eagerly awaited the dishes. :)
They also have a very extensive Drinks Menu, carrying one of the best Japanese beers – Echigo Koshihikari Beer – as well as a huge selection of Shochu (with specialized Shochu made from Buckwheat, Sugarcane, Rice, Barley, Sweet Potato and Sesame), and finally a decent Sake Menu. We began with a bottle of Yonetsuru Daiginjo Sake, from Yamagata, Japan. It was very fragrant, with a floral and fruity accent, but with a rough finish. I prefer a smoother finish, but overall it was OK.
The first dish that arrived was their Asazukiri Tofu (Homemade Tofu). Having fresh-made Tofu is always a treat, far more fragrant, light and fresh from the prepackaged Tofu found in markets. I was looking forward to Kagura’s version, and visually, it looked wonderful, presented on a bamboo plate with a slice of Yuzu fruit. They also provided three types of condiments to pair with the Tofu: Yuzu Shio (Yuzu Citrus-infused Salt), Umejio (Japanese Plum-infused Salt), and Shoyu (Soy Sauce).
The Tofu itself was nice and tender, and while it was fresh, it wasn’t as fresh as the homemade Tofu I had at Komameya (a Yuba specialist in Kyoto), or Kappo Hana. The Tofu paired nicely with both the Yuzu Shio and the Umejio, with both infused salts lending a nice accent to the simple Soybean flavors.
The second dish to arrive was their Gindara no Saikyo Yaki (Grilled Black Cod marinated in Saikyo Miso Sauce). This classic dish is usually a good test of the kitchen. The Black Cod was moist and perfectly cooked through. The Saikyo Miso taste was delicate and very fragrant, but it was a tad too salty for my tastes. The Saikyo Miso wasn’t overpowering, so it seems it was just too much Shio (Salt) used in the preparation and not a case of too much Miso. Otherwise, it was great (and when drank with some Sake it was just fine. :)
We then tried a bottle of their Wakatake Onikoroshi Sake from Shizuoka, Japan. This one was a little sweeter than the previous Sake we had, but still a little too rough on the finish for my preference. It was decent. The other nice thing about all their Sake is that they are served in the glass, but also with the traditional Wooden Box for drinking.
Our next dish arrived soon after: Akiyasai no Tempura (Deep Fried Seasonal Vegetables). It was served with Matcha Shio (Matcha Green Tea-infused Salt), and Umejio (Japanese Plum-infused Salt). The Kabocha (Pumpkin) Tempura was nicely cooked and delicious. The Shishito (Japanese Pepper) Tempura was just perfect (but I love Shishito in general (^_~)), with a light batter (as with all the pieces). The Nasu (Eggplant), Satsuma Imo (Japanese Sweet Potato), and Maitake Mushroom Tempura were all prepared about the same; a good plate of Tempura Vegetables, but not as good as the two Tempura Specialists nearby (Komatsu and Inaba).
The next dish arrived with beautiful plating: Maitake to Yuba no Usudaki (Boiled Maitake Mushroom and Yuba Tofu with Special Soy Sauce). The Maitake Mushroom was wrapped in Yuba, and it was decent. I wasn't expecting the level of fresh Kyoto Yuba (and it wasn't), but it was a decent interpretation of the dish if you're craving something light. Their Plating also deserves mention, with each dish presented on beautiful and simple earthenware.
The Aji no Namerou Letasu Zoe (Diced Horse Mackerel with Miso and Green Onion in a Lettuce Cup) was pretty good. Diced up Aji went really well with the Miso and Negi (Green Onions). The Lettuce Cup was an interesting twist, but it would've been fine without it.
The pacing was pretty consistent at this point, and our next dish arrived a few minutes afterwards: Kinmedai no Nitsuke (Slow Stewed Golden Eye Snapper in a Special Soy Sauce Broth). Kinmedai is a really nice fish to get, and not that common in Southern California. As I placed a piece of the Kinmedai in my mouth, I could already sense the glory that was Kagura’s Kinmedai no Nitsuke. This was an absolutely *delicious* dish! The Golden Eye Snapper was perfection personified, so tender, wonderfully flavorful as only Kinmedai can get, and a nice supple texture while still retaining its inherent structure. The highlight of the evening!
For its first Opening Weekend, Kagura was doing pretty well up to this point, but our next dish was the first of a few hiccups. We ordered a special type of Unagi (Freshwater Eel), but they brought out the wrong dish. I asked our waitress to confirm if this was truly the Unagi we ordered, and she went into the kitchen and came back, stating that, “yes, this was your order.” (It was only later (after we finished eating this dish) that our waitress came back and apologized, stating that the Unagi we had was, indeed the wrong Unagi dish.) Regardless, the dish that they served us was delicious! (^_^) Unagi Shirayuki (Tokujo Nihon San Tennen Unagi) (Charbroiled Premium Freshwater Eel) was flown in from Shizuoka, Japan. The Premium Unagi was cooked through, yet still extremely moist, and so fragrant! One of the best Unagi I’ve had in Southern California.
Their Kurobuta no Hitokuchi Hire Katsu (Deep Fried Berkshire Pork Filet Cutlet) arrived next, presented on a metal frame (to allow the Berkshire Pork Cutlet to remain crispy and allow any excess oil to drip away). Their Hire Katsu was very tender, and it was an excellent cut of Berkshire Pork. The quality of the Katsu Sauce and the Karashi (Japanese Mustard) were also of high-quality, and added to the enjoyment. :) The only downside was that the breading, while crispy, broke apart and away from the Pork itself, which was slightly disappointing. Still, overall, a tasty dish.
I was really looking forward to our next dish, as I’ve never seen it offered at any of the restaurants I frequent in L.A.: Koayu Takikomi Gohan (Baby Sweetfish over Steamed Rice). The Koayu was flown in from Japan, and it’s steamed inside a beautiful Donabe (Earthenware Pot) with the rice, to maximize the flavors. When we opened up the lid, everyone at the table commented on how fragrant the aromas were. The Koayu was great! It reminded me of my time in Tokyo immediately, the rustic, simplicity of Ayu with Rice. (^_^) The only downside was that I forgot how small Koayu can be, and as a result the ratio of Ayu fish meat-to-bone was pretty low (if you don’t like to hassle with picking out bones from fish, then I’d recommend skipping this dish). Otherwise, this was beautiful simplicity.
Kagura also serves a nice variety of Takikomi Gohan (Steamed Rice Dishes in Earthenware Pots) that I want to try next time, including the Tai Takikomi Gohan (Japanese Sea Bream over Steamed Rice), and Matsutake Takikomi Gohan (Matsutake Mushroom over Steamed Rice). On a side note, the chef mentioned that they weren’t serving the Matsutake dishes until they were in season: He was expecting his first batch of Matsutake Mushrooms from Japan in about “2-3 weeks.”
Perhaps the most surprising dish of the evening was their Ankimo no Touban Yaki Kuzuankake (Sauteed Monkfish Liver with Kuzu-an Sauce). This was presented in a cute earthenware pot, and the Kuzuankake was poured over the Monkfish. I picked up a piece and took a bite: This was the equivalent of Liquid Nirvana in my mouth! The buttery Monkfish Liver had a great sear, and the light notes of Mirin, and the light Broth and the Mushrooms... Everyone at the table stopped talking while we were eating this, and we could only smile! (^_^) Wonderful! (Tied for my favorite dish of the evening.)
I was fearing a let down after the amazing Ankimo we just had, but thankfully the next dish was almost as good: Jidori no Houba Miso Yaki (Broiled Free-Range Chicken Leg Meat with Miso Sauce in a Houba Leaf). It was basically deboned, slices of Free-Range Chicken with fragrant Onions and a really nice Miso base, all wrapped up in a large Houba Leaf and broiled. The Houba Leaf has this wonderful earthy aroma that makes this dish standout from most Chicken dishes at Japanese restaurants. Another excellent dish!
On a side note, even their Gohan (Steamed Rice) was presented in a beautiful Rice Bowl. :)
Our Kaisen Zousui (Assorted Seafood and Rice in a Fish Soup) arrived next. I love Zousui (basically a simple rice dish, with a type of meat cooked together in a certain broth / soup), and a Seafood version is always nice to have (Chicken Zousui is the more common offering locally). This version featured quite a few pieces of Seafood: Chef Matsushita took pieces of Tai (Sea Bream), Hirame (Halibut), Kani (Crab) and Ebi (Shrimp) and stewed them all together with the Rice and Fish Soup. Simple, down-to-earth, and delicious!
Their Kamo no Sumiyaki Ro-suto (Charbroiled Wild Duck) arrived soon after. This was probably the only major disappointment of the evening. The Wild Duck Breast was cooked Rare-to-Medium-Rare, and was extremely fatty. In leaving each piece with the skin, and a big layer of fat, and the undercooked Duck Breast, it resulted in an extremely chewy dish, and not very appetizing. The marinade on the Wild Duck was great, but it couldn’t save this dish.
Our final savory dish of the night, Shiromi Sakana no Igaguri Age (Deep Fried White Fish Ball), was a striking presentation: Each Fish Ball was presented with a crunchy, spikey(!) Deep Fried Batter exterior. Biting into it, the Shiromi Sakana itself was so-so, tasting really mundane and flat. The wonderful flash-fried Shishito (Japanese Shishito Pepper) were the best part of the dish, very fragrant, lightly spicy (just a touch), and so good with Rice or Sake. (^_~)
They had forgotten 3 other dishes that we ordered, and two waitresses came out to apologize profusely for the oversight. We moved onto the Desserts at this point, choosing two to sample for the table. We began with their Matcha Purin (Matcha Green Tea Pudding with Caramel Sauce). The Matcha Pudding was presented similar to a Crème Brulee, with a nice torched top, giving way to a really delicious Matcha Pudding! A delicate Matcha Green Tea flavor permeated each bite, and when combined with the velvety nature of the Pudding, it was a great dessert.
Our other dessert was the Nihonshu no Shya-betto Yuzu Fumi (Yuzu Citrus-flavored Sake Sherbet). It sounded wonderful, and we were excited, only to be perplexed by a Champagne Glass filled with what looked like crushed ice(!). We each took a small chunk and realized that their “crushed ice” was the “Yuzu-flavored Sake Sherbet”). (>_>) To be fair, the actual taste was *wonderfully* delicious, with a great infusion of natural Yuzu Citrus with each bite. They also provided a slice of Yuzu fruit in the glass. It wasn’t as great as Sushi Zo’s Yuzu Drink at the end of the meal, but it was a nice ending.
We were all generally impressed with Kagura and the space, despite the hiccups in a few dishes, and the one thing that caught my eye was that they serve 3 different types of Kaiseki meals! (Kaiseki is essentially a focused, multi-course meal, like a Japanese Chef's Tasting Menu, but with each dish focused on form and meaning, reflective of a certain theme that the chef is hoping to convey.) After having mixed results with Kaiseki in Southern California, I was hesitant, but I was impressed with quite a few of Matsushita-san's dishes, so I came back the next day (only the 2nd full day of their Grand Opening weekend, last night) to try out their full Kaiseki meal, listed on the menu as "Kagura Kaiseki." (Note: This needs to be reserved one day in advance.)
I arrived early, and took a look around the rest of the restaurant. Besides the main Dining Room, Kagura also has a beautiful side section, featuring quiet, romantic booths and tables. (^_~) They also have a Large Guest Room for larger parties (seating up to 15+ people), which they said should finish renovations in about 2 weeks.
The ultimate Kaiseki experience has not only the excellence of thematic plating design and amazing food, but also an environment to fully enjoy such things (exemplified by places like Hyotei in Kyoto). If a place lacks the physical environment, it's usually balanced out by outstanding service to maintain a tranquil dining experience. Kagura didn't have the geographical luxury of being besides a river or having a private garden, so I was hoping their service would be up to task.
I ordered a glass of the Sawanoi Junmai Ginjo Sake, from Tokyo, Japan to start off the evening. The Sawanoi Sake was probably the best Sake on their menu I've tried so far: It was nice and light, and very smooth in flavors, with a quick dry finish.
The Sakizuke (Amuse Bouche) started off with a bang: Shirako (Milt). Unfortunately, I had heard all about this Japanese delicacy years ago, so I knew what this was, before I ate it. I took a deep breath and took a bite: The Shirako was extremely tender, smooth and buttery. It tasted like a mellower Foie Gras, and was delicious! Chef Matsushita presented it with some Umibudo (Okinawan Seaweed), which added a nice briny accent. I had always wanted to try Shirako once, and was surprised that Kagura had this (but it also reflects a certain level of quality they are trying to achieve). The plating for the Sakizuke was gorgeous: A gold-trimmed, flower-shaped glass bowl.
The Hassun (Autumn Seasonal Appetizer) arrived before I had finished my Amuse. (This would prove to be the consistent misstep in the Kaiseki experience I had: The next course arriving before finishing my previous course.) The first thing that struck me was the wonderful plating design! A gorgeous Japanese ceramic plate, with each of the five elements arranged artfully and thoughtfully: A journey from the Sea to the Land.
I began on the left-side, with their simply named Tamago (Egg). This was a Tamago-yaki (Cooked Egg Omelette) with Mochi, wrapped in Nori (Seaweed). The Tamago was fresh and simple.
The next item on the plate was the Shirae (Hijiki (Sea Vegetable) mixed with fresh Tofu), presented in a cute, beautiful mini-ceramic bowl. This was light and refreshing, with the Hijiki's brininess mellowed out by the Tofu mixture.
The next item was another beautifully presented dish: Katsuo Tatsuta-age (Deep-fried Skipjack). The Skipjack fish was fabulous, with big, meaty textures and flavors, and a smoky, fragrant aroma with each bite!
The next item was another surprise and so cute and beautiful in its presentation: Sawagani (Japanese River Crab) flown in from Tsukiji, Tokyo, Japan. The Sawagani is deep-fried to a crisp, so that the entire River Crab can be eaten, shell and all! It was crunchy and had just a tiny taste of the crab before it gave way to more of the crunchy shell. It was visually and texturally more interesting than the actual taste (which was good), but I wanted more of them to properly understand its flavor. :)
The final piece of this second course was: Nikobori (Fish Gelee) made from Maguro (Tuna). Like all the items on this plate, this was another excellent offering: The Maguro added a really nice accent to the whole Gelee.
The Osuimono (Soup) course came next: Hamo no Osuimono (Conger Eel Clear Soup). It was presented in nice Japanese lacquerware, and had a good fragrance when I opened up the lid.
The Hamo (Conger Eel) itself was overcooked. It's understandable if they wanted to cook it to the point that the Hamo completely flavored the broth, but the broth itself was completely overpowered by a strong Katsuobushi (Dried Bonito Flakes) flavor; it was a very clean broth, however. The Mochi was really tender and a nice complement to the broth.
The next course was Sashimi, made up of 4 different types of fish, all from Tokyo, Japan. I began with their Sanma (Mackerel Pike). The Sanma has a nice oiliness inherent in the fish, and it was better than the Sanma I had at Inaba recently.
Next up was the Awabi (Abalone). It tasted fresh and crisp, but the cut I had was too crunchy and hard at times.
The Hirame (Halibut) was excellent! A great cut, with no tendon or gristle, and a good firmness on the meat without it being chewy. One of the better cuts of Hirame I've had in the past year.
Finally, their Ohtoro (Fattiest Portion of Tuna Belly) was fresh, but showed off the limited knife skills of Chef Matsushita. The Ohtoro was buttery goodness, but each piece had a large piece of tendon/connective tissue in each slice. Very unfortunate.
The Yakimono (Grilled) course came next, and it was a rarity: Kamasu Shio Yaki (Grilled Barracuda with a Salt-base) from Tokyo, Japan. The Kamasu was grilled perfectly, very tender and moist, with a lightly flaky meat. The light smokiness from the grilling pervaded each bite in a good way. The only downside to this dish is that Kamasu is very bony, so if you don't like to hassle with fish bones, then you could ask for a different fish, or choose the Beef option for this course.
I tried another Sake at this point: Ohyama Nama Sake, from Yamagata, Japan. This had a rather spicy, round taste, and a good fragrance. However it had a slightly rough aftertaste. I preferred the Sawanoi over this one.
The Mushimono (Steamed) course came next: Kinoko Dobinmushi (Steamed Mushroom and Seafood Soup). This was another nice plating design, with the Kinoko Dobinmushi brought out with a ceramic large teapot with a small tea cup and a wedge of Yuzu fruit. The Soup was a very clean, clear broth with Shimeji Mushrooms, Tai (Red Snapper), Tori (Chicken), and Ebi (Shrimp). This was an outstanding light soup, *so* fragrant and soul-warming. :) It was supposed to be a Matsutake Dobinmushi, but the kitchen still haven't received their first batch from Japan yet, but this replacement was done nicely.
Their Nimono (Boiled) Course came next: Shun Yasai Nimono (Seasonal Vegetables, Boiled). This was another nice presentation, with Kabocha (Pumpkin), Togan (Wintermelon), Ninjin (Carrot), Kinusaya (Snow Pea) and Ebi (Shrimp). The highlight of this dish was the Kabocha which was wonderfully tender and had a nice savory angle from the Dashi broth, and the Wintermelon was just as delicious. The Ebi was a bit overcooked and slightly tough, but still decent.
Next came their Hashiyasume ("time to rest the chopsticks") course, which was meant to be a break from using the chopsticks so much (especially on the Barracuda), and a palate cleanser at this point. It was their Nihonshu no Shya-betto Yuzu Fumi (Yuzu Citrus-flavored Sake Sherbet) that I had last night on their regular Dessert menu. It was refreshing, and definitely a welcome break at this point, with the light Yuzu Citrus providing a clean, cool respite.
Their Tempura course came next, with Shimeji Mushroom Tempura, Nasu (Eggplant) Tempura, Shishito (Japanese Shishito Pepper) Tempura, and Oba (Green Perilla) Tempura.
The Eggplant was excellent, tender and meaty. The Shishito Pepper was just as good as before, and the other repeats today were similar to yesterday's experience. The Oba Leaf was the only disappointment, with almost no taste except the Tempura batter. The nicest part of the course were the 3 condiments provided: Umejio (Japanese Plum-infused Salt), Matcha Shio (Matcha Green Tea Salt), and a Yukijio (Snow Salt!), named that way because of its resemblance to powdered snow. It was beautiful and a fun way to eat the Tempura.
The Sunomono (Vinegared) dish arrived next: Zuwaigani (Snow Crab) from Tokyo, Japan. I was worried that the Snow Crab might've been ruined by the vinegar, but contrary to that, the Zuwaigani was wonderfully sweet! It tasted more like a light Vinegar garnish that provided a *great* foil to the inherently sweet meat of the Snow Crab itself; an excellent pairing!
The Gohan (Rice) course came next: Awabi no Gohan (Abalone Steamed Rice). This course was originally supposed to be Matsutake Gohan (Matsutake Mushrooms with Steamed Rice), but they were still waiting for their first shipment. In a nice gesture, before I even began my Kaiseki course this evening, the kitchen notified me of the substitutions and allowed me to choose something else, or even cancel if need be. This course was also served with the traditional Miso Soup and Pickles.
The presentation was spot-on again, with a nice Rice Bowl for the Abalone Rice. The Rice itself was wonderfully fragrant, with the Abalone's flavors permeating throughout the rice as they were cooked together. It was delicate, balanced, and had this light ocean-y scent (in a good way) with each bite. The Awabi itself was overcooked, however, being a bit too tough and chewy for my tastes (but not bad).
The Akadashi Misoshiru (Red Miso Soup) was heavily flavored with the Akamiso. It was just too much, and resulted in a very salty, overpowered soup.
The Oshinko (Pickled Vegetables) were also disappointing, tasting very flat and not fresh. These are usually an afterthought at many Japanese restaurants locally, as they were here, but for a Kaiseki experience, the Pickled Vegetables they serve you should be exemplary and standout.
Finally, the last course, the Mizugashi ("Seasonal Fruits"), arrived soon after, featuring three parts. The first part was the Matcha Purin (Matcha Green Tea Pudding) which was part of their main Dessert Menu. It was just as delicious as last night, with a wonderful, deep, earthy Matcha Green Tea playing off beautifully with the Pudding texture.
Next was the Ichigo Miruku (Strawberry Milk), which was slices of fresh Strawberries with Condensed Milk. The Strawberries tasted fresh, but the Condensed Milk was unnecessary.
Finally, the Warabi Mochi (Mochi made with Bracken) remained. Good Warabi Mochi can be hard to find, so I was really looking forward to this. The Warabi Mochi at Kagura was actually a Duo: One half was made with Azuki (Red Bean), and the other half was Warabi Mochi. It was sprinkled with Kinako Powder (Soy Flour Powder). This was *so* delicious, the Warabi Mochi being extremely tender and delicate, something only possible with fresh-made Warabi Mochi. The Kinako Powder provided the perfect nutty finish to each bite. Outstanding! (^_^)
They presented a hot cup of Green Tea to finish things off. I was hoping they would make a cup of Matcha like what I had at Hyotei, but that was not meant to be. The Green Tea itself tasted OK, but nothing standout.
For its Grand Opening weekend, Kagura showed many of the common signs of a new restaurant: Inconsistent service at times, a few mixed up orders / forgotten orders, and with such an eclectic and extensive menu, some misses, but mostly hits. For the Kaiseki experience, Chef Matsushita shows off some impressive work in some dishes, but a few more missteps than what I'd feel comfortable with. Add to that, the bad pacing (more than half of my 14 courses during the Kaiseki meal came out before I had finished the current dish at the time), and it was just a rushed experience that should never happen with a good Kaiseki meal. Each of the Dishes range from $6 - $45 (the only dish at $45 being a Large Sashimi Platter), with most dishes in the $7 - 12 range, and the high end generally around $30. Our total the first night was $100 per person (including tax and tip), and that included too much food and a lot of Sake. :) The Kaiseki course was $145 per person (including tax and tip). They also have two smaller Kaiseki courses at $60 per person, and $80 per person.
Kagura is a handsome space, with a beautiful decor and ambiance reminding me of an elegant Kappo-ya or Koryouri-ya in Tokyo. With an innovative menu, and some rare dishes I haven't seen offered on any local menu, and a great waitstaff aiming to please (the men are all dressed in sharp, pure, black garb, and the women are all in Yukatas), Kagura has the potential to be a great Tokyo-style Koryouri-ya. For now, I would stick with the dishes off their Main Menu and pass on the Kaiseki courses until they can work out their service kinks. One other minor quibble is that while their Shochu Menu is extensive with some good selections, their Sake offerings need a few stronger choices, such as Kubota Manjyu at the very least. Still, with some outstanding dishes and gorgeous designs, here's to hoping Kagura blossoms into the great Kappo restaurant it has the potential to be! (^_^)/
Rating: 8.5 (out of 10.0)
1652 Cabrillo Avenue
Torrance, CA 90501
Tel: (310) 787-0227
Hours: [Lunch] Mon - Fri, 11:00 a.m. - 2:30 p.m.
[Dinner] Mon- Thurs, 6:00 p.m. - 11:00 p.m. (last order 10:30 p.m.)
Fri - Sat, 6:00 p.m. - 12:00 a.m. (last order 11:30 p.m.)
Sunday, September 14, 2008
*** Update: Kagura has completely changed their menu. They are now focusing on Tonkatsu. Review here.