Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Simple, Traditional, Japanese Comfort Food - YUZU

While we're blessed with a plethora of Sushi restaurants, and more and more Izakayas (Japanese Pubs), sometimes it's nice to take a break from it all and enjoy some simple, delicious, Japanese Comfort Food from a Washoku-ya ("Washoku" literally means "Japanese Food," and a Washoku-ya generally focuses on serving traditional Japanese fare beyond the ever-popular Sushi / Sashimi).

So when I heard that there was a restaurant billing itself as a real Washoku-ya, focused on Japanese Comfort Food, that wasn't a Sushi, Yakitori (Roasted Skewers), or Izakaya restaurant, I was excited and intrigued. :) The restaurant was simply named "Yuzu" (named after the fragrant Yuzu citrus fruit from Japan), and we found it in a quiet stretch of Cabrillo Avenue.

We arrived at Yuzu on a quiet Wednesday evening. From the moment I saw the exterior, I got a sense that Yuzu was setting up to be a stylish, but traditional Washoku restaurant, with a nice rustic wooden door, and quaint, rough Japanese writing on their backlit metallic sign.

Once inside, we were in view of their large center bar area, which was really more of an open seating area to enjoy the evening's food (vs. an actual bar serving alcoholic beverages or a sushi bar). Besides the main open area, there were tables adorning all sides of the dining room. Clean lines, elegant, but simple decor and wood panels were the main elements inside Yuzu.

Opening up their menu and it was really nice seeing many classic Japanese comfort food dishes, as well as some rather fancy offerings as well. I was excited to see some rare dishes not found very often in Southern California Japanese restaurants, and a great Sake Menu as well! :) Their Sake Menu had two of my favorite Sake present - Kubota Manjyu Junmai Dai Ginjo (from Niigata, Japan), and Suigei Tokubetsu Junmai (Kochi, Japan) - as well as some rarer ones that I'll have to try on my next visit, such as the Urakasumi Zen from Miyagi, Japan. (They also had 8 different premium Sakes by the Glass.) We started off with Suigei this evening. :)

Our first dish arrived quickly, and was one of the more intriguing ones I was hoping would be like my experience in Kyoto: Nama Yuba Konabe Jitate (Fresh Yuba cooked in Soy Milk, "Fondue style"). Yuba is essentially collecting the top layer of Soy Milk when it's cooked, letting it cool/dry and form into a solid state. Having fresh Yuba is pretty rare locally, as the market demand just isn't that great, so we were excited to find a place serving it.

The fresh Yuba arrived on a separate plate, and a large Konabe pot was brought out to the table, atop a portable gas stove. Inside the Konabe was some fresh Soy Milk, which was slowly brought to a simmer before we started dipping in pieces of the fresh Yuba to steep before eating.

After letting the fresh Yuba steep for just a bit in the simmering fresh Soy Milk, I quickly took a bite and was rewarded with a wonderful, light, silky texture from the Yuba. The Soy Milk added a creamy, velvety texture to each bite, and the Yuba was delicious. (Note: This isn't very salty at all, so feel free to adjust the sodium content with condiments at the table if need be. We found it delicious as is. :)

We felt like trying some of their simpler, classic Japanese Vegetable dishes, so we ordered their: Aona to Oage no Nibidashi (Fresh Green Leaves and Fried Tofu Simmered in Light Dashi Broth). As the name suggested, this was a nice, simple dish that brings a certain nostalgia of home cooking. The simmered Spinach, Fried Tofu and fragrant Dashi Broth were exactly the sum of the parts; this wasn't a luxurious dish, but it was just fine if you're in the mood for something light. :)

Our next dish arrived soon after: Maui Onion no Furai (Fried Maui Onion). I love Onions, and this dish was served with a nice Matcha Shio (Matcha Green Tea Salt) and a Kare Shio (Curry Powder-infused Salt), as well as Tonkatsu Sauce. It was also served with some Avocado Tempura as well. While it sounds rather basic, the Maui Onion was *so* sweet and perfectly fried; mouth-wateringly delicious with each bite! It paired nicely with all 3 condiments, but I personally enjoyed it best with the Matcha Shio. (^_^) Delicious!

Yuzu's largest section of their menu is devoted to their Aburiyaki Grill, which they describe as an open fire grilling method, cooking the ingredients over a ceramic charcoal brazier. I was looking forward to this the most, and giddily hopping up and down inside when our dish from the Aburiyaki Grill arrived: Jidori Muneniku Bainiku So-su Tapuri Aojiso Zoe (Grilled Natural Chicken Breast with Japanese Ume Plum Paste, served with Aojiso Plum Leaf).

Visually it looked rustic and gorgeous, and we eagerly took a bite: It was at once wonderful and disappointing. It was disappointing in that the Chicken Breast was lukewarm. It seems that this must've been cooked earlier on their ceramic brazier and then sliced / prepared to order later. From the way the menu described it, it sounded like each dish would be cooked to order, so that it would be piping hot and fresh. To be fair, the Natural Chicken Breast was very moist, fresh and had a great smoky flavor that was distinct from the usual charcoal aroma.

The Japanese Ume Plum paste and the Aojiso Leaves were perfect with the Jidori Chicken, lending a nice tart, beautiful fruit and herbal fragrance to each bite that can only be gotten from Ume and Aojiso. If this was hot (cooked to order) instead of at room temperature, it would've been one of the best dishes of the night. Still, very good, if you can look past the temperature.

The next dish was another item I was looking forward to: Kurobuta Karaage no Makkuro Zu Ankake (Deep Fried, All Natural Berkshire Pork glazed with Sweet and Sour Black Vinegar Sauce).

For some reason, my eyes glazed over the "sweet and sour" portion and I was focused only on the Japanese writing and the "Deep Fried Berkshire Pork" (^_~). It arrived with a gorgeous hue and simple plating, with nice chunks of the Berkshire Pork atop some fresh Spinach, and beautiful thin strips of Negi (Green Onions). It was cooked perfectly, with a nice crunch and a slight tang from the Black Vinegar, but this was essentially a very high-quality "Sweet and Sour Pork" (~_~), which isn't bad at all, but we just don't enjoy Sweet and Sour to the more traditional preparations. It was a good cut of Pork, and nicely fried, and if you're in the mood for a Japanese interpretation of Sweet and Sour, but more refined, then give this dish a shot. :)

The next dish was simply the highlight of the evening: Foie Gras Saikyo Yaki (Foie Gras marinated in Saikyo Miso, Lightly Grilled). This was from their Aburiyaki Grill menu as well, and after the first dish, I was afraid this would be premade or lukewarm as well. But after taking one bite, a wave of joy washed over me: One of the best Foie Gras preparations I've had in the last ~2 years. The light sweetness from the Saikyo Miso combined with the fresh, pure buttery, creamy goodness of the Foie Gras, and a light smokiness from their ceramic brazier made for the perfect combination! Excellent!

Our next dish was also from the Aburiyaki Grill Menu: Aigamo Tappuri Shiraga Negi (Cross-bred Wild and Domestic Duck Grilled and served with Thin Strips of Negi (Green Onion)). Duck is a favorite of mine, so this was another dish I was looking forward to. The slices of Duck were very moist, and there was a great infusion of spices and the smokiness from their ceramic brazier, but sadly, each slice had a large piece of fat and a piece of the skin. The result was an overly chewy, rubbery texture that had great flavor, but was inedible otherwise.

The next dish to arrive was from their Daily Specials selection: Zaru Dofu Negi (Fresh, House-made Tofu with Green Onions). After their Yuba dish earlier, we knew their was a minimum level of quality with their Soy-based dishes, but it still didn't prepare me for the Fresh, House-made Tofu.

This was another solid presentation, serving the Fresh Tofu in a nice ceramic plate atop a chilled bowl of ice. The House-made Tofu itself was outstanding! A soft, creamy texture, and when eaten with a small bit of their marinated Green Onions, and this was possibly the freshest Tofu I've ever had in Southern California (no hyperbole). Tofu normally can be really bland and tasteless, but freshly-made Tofu is completely different from pre-packaged Tofu. Very nice. :)

Their Jidori to Gobou Konabe (Small Hot Pot with Natural Chicken and Great Burdock) arrived on a small tableside burner, just like the Yuba dish earlier. This was made up of slices of All Natural Chicken and Gobo Root, simmering at the table in a house-made Ponzu Sauce.

The nice Ponzu base provided a great slightly tart and savory marinade for each bite of the Chicken and the Burdock. The earthiness and crunch of the Gobo, the simplicity of the Negi and Chicken all added up to another nice comfort food dish.

Our final dish of the evening was Jiman no Nama Tsukune (Yuzu's famous grilled Ground Chicken Skewers served with a Sweet Yakitori Sauce). I was curious why this was called "nama" in the Japanese name, since it can mean "raw" or "unprocessed" and when the dish arrived, I could see why: It was served (cooked), but with a large Raw Chicken Egg Yolk. Our waitress explained that you should break the Egg Yolk and dip the Tsukune (Ground Chicken Skewer) in it before eating.

The result was surprisingly delicious! The Tsukune didn't exceed the best I had in Kyoto, nor Yakitori Bincho, but it was something different and excellent in its own way: Very moist with a good spice infusion, it was elevated to greatness with the silky, creaminess of the Egg Yolk with each bite. The Tare Sauce was also nice, not overpowering the dish as some Tare Sauces have a tendency to do.

The service throughout the evening was fine, with busboys and servers within eye contact and accessible at any time we needed. Yuzu's dishes range from $4.80 - $16 for the most expensive dish (besides one "Market Price" item for the fresh fish of the day). Our total came out to be ~$65 per person (including tax and tip) (and included some excellent Sake :).

Ultimately, Yuzu is a classy, simple restaurant focusing on delicious Japanese Comfort Food dishes. They may not be as fancy as a Kappo restaurant or a Kaiseki experience, but there's a beauty in the simplicity of good Japanese Comfort Food, and Yuzu gets it mostly right. There are quite a few other simple, but nice Washoku-ya style dishes that show off the range and potential of Yuzu, from the simple Eggplant or Kabocha Squash dishes, to their Tobanyaki (Rib-Eye Beef and Mushrooms baked in a Sizzling Stone Pot with Ponzu Sauce and Grated Daikon), or their Yuzukiri Soba (Buckwheat Noodles infused with Yuzu Citrus Rind(!)), or their Yaki-Onigiri (Grilled Rice Balls). For a relaxing evening enjoying good Japanese Comfort Food and some great Sakes, look no further than Yuzu.

Rating: 8.0 (out of 10.0)

1231 Cabrillo Avenue, #101
Torrance, CA 90501
Tel: (310) 533-9898

Hours: [Lunch] Mon - Fri, 11:30 a.m. - 2:00 p.m.
[Dinner] Mon - Sat, 5:00 p.m. - 10:30 p.m.
Closed Sundays.


Anonymous said...

thanks for your review. on my list of places to try.

just a couple of things i wanted to point out:

the jidori chicken with shiso and ume... i've noticed japanese frequently eat chicken at closer to room temperature than sizzling hot. my wife's family serves it in manner a lot. the thinking behind it, i gather, is that once the bird cools a bit the flavors come out more. depends on the dish though. in your particular case, if the chicken had been too hot it would have wilted the shiso.

regarding the kamo, i've also noticed nearly all birds are served with skin (and much attention is usually paid to making it crispy and flavorful) and nearly all meats are served with a robust amount of fat.

so... it may be the case that both of these dishes *were* extraordinary. just served differently than you were accustomed to and/or were expecting.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Anon,

Thank you for your detailed reply back. It's definitely a possibility that some dishes are served closer to room temperature than piping hot.

But for the Jidori with Ume, the reason we felt it wasn't the case was that they have quite a few items grilling on their large Robata grill, and the presentation and feel of it was akin to Shin Sen Gumi and many other places' Chicken Breast skewers (all of which are fresh off the grill, still hot). Here it was really lukewarm getting cold. The dining room was at 100% capacity on the night we ordered that dish, so maybe the servers were backed up. Or as you say, perhaps it's their style.

The Kamo (Duck) was definitely odd. The texture (extremely chewy, nearly rubbery) wasn't something I'd had before with other Japanese Kamo dishes that were similar.

But overall, I like Yuzu. I can't wait to go back. :) Let me know how your visit goes.

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