Sunday, November 8, 2009

The Soul Warming Food of Kagaya (or, What's the Difference Between Grade A4 and Grade A5 Wagyu Beef?)

As the winter chill begins to set in, one of the greatest pleasures for this time of year would have to be seeking out the foods that warm you from the inside out; a hot bowl of Chicken Noodle Soup, or a big mug of Hot Chocolate. And while there are many individual-portioned ways to warm up during the colder months, there's just something fun about the communal interactivity of Shabu Shabu, the Japanese meal involving everyone at the table cooking pieces of meat and vegetables in a pot of boiling broth (sorta like a Fondue). It seems like most Asian cultures have their version of this communal hot pot dish, which gives you a wide range of choices depending on your preference. But in terms of enjoying the flavors and quality of the meat and vegetables, Shabu Shabu at Kagaya in Little Tokyo would have to be my favorite spot in town.

2009 marks the 15th anniversary of Kagaya, helmed by Chef-Owner Masato Kagaya, who opened this restaurant after years of studying and cooking all forms of traditional Japanese cuisine in Kyoto and Tokyo (you can see examples of Masato-san's traditional training with the various small plates provided as part of the Shabu Shabu meal).

Kagaya is one of the most relaxed, cozy Shabu Shabu restaurants around town, with a simple, clean decor. With its limited number of tables, reservations are highly recommended. In fact, every time I've dined there (on weeknights and weekends), it's been at or near 100% capacity.

After placing your order, a communal metal pot filled with a housemade Broth of Chicken, Katsuobushi (Dried Bonito Shavings) and Konbu (Kelp) is placed at the center of the table (you can also dine at the bar area, where individual metal pots are provided if you're dining solo or prefer your own individual cooking vessel).

The menu is relatively simple at Kagaya, with a focus on quality Beef (3 types) and a Seafood assortment. All of the 7 combination set meals include 2 seasonal appetizers, a soup course, vegetables, choice of Udon Noodles or a Zosui Rice dish, and one of the homemade Desserts.

During my first visit, Chef Masato starts us off with a Hirame Carpaccio. The Halibut meat is fresh and bright, with a nice Red Peppercorn, Shiso Leaf and Green Onion combination of flavors, allowing a pointed herbal facet to stand up to the Ponzu dressing. The only misstep in this dish would have to be one piece of gristle/connective tissue in one of the slices of Hirame.

Their Yude Ebi (Boiled Shrimp) Soup is delightfully slippery and sweet, tender, yet still firm with an herbal edge, befitting a place within the parade of dishes served in a Kaiseki meal.

Their Tofu to Hamo no Agedashi (Fried Tofu and Conger Eel) is another good dish.

Chef Masato uses just the right amount of Katakuriko (Potato Starch) so as to not overwhelm the Agedashi Tofu, and the Hamo (Conger Eel) has a fresh, lightly buttery taste, with a clean oil background. It's not going to dethrone Inaba's seasonal Hamo Tempura, but for a non-Tempura specialist, this is quite good.

On another visit, we're presented with Halibut and Tonburi in housemade Ponzu Sauce.

Tonburi (Summer Cypress Seeds) are relatively rare in So Cal, so it's great to experience them when they're offered. The Halibut this time is beautifully mild and clean, with the Tonburi giving off a nice woodsy, grassy note to the dish.

Another outstanding Soup we've had is their Monkfish and Seaweed Soup.

The Ankou (Monkfish) has such a great firmness and a satisfying chew that's still yielding and pliable, all bathed in a light, airy broth.

Their Me-Kajiki (Swordfish) served with Daikon Oroshi (Grated Daikon Radish) and Shishito Pepper is probably the only disappointing appetizer I've had so far.

It's a chunkier, meatier fish, but it was a touch overcooked (dried out on the edges), but getting into the center meat that was still moist, when combined with the Daikon Oroshi and Shishito made for a great flavor combination: A satisfying, smoky meatiness combined with the finely grated, smooth, cooling Daikon Radish, and the fragrant Shishito Pepper.

With the main Shabu Shabu course about to begin, we're presented with 2 types of dipping sauces: A homemade citrus-y Ponzu Sauce and a more aromatic, nutty Gomadare (Sesame Seed) Sauce.

With each of the 7 Shabu Shabu Courses, you're served a plateful of assorted fresh vegetables, usually Hakusai (Napa Cabbage), Shungiku (Chrysanthemum Greens) and Negi (Green Onions), along with Shiitake Mushrooms, Tofu and Harusame Noodles (made from Mung Bean and/or Potato Starch).

I enjoy letting as many flavors combine as long as possible, so I usually add in a good portion of each of the ingredients right at the start (when the broth begins to simmer).

Kagaya's menu features 3 types of Beef (USDA Prime Rib, Grade A4 Wagyu Beef and Grade A5 Wagyu Beef) and a fixed Seafood mix of Alaskan King Crab, Oysters and Clams. You can order Seafood only, or a combination of one of the 3 types of Beef with Seafood. Over our multiple visits, we've tried the Mix Shabu Shabu A Course (USDA Prime Rib + Seafood) and Mix Shabu Shabu C Course (Premium Wagyu Beef (Grade A5) + Seafood), and just pure Seafood, and the mixture has always been consistently the same.

And while the Alaskan King Crab that's served with the Shabu Shabu course is frozen, it's been consistently lightly sweet, oceanic and delicious. (Note, they also serve Live King Crab depending on the season, so be sure to check with your server.)

For the Oyster, Kagaya alternates between Hama Hamas and Kumamotos depending on the availability with their supplier. In experimenting with the Oysters cooking time, I've enjoyed them most with a quick 5 second dip into the boiling broth: They end up lightly poached, lightly briny and still silky and delicious. :)

The Clams are probably the only disappointment in the Seafood assortment: They're OK, but in the few times I've tried them, they've turned out a bit too briny for my tastes.

But at the end of the day, it's all about the glorious Beef at Kagaya. While many Asian hot pot restaurants are focused on quantity, Kagaya's aim is on quality, with 3 types of top-quality Beef: USDA Prime, Grade A4 *and* Grade A5 Wagyu Beef from Miyazaki, Japan. (FYI: U.S. Prime is the highest grade offered in the U.S. for Beef, but in Japan, their scale has more criteria and rates Beef in 15(!) levels, from C1 - A5, going beyond USDA Prime's limit. The maximum Grade A5 Wagyu Beef from Japan is quite expensive.)

Having experienced simple, neighborhood Shabu Shabu restaurants and a variety of economically priced Chinese Hot Pot establishments in So Cal, I was curious just how much of a difference USDA Prime Beef would be from the typical offerings around town.

The USDA Prime has consistently featured some good marbling and a beautiful vibrant red during each of our visits.

Taking a bite: Outstanding. (^_^)

The USDA Prime is buttery (but not overwhelming so), with a light, perceptible beefiness (so many Beef dishes these days seem to lack this quality). It goes well with both the homemade Ponzu and the Gomadare Sesame Sauce. It's become my favorite version of Beef offered at Shabu Shabu restaurants in So Cal. :)

A note on the cooking times: For Shabu Shabu, the thinly-sliced Beef cooks very fast. A mere 4 seconds of swishing back and forth for USDA Prime results in a medium-well doneness already (but it's still juicy). Here's an example of Grade A5 Wagyu cooking for just 5 *seconds*:

While we've seen some restaurants slowly offering the most expensive Grade A5 Wagyu Beef from Japan, I've never run across a restaurant in So Cal offering Grade A4 Wagyu Beef (just 1 step below the maximum grade), so I was excited and curious to see how it would compare with Grade A5. Kagaya's Grade A4 Wagyu Beef from Miyazaki, Japan is listed simply as "Wagyu Beef" on the menu.

There's noticeably more marbling in comparison with USDA Prime while still having a good amount of lean meat.

Having gotten our cooking times down, we try the Grade A4 Wagyu Beef at a variety of doneness levels. Here's one piece at just 3 seconds of cooking:

The Grade A4 Wagyu turns out to be much more buttery than the USDA Prime, but it tastes flat. It lacks the beefiness, but partially makes up for it with a superior texture and mouthfeel (if you prefer a softer, more buttery taste). Still, between these 2 grades for Shabu Shabu, the USDA Prime is the way to go.

Finally, we try their maximum Grade A5 Wagyu Beef also from Miyazaki, Japan, listed as "Premium Wagyu Beef" on the menu.

At first glance, you immediately notice the excessive marbling, even more than the Grade A4, and inevitably there's a gleam in everyone's eye when this comes out (it's happened every time I've brought a guest to try this). :)

Trying it rare to medium-rare, it's wonderfully buttery - clearly superior to the Grade A4 - but like the A4, it lacks the beefiness and tastes a little flat. Perhaps it's the expectations of maximum Grade A5 Wagyu, but then I remember the wonderful, fragrant, version of A5 Wagyu Filet Mignon from The Steak House, and that exhibited a good light beefiness. And also the amazing Grade A5 Hokkaido-Gyu I've had at Urasawa (3 different ways): They've also been outstanding in texture and flavor. Having tried it barely poached (2 seconds), rare, medium-rare, medium-well, all resulted in the same conclusion: Thinly-sliced A5 Miyazaki Wagyu just doesn't hold up well with Shabu Shabu cooking; it's all texture (great texture), with no flavor.

So, surprisingly and shockingly, after having tried all 3 types of Beef a few times, the overwhelming favorite for my guests and myself would have to be the USDA Prime(!). The thicker-cut A5 Hokkaido-Gyu (also cooked Shabu Shabu style) at Urasawa trumps any of these, but I'm more than happy with the USDA Prime here at Kagaya. Delicious! :)

After the main meal is over, you're offered a choice of Udon Noodles or Zosui (Rice Porridge), both of which are made from the remaining Broth from the Shabu Shabu Course. Both are prepared tableside, with the Zosui offering a nice, tart element with the always delectable Umeboshi (Pickled Japanese Plum).

The Udon Noodles are even lighter, with a fresh-cracked scrambled Egg, Green Onions, Salt and Black Pepper added to the Broth to finish it.

The housemade Takuan (Pickled Daikon) is outstanding! A great, crisp crunch and bite, beautifully floral and so herbal, it's a great complement to the Zosui (Rice Porridge).

For dessert, their Baked Apple Pie is a great finisher.

It's more of a deconstructed Apple Pie than anything, but with a crispy, flaky crust and a pleasantly deep Apple flavor, without being overly sweet.

Their Green Tea Mousse is actually extremely light, and only lightly sweetened, being more neutral than anything. This allows the Matcha (Premium Green Tea)'s slightly bitter and herbal notes to come through more clearly. The touch of Red Beans and a mellow Cream are a great finishing touch.

The service has been consistently fine. If we were sitting at a table, the ~2-3 servers would periodically come around and check on each table, or you can flag them down for any needs. Sitting at the main Shabu Shabu bar, Chef-Owner Masato Kagaya personally oversees each customer in that area, and without you asking, will quietly call a server over to refill drinks, clear plates and/or help any customer that needs it. Prices for the Shabu Shabu Courses run from $43 (for the USDA Prime) up to $128 (Grade A5 Wagyu Beef). You can also order additional plates of Beef or Seafood (in Half Portions or Full Portions), ranging from $12 (USDA Prime, Half Order) - $110 (Grade A5 Wagyu, Full Order).

As a great defense against the oncoming wintry nights, Kagaya offers up outstanding quality Beef to be enjoyed in a family-style atmosphere. While their Grade A4 and A5 Wagyu Beef are enticing offerings, this is one case where the cheapest option on the menu is surprisingly their best choice (USDA Prime), especially considering the $43 vs. $128 price tag. If the thought of gathering up some friends and family, enjoying a variety of Vegetables, Seafood and top-quality Beef - Shabu Shabu style - in a warm, cozy atmosphere sounds good, then look no further than Kagaya in Little Tokyo.

Rating: 8.0 (out of 10.0)

(in Honda Plaza in Little Tokyo)
418 E. 2nd Street
Los Angeles, CA 90012
Tel: (213) 617-1016

Hours: Tue - Sat, 6:00 p.m. - 10:30 p.m.
Sun, 6:00 p.m. - 10:00 p.m.
Closed Mondays.


Noriko said...

One of my favorite restaurant when I am in LA. Only one downfall is that even with reservations we had to wait anywhere from 30 min. to one hour each time. Food is delicious and is worth the wait....

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Noriko,

We were lucky that we didn't have to wait more than ~10 minutes with a reservation. I'm glad you like Kagaya. :)

burumun said...

From your write-up the place certainly looks good, but $43 for a plate of USDA Prime? That's pretty expensive. Is that for one person? Not sure I can bring myself to fork that much for shabu shabu.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi burumun,

Thanks. Yah, Kagaya is definitely on the pricier side, but unlike many Shabu Shabu places I've run across in So Cal, Kagaya's price for each course (e.g., $43 for USDA Prime) includes the 2 Small Plates preparations, Soup, Udon or Zosui and Dessert. It's still pricey, but not as bad considering the quality of ingredients.

I've enjoyed their USDA Prime more than other places' American Kobe. But let me know if you have some other Shabu Shabu recommendations. :) Doumo!

Peter said...

I've eaten here twice already. Frankly I believe it to be the best shabu shabu restaurant in Los Angeles by a long shot.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Peter,

Thanks for your thoughts. I'm glad to hear that you really enjoy Kagaya as well. :) Definitely a classy, tasty operation. :)

Peter said...

Thank you for keeping up your impressive blog. :) I refer to it often. By the way, I mentioned awhile back on one of your other posts that I was going to Kansai. I went last month (Osaka, Kyoto, and Kobe). It was a fantastic culinary adventure! From ramen to Kobe beef, it was a grand time (for my palate).
Honestly, I didn't want to come back!

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Peter,

Thanks for your kind words. :) Your trip to Kansai sounds awesome! I can't wait to go back myself. :)

Peter said...

I can understand your enthusiasm, because I share it as well :) Just to share a bit of my trip I was able to dine at Takaraya Ramen in Kyoto. I had their house specialty ramen called sumashi was unbelievable. Here's a little blurb on that place that I found so you can see what I'm talking about.

jeesung said...

wow, that looks awesome!! i wonder what part of the steer the wagyu came from? that can greatly impact the flavor / beefiness of the meat.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Peter,

Sugoi! (O_o) Gobo-Age with Mozzarella?! Wow. Thanks for the thoughts on Sumashi. :)

Exile Kiss said...

Hi jeesung,

Thanks. I hope you get a chance to try out Kagaya. I didn't ask what part of the steer it came from, but I definitely agree, it affects flavor.

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