Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Jack Of All Trades - Izayoi

Finding success in the restaurant business can be a tough prospect. At the core of the restaurant is the age-old question of culinary viewpoint. What are one's goals? And once you decide on a viewpoint, how expansive or in-depth do you want to go? Is it better to try and appease as many people as possible, or focus on specializing in a few dishes? For the Izakaya (Japanese Pub) known as Izayoi, they've taken the generalist approach, and in light of the constant crowds and celebrating their 5th year anniversary, it looks like they've achieved solid success.

My 1.5 years worth of visits have seen changes in the kitchen and, as a result, consistency issues with a variety of their signature dishes. At the heart of the problem may be their massive menu that seems to be part of their philosophy to have something for everyone: You've got traditional Izakaya small plates like Hijiki or Roasted Ginko Nuts, and then traditional Sushi and Sashimi flowing into crazy Fusion Rolls like their Red Dragon Roll and B.S.C. Roll (Baked Scallop on top of a California Roll). There's the ever-popular So Cal favorite Salmon Teriyaki plate, Nabe (Hot Clay Pots), Salads, their version of Shumai Shrimp Dumplings, classic Pub food like Buta no Kakuni (Pork Belly), Deep Fried items, Kushiage, Tempura, Macaroni Gratin, Fondue, Soba and Udon Noodles, and things like Mochi Ice Cream as well. It's impressive and amazing that the kitchen can keep up with so many distinct offerings, but in the end it suffers a bit for it.

Izayoi occupies a comfortable, open, cheery space in the heart of Little Tokyo. The tables can be a bit close at times, but it's designed well-enough to allow for some solid communal merriment and enjoyable dinners. :)

Their Sake Menu features some solid choices, in both bottle and glass servings. You have the usual suspects: Hakutsuru, Kikusui, Otokoyama and Hakkaisan. For those new to Sake, you might consider Kikusui for its gentle, clean taste with a light floral finish. By the glass, Kira, Onigoroshi, Harushika and Kubota Hekiju are all decent, but by far their best offering is Kubota Manju. Unfortunately, the markup on Kubota Manju here is the steepest I've encountered in So Cal so far, going for $25 per glass(!). One time, the waitress quoted me a bottle at about $300, which is pretty extreme (you can still find a good bargain at some Izakayas or Yakitori-yas for only ~$125 per bottle). But it's certainly the cleanest and smoothest amongst their offerings.

During one of my earliest visits over 1.5 years ago, I start with their Ankimo (Steamed Monk Fish Liver served with Ponzu Sauce).

The Ankimo is relatively fresh, but a tad too fishy and dull. The Ponzu Sauce and Negi (Green Onions) help to balance things out a bit, but it's still a bit disappointing.

Their Jikasei Tofu (Izayoi Homemade Tofu) arrives next.

I'm always excited to try a Homemade Tofu, in the hopes that I can find a great version here in So Cal. Izayoi's version is very clean, but it seems almost too clean and plain. There's a lack of a genuine Soy Bean essence coming through. The texture has always been a bit dense for my tastes, but still enjoyable. If they can work on improving their Tofu-making process, they might have a real winner here.

One of the more interesting dishes is their Buta Niku no Saikyo Yaki (Pork Belly Marinated in Saikyo Miso).

There's a good porcine flavor coming through with each bite, accented heavily by a very pungent, heavily fermented version of Saikyo Miso. It's slightly sweet, tangy and one of the more interesting flavors I've had over the years at Izayoi.

One of the mainstays at most Izakaya restaurants in So Cal is the classic dish known as Agedashi Tofu (Deep Fried Tofu in Broth).

Unfortunately, Izayoi's version is a misstep: Their Agedashi Tofu over the years has consistently been soggy, with the Katakuriko (Potato Starch) exterior always over soaked in the sauce by the time it arrives at the table, with the soggy outside falling off the Tofu. :( It's a far cry from Izakaya Bincho's legendary Agedashi Tofu, but to be fair, most local versions fare about the same.

Their limited selection of grilled items (their attempt at popular Yakitori (Grilled Chicken Skewer) dishes) is probably best represented with their Nankotsu Kushiyaki (Chicken Cartilage Skewers)).

Made with Yagen Nankotsu (Cartilage from the Chicken Breast, instead of the Leg portion) - a nice touch - it's unfortunately dried out and really one note. This is another example of in trying to please all crowds, certain items suffer. They use a gas grill to cook the Nankotsu (instead of over Japanese Binchotan (White Charcoal)) and without that smokiness, their Kushiyaki items lack the real smoky depth you'd expect at a good Yakitori-ya.

I know better than to order Sushi at an Izakaya, but over the years, I've had guests who have always been in the curious mood to try something from their Sushi Menu. On one visit we try their Chutoro and Uni.

Their Uni (Sea Urchin) from Santa Barbara is extremely pedestrian. On a scale of 1 - 100, with 100% being perfect, sweet, pure Uni loveliness, Izayoi's version is about a ~60%: It's extremely fishy and briny, tasting like something you'd find in many average Sushi bars around So Cal. :( To make matters worse, the Nori wrapping around the Uni is soggy and soft.

Their Chutoro (Medium-Fatty Bluefin Tuna Belly) fares better, with a moderately fresh taste, but each piece is marred with gristle / connective tissue.

But perhaps the one dish that seems to offer the best mirror into the ebb and flow of the changing kitchen staff is their Buta no Kakuni (Simmered Pork Belly).

The very first time I had this dish 1.5 years ago, it was nearly inedible: Extremely salty and simultaneously too cloying(!) (with an overdose of Sugar and Mirin), one of my guests literally dunked it in a cup of Green Tea to try and salvage some of this dish. :( Over the years, sometimes it's moist, other times dried out and chunky, and on my most recent visit it seems to have settled on "sweet, but very fatty and slightly dried out." If they can improve their consistency, it has a chance of being a solid example of the famous Japanese Pork Belly dish, but currently, it's a distant runner-up to Okan's vibrant version, and Izakaya Bincho's 48 Hour version.

One of the better dishes I've had is their Kamo to Nasu no Kuwayaki (Sauteed Duck and Eggplant).

Thin slices of Grilled Duck and Eggplant are layered across the plate, with a decent Katakuriko (Potato Starch) Soy Sauce-based Sauce. There's a good, standout Duck flavor coming through with each bite. It tends to be on the saltier side, but is quickly alleviated with some Steamed Rice or Beer/Sake. :)

One area where Izayoi could improve upon substantially would be their Deep Frying skills. Consider their Iwashi no Suri Shiso no Hasami Age (Minced Sardine Wrapped with Shiso Leaf and Deep Fried), which is a good example of potential and mistakes.

Each piece of this Minced Sardine with Shiso Leaf exhibits the commonly found thick Tempura batter that's fried at the wrong temperature (it's saturated with oil). What's frustrating is that the flavor combination is excellent: There's a satisfying oceanic component from the Iwashi (Sardine), combined with fragrant, herbal-y Shiso Leaf, and it's lovely. But the outer batter is just too greasy. One can't expect that they rival a Tempura specialist like Komatsu or Inaba, but if it's on the menu at a popular place like Izayoi, you hope that the kitchen can approach their level of execution at least.

Probably one of my favorite items on the menu has to be their Burokkuri- Salada / Mentai Mayo Doresshingu (Cooked Broccoli served Chilled with Spicy Cod Roe Dressing).

There's been a consistently clean, bright, crispness to this Salad, each time I've ordered it. The Broccoli is always just cooked through, supple while still maintaining a good firmness, and their House-made Mentaiko Dressing hits just the right notes of spicy and briny (in a good way). Excellent! :)

If their Broccoli Salad represents the bright and crisp, their Gomakoromo Tofu (Grounded Sesame Paste on top of Homemade Tofu) represents the silky, creamy and sexy side of the menu.

The first thought that enters the mind when placing a spoonful in your mouth is "refreshing." Followed by this amazing confluence of silkiness, aromatic nuttiness from the Black Sesame and White Sesame, a teasing sweetness and a feint backnote of bitter. It's absolutely wonderful and my favorite dish at Izayoi next to their Broccoli Salad. (^_^)

For all the wonderful surprise in their Black Sesame Tofu, their Kamo Ro-su (Miso Marinated Grilled Duck Sirloin) is unexpected in a different way.

Forget any notions of what you think "Duck Sirloin" should taste like, and know that this is an explosion of Duck Offal: There's a heavy mineral-y, metallic, pungent funk that pervades each bite and it shocks the palate. While I enjoy Offal sometimes, it's just overwhelming in this dish and the texture of the Duck "Sirloin" is extremely chewy and full of gristle and tendon, which makes it even harder to eat. :(

In repeat visits to Izayoi, I'm always hoping to find more specialty dishes, something that makes them stand out from the crowd, and one of the dishes that had the most potential but falls short is their Jikasei Satsuma Age (Izayoi Homemade Deep-Fried Fish Cake) (3 Kinds Mix).

Homemade Fish Cake can be a wonderful thing, and I can't wait to try it, but the first type of Homemade Fish Cake is extremely dense and elastic, it has a store-bought taste, except that it's extremely fishy (in a bad way). :( The 2nd type of Fish Cake is combined with Potatoes and there's a decent crisped exterior. It's thankfully less pungent than the first type, but still underwhelming. The 3rd type of Fish Cake has a density inbetween the soft Potato blend and the rubbery 1st type. Overall, it's something I won't be ordering again.

Finally, their Wakadori Tatsuta Age (Japanese Style Fried Chicken) probably best summarizes many of the dishes coming out of the kitchen these days.

There's a decent breading on this Chicken that's slightly doughy with a feint crunch. The Chicken is bordering on dryish, but still has some moisture, and the seasoning is rather one-note. The classic Karaage (Japanese style Fried Chicken) is an item one hopes every good Izayaka can get right, but it falls short here. While it would be good to match the excellence of the outstanding Karaage at Torihei or Izakaya Bincho's version, even a few notches below would be welcome, but sadly it's not.

Service has been consistently OK: You just wave your hand to get the attention of a waitress passing by the tables should you need anything. Prices range from $3.50 - $19.50 (for a Sushi Combination platter), with most dishes in the ~$8 range. We average about ~$45 per person (including tax and tip).

Izayoi is a good example of one of the newer Izakayas to hit Southern California. It has a good, simple design, welcoming ambiance and a massive menu to try and appease all customers. But in trying to cover all the bases, it loses the razor sharp focus to deliver consistently excellent, specialized dishes with a smaller menu. While there are some standouts like their Broccoli Mentaiko Salad and their Homemade Tofu with Black Sesame, there are too many dishes that fall short of greatness. Still, judging by the crowds and the fact that they've survived over 5 years in Little Tokyo (they were around even before the recent boom in local residents), they're doing something right. As it stands, Izayoi is the best Izakaya in Little Tokyo and I'll be back if I'm in the area, but they're a Jack of all trades, and master of none.

Rating: 6.3 (out of 10)

(Little Tokyo)
132 South Central Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90012
Tel: (213) 613-9554

Hours: [Lunch] Mon - Fri, 11:30 a.m. - 2:00 p.m.
[Dinner] Mon - Fri, 5:45 p.m. - 10:00 p.m.
Sat, 5:30 p.m. - 10:00 p.m.
Sun, 5:00 p.m. - 9:30 p.m.


Michael said...

I am surprised that you don't say anything about their sakes or other beverages. Isn't that a main point of an izakaya?

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Michael,

Ack! I knew I forgot something. Thanks for the reminder. :) I just added a paragraph on the subject (near the top of the article). Thanks. :)

weezermonkey said...

Hmm. I quite like Izayoi!

Exile Kiss said...

Hi weezermonkey,

I'm glad you do. :) Don't get me wrong, it's a solid Izakaya for the area, and if I'm in Little Tokyo, I'd rather go there than the competition. :)

burumun said...

I've only been here once and also found hits and misses. Most of them I thought were "OK" although I do remember the black sesame tofu very fondly :) And this duck in a clay pot ..

Exile Kiss said...

Hi burumun,

Your feelings echo mine. It's fine; "OK" and I definitely enjoy some dishes there, but others were not so good. I'll have to try the Duck in Clay Pot if I see it on the menu next time. Thanks. :)

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