Sunday, May 11, 2008

A True L.A. Treasure: Yakitori Bincho - Grilling Excellence

*** NOTE: Owners changed it to "Izakaya Bincho," due to some complications with the city. Details and Review here. ***

In terms of Japanese cuisine in Los Angeles (and most of America), Sushi is by far the most explored and popular type; and with that popularity came a maturity and push for excellence that's given L.A. some solid, good quality Sushi restaurants. The same cannot be said for Yakitori / Kushiyaki (roasted skewers of chicken, other meats, and vegetables over binchotan (Japanese white charcoal)). There are some decent places scattered around the greater L.A./O.C. area, but only one or two truly good Yakitori / Kushiyaki restaurants that would hold up in Japan. The current top of the pile is Shin Sen Gumi (not the Ramen side), with its Fountain Valley and Gardena branches providing good ol' fashioned, tasty skewers of meat and vegetables, in a crazy atmosphere straight outta' an authentic, local neighborhood in Japan.

But all of that just changed with the opening of Yakitori Bincho on the International Boardwalk / Pier of Redondo Beach. Thanks to the effervescent post by rameniac (Doumo! :), I was genuinely intrigued and grabbed my Yakitori Hound 'dachi and off we went to try Yakitori Bincho this Saturday evening.

The first thing to note is that Yakitori Bincho is literally right on the International Board Walk / Pier area in Redondo Beach, looking right over the Pacific Ocean. After parking and walking along the Redondo Beach Pier, we eventually found it after asking a few businesses about the layout (this already started feeling like the detective work I had to do in Japan to find specific restaurants (with its labyrinthine system)). We finally found it (note: Yakitori Bincho doesn't have any signage yet, only a simple "Grand Opening" temporary sign).

The view right outside the restaurant is fun, with the various small boats parked, and the Pacific Ocean a few feet from the entrance:

The interior design is a small, simple location, with a beautifully rustic wooden bar area overlooking the kitchen, in addition to a few booths along the opposite wall.

At 6:00 p.m. on a Saturday night, we were the only table in the restaurant, but with such a stellar review from rameniac, we weren't worried. We were warmly greeted immediately by Tomo-san (the chef) and Megumi-san, his wife who runs the front of the house. They were extremely warm and friendly throughout the dinner, and we never had any issues with service.

Yakitori Bincho has two parts to their menu, the Yakitori menu where you write in how many of each skewer you want, and then a menu featuring their assortment of Kappo-style small dishes and the drinks. The unique thing about their Yakitori menu is that it only lists the various meats and vegetables, and then Megumi-san asks you how you want each one prepared, Shio (Salt-based) or Tare (pronounced "Tah-reh") (Sauce-based (Mirin, Soy Sauce, Sake, etc.)). It's a nice level of customization where many Yakitori restaurants have specific skewers served only one way. We placed our order and anxiously awaited the food.

Two really nice aspects of Yakitori Bincho is that they use only Free-Range, Hormone-Free Chicken (Tomo-san told me he gets a certain Jidori from a California supplier), and he uses Binchotan (Japanese White Charcoal) flown in from Japan. The advantages to both of these aspects would soon be very apparent.

First up was the Agedashi Tofu (Fried Silken Tofu served in a Broth). One of the most classic, simple dishes of Japan, most restaurants around L.A. fail to properly execute it. Yakitori Bincho's Agedashi Tofu is pure excellence, with a gigantic portion, in addition to a wonderfully fresh, silken Tofu (softer and silkier than most Agedashi Tofu preparations). The broth was wonderfully complex, with a unique Dashi, Soy Sauce Broth that had undercurrents of a variety of herbs and possibly chicken). It was wonderful, soul-warming and so tasty, perfect over rice, or on its own. The execution of this Agedashi Tofu has toppled Kappo Honda (Fountain Valley) as the best Agedashi Tofu in Southern California.

Next up was the Liver Tare skewer. I'm normally not a fan of Liver, but Tomo-san's care and devotion to the craft was obvious from the very first skewer that night, to the last. The Liver was amazing! Not "chalky" or chunky in any way, and even the "liver flavor" was very delicate and light. It was moist and tender, and the Tare sauce was truly light, yet distinct, giving it the perfect complement.

Their Tsukune Tare (Marinated Ground Chicken Meatball) skewer came next. Generally, Tsukune in Southern California is mediocre at best, mostly dry or chunky, and really tasting like simple ground chicken and little else. After having the bliss of the Tsukune specialist in Kyoto last month, I wasn't sure how Yakitori Bincho would turn out. One bite and it was truly clear at this point: Tomo-san is a true master of his craft. The Chicken Meatball was SO moist and flavorful, giving off a wonderful flavor combination of some specialized deep marinade (overnight), that helps give a good Chicken flavor, yet also the multiple herbs and combination of other ingredients. It was also paired with a nice Karashi (Japanese Mustard) that added even more to the bliss. It rivaled the amazing Tsukune in Kyoto, and is the best Tsukune in So Cal, easily!

Their Shio Negima (Chicken Thigh with Green Onions, Salt-based) skewer is masterfully executed. Very good, but I think I enjoy Shin Sen Gumi (Fountain Valley)'s more (similar to rameniac). The execution is very good, but something in the preparation at Shin Sen Gumi puts its version ahead.

Next was the Shio Zuri (Chicken Gizzard, Salt-based) skewer. Visually it looked just like Zuri anywhere. However, taking one bite and it was another resounding success for Tomo-san: Moist, Fresh, and the perfect texture (with enough bite to make it enjoyable, but not negatively "chewy" in any way). Most Gizzard skewers locally are dried out, tough, and disappointing, not so here.

Next was the Momo Tare (Chicken Thigh with Tare Sauce). One bite and... WOW! While the Shio Negima was good, but lacking something, the Momo Tare was one of THE highlights of multiple highlights during dinner. The Chicken Thigh meat was wonderfully moist, and very fresh, and Tomo-san's Tare sauce truly pushed this dish over the top! Easily the best Momo Tare I've ever had, anywhere!

Next was their Shiso Maki (Chicken Wrapped in Shiso Leaf) served with a wonderful Ume (Japanese Plum) Paste. The Shiso Leaf when roasted with the Chicken and over their binchotan coals, provides an amazing blend of a delicate, earthy smokiness, combined with the fragrant Shiso Leaf and Chicken. And when dabbed in a bit of the Ume Paste, it provides the wonderful combination of Herbal, Savory, and Tart flavors with each bite.

Continuing the wave of wonderment was the Tare Tebasaki (Roasted Chicken Wings, Tare-sauce). While Furaibo's Tebasaki is very tasty and unique in its spices, and Shin Sen Gumi's is a solid execution, traditional style, Yakitori Bincho's Chicken Wings exceed them all: The freshness and natural taste of the Jidori Chicken Wings, combined with his blissful Tare sauce, and expert grilling over the white charcoals equals a perfectly crispy exterior, and moist, tender, lightly sweet but savory interior with each bite. Awesome!

Next was the Shio Nankotsu (Chicken Cartilage, Salt-based). Traditionally, Nankotsu is Chicken Cartilage from the Leg / Knee areas, which is moist but usually really fatty at times. Imagine my surprise when I found out that they served *Yagen* Nankotsu (Chicken Cartilage from the Breast area). This is pretty rare, and my first time trying it. While the Chicken Breast meat would inherently be leaner (and thus, dryer), when eaten with the Cartilage from the Breast area, it was truly amazing! It was purely the nice, crunchy, perfectly-cooked goodness of Cartilage, but without the fattiness usually associated with it! Excellent.

Next came their Shio Tomato Maki (Tomato wrapped in Pork Belly, Salt-based). Tomato Maki is one of my favorite items at Shin Sen Gumi, so it was with much anticipation that I tried this one. I knew that Tomo-san wanted only the freshest ingredients when possible, and this echoed that quest for freshness: The Cherry Tomatoes he used were SO fresh and sweet, and when it bursts in your mouth with the Pork Belly, it was so perfect. The Tomatoes were really fresh and naturally sweet, and perfectly grilled (as everything else was that night). Easily the best Tomato Maki in So Cal!

Yakitori Bincho also had a few interesting "Stuffed & Grilled" dishes: Their Tare Shiitake Nikuzume (Shiitake Mushrooms stuffed with Marinated Ground Chicken, Tare-based) was simply divine! The wonderfully fragrant aroma of fresh Shiitake Mushrooms, combined with the Marinated Natural Ground Chicken, and with his Tare-sauce, and a dab of the Karashi (Japanese Mustard) was the perfect combination of flavors!

We also tried their Tare Renkon Nikuzume (Lotus Root stuffed with Ground Chicken, Tare-based) skewer, which was also very tasty, but tasted similar to the Shiitake Mushroom version minus the mushroom flavors and with the tender, but firm texture of Lotus Root. It's still very well done, and ultimately a matter of personal preference.

Next was the Hatsu, Tare-style (Chicken Hearts, Tare-based). This is another hit-or-miss item at most Yakitori restaurants. Most of the time the Hearts can come out overcooked, or chewy, or just too pungent. But Tomo-san continued his mastery of the grill with the Hatsu. Each bite was extremely moist, with the perfect texture of tenderness and silkiness! It was amazing!

Next was the Tare Okura (Okra, Tare-based). The Okra vegetable was perfectly grilled, with the nice smoky flavor from the Binchotan combined with some of the freshest Okra I've had in years!

Our last grilled item for the night was Nasu (Japanese Eggplant). Tomo-san takes a whole Eggplant and roasts the entire thing directly over the Binchotan! He then peels away the skin and presents it, lightly seasoned with a beautiful mound of smoky, rich Bonito Flakes, and fresh ground Ginger.

Next was their homemade (and handmade), Fresh Sake Onigiri (Japanese Rice Ball stuffed with Salmon). Onigiri is a common food item in Japan, but sadly most restaurants that serve Onigiri in L.A. have pre-made versions, or with rice that has started to harden slightly. Tomo-san makes the Onigiri fresh, on the spot, and gives a huge amount of Salmon with each Rice Ball (not the "half a teaspoon" found just about everywhere else locally). The fresh Rice, with the bountiful amount of Salmon and the Seaweed makes it a wonderful taste of Japan delivered on the spot!

Our final dish for the night was Zosui (Japanese Rice "Porridge" / Soup with Chicken). Zosui is still relatively rare in Southern California, and it's a wonderful, heart-warming dish, simple and yet so good (a taste of home), when done right. We had seen Tomo-san's care and pursuit of excellence all night long (we were seated at the counter bar and watched his mastery in the kitchen), but the Zosui took the cake: Tomo-san makes his Zosui *fresh to order* with each order! The dish took about 25-30 minutes to come out (he started it while cooking our other items, so it was not noticeable), but that alone was a true sign of a dedicated chef! He took fresh rice and started cooking it down, then adding in the Jidori / Free-Range Chicken, and then the other ingredients. One sip and it was all over! This was THE freshest Zosui I've had outside of a family's kitchen in Japan! Wow. The wonderful broth, rich with Chicken flavors, the perfectly cooked "scrambled" Egg, Seaweed, Green Onions and the Rice. The perfect way to end a meal! Our total came out to be $40 per person (including tax and tip), and that was with us sampling most of the Sake on the menu. We over-ordered (but it was all so good), and with less sampling of the various Sake, it'll be much less per person in the future.

One note about their Sake menu: It's rather limited (only 4 types), but they carry one of my new favorites - Karatamba Sake from Hyogo Prefecture in Japan. It's an amazing dry, clean, cold Sake, and a perfect complement to the grilled items.

In closing, Yakitori Bincho has easily become THE best Yakitori / Kushiyaki restaurant in Southern California, with its all-natural Jidori (Free-Range, Hormone-Free) Chicken, fragrant Binchotan (Japanese White Charcoal), and grilling mastery by Chef Tomo-san, and his pursuit of excellence. Chef Tomo has a *passion* and dedication for Culinary Excellence and it shows. He loves to cook, and cares about his customers and about delivering Great Food, and it shows through and through. After the amazing culinary journey through Japan last month, I was worried that there weren't enough *truly devoted* Japanese restaurants in Southern California; places with real soul that wants to do their best to serve the best possible food they can. But having experienced the grandeur and mastery that is Urasawa, and now Yakitori Bincho, things are starting to look better and better. Note that I'm not saying Yakitori Bincho is in the same league as Urasawa in terms of Kaiseki Excellence, but Tomo-san (like Urasawa-san) is a chef truly dedicated to his craft and every dish he serves shows the care and love for food with every bite; it's a place with *soul*, with food made from the heart. And that's something we can always use more of. Yakitori Bincho is a true L.A. Treasure.

Rating: 9.5 (out of 10.0)

Japanese Grill Yakitori Bincho
112 N. International Boardwalk
Redondo Beach, CA 90277
(Note: Just head to Redondo Beach Pier, park and you'll find it on the International Boardwalk section of the pier, north of Quality Seafood.)
Tel: 310-376-3889

Hours: Mon, Wed, Thu, 5:00 p.m. - 11:00 p.m.
Fri - Sun, 4:00 p.m. - 12:00 a.m.
Closed on Tuesdays.

(A follow-up visit and review here.)


melancholy donut said...

umm, but did you like the food?

Exile Kiss said...

Hi melancholy donut,

LOL (^_^). Not sure if you're being facetious or not, but if you can't tell if I loved the food or not... I have no comment. :P "Yes," I thought the food was amazing. :)

jepot said...

I took a friend to the place yesterday and the place is closed. Waited for a couple of hours at Naja's to have some drinks. Then we asked the guy working in the ice shop next door and he said the place hasn't been open for more than a month already. Thought your readers should know. Nice blog :)

Exile Kiss said...

Hi jepot,

Auu... :( Sorry, I should've added a comment to my review (I will now). Yes, unfortunately as of Summer 2008, Tomo-san is still working out Fire Permit issues with the city, and as a result, they have temporarily closed his restaurant down. We're all hoping this situation gets cleared up soon!

Exile Kiss said...

If anyone missed the update in the review above:

Yakitori Bincho has RE-OPENED in the same location, but as "Izakaya Bincho," still serving some of the great dishes from before, but without the Yakitori (and with a whole new Small Plates menu). Details about the City problems are documented in my new review of Izakaya Bincho:

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