Saturday, April 25, 2009

Dreamy Fish Cake and Juicy Japanese Fried Chicken! A Return to the Amazing Kyoto-style Oden Specialist and Yakitori Master Torihei

While it had only been a few weeks since my last visit to Torihei, various circumstances resulted in me returning for a fourth, fifth and sixth visit. :) As So Cal's new Kyoto-style Oden (Variety of Items Stewed in a Dashi Broth) and Yakitori (Roasted Chicken Skewers) Specialist, Torihei has expanded their menu since their debut last month.

Sitting down for an early dinner, the first thing I notice on my fourth visit is the expanded Sake drink menu. Originally, Torihei only had 3 brands of Sake on their menu, but they've expanded and added a few new brands, including my all-time favorite Sake: Takeno Tsuyu ("Dew of the Bamboo") Junmai Sake from Yamagata Prefecture, Japan! (Note that this is only the 2nd Japanese restaurant in So Cal that I've found that serves this silky smooth, clean finish Sake.) Torihei has just significantly improved with this addition alone. (^_~)

In addition, they've added a special Takejoka Sake Service, where they serve the Sake of your choice in their own homegrown(!) Bamboo. Chef Masataka Hirai decided to utilize some of the Bamboo growing in their garden and fashioned them into serving devices for the Sake. :)

While initially they had some nicely presented Shichimi Togarashi (a condiment of seven different ingredients that is a classic pairing with Yakitori skewers), they also added another classic condiment: Sansho Pepper, but unlike the more commonly found variety, Torihei found a rarer, premium quality Sansho and the difference is amazing. Super-refined, powdered Sansho Pepper gives off a lush, herbal and citrus fragrance, and an engaging numbing effect to the tongue! :)

For those new to Yakitori cuisine, feel free to add a little bit of Sansho Pepper or Shichimi Togarashi (the red-colored pepper) to your skewers.

We start off with something from Chef Masa's side of the menu: Gyu-tan (Beef Tongue) Skewers, roasted over their Binchotan charcoal. This was a bit too thick cut for my tastes, and thicker than my first few visits. Fortunately by the fifth and sixth visits, the Gyu-tan cut has been back to normal again (thinner and easier to eat). It's been perfectly roasted each of my visits, with a good juicy interior and nice, light smokiness.

The first item from Chef Masakazu Sasaki (Torihei's Oden Chef) is their Hanpen (Hanpen Fish Cake), a made-from-scratch, wondrous creation. Taking the first bite, it's *so* light and airy, fluffy and truly like eating a cloud or a dream, if dreams could be made physical. (^_^) It was *that* good! And of course, it's served with their housemade Oden Broth (made from Konbu (Kelp), Katsuoboshi (Dried Bonito) and special Shoyu (Soy Sauce)), which is just as soul-warming and light and delicate as my first three visits.

We try a new item next: Nankotsu Karaage (Fried Chicken Cartilage), made with Jidori (Natural, Free Range Chicken), as all their Chicken dishes are, which is a nice touch. :) Like their Yakitori version, they serve a Yagen Nankotsu (Chicken Cartilage from the Chicken Breast area, instead of the Leg and Thigh portion). It has a nice, extremely crunchy exterior, and a good, peppery inflection with each piece, but it's a touch salty, and overall, their Yakitori version (Roasted) is better.

Next up, we try their Jidori no Karaage (Fried Jidori Chicken). It's a very good version, juicy and tender and moist, with a nice crunchy exterior. (More on this later.)

The Okura Maki (Okra wrapped with Pork) arrives next. The Okra is cooked just right, but if there's one complaint about the dish, it's that there's not enough Pork Belly. :) In the 3-4 times I've ordered this dish, each of my guests have said the same thing. It's still delicious and allows the Okra to shine, but it feels just a little too meager.

From their Oden menu, the Ro-ru Kyabetsu (Rolled Cabbage) arrives next. Like most Oden, it's simple fare, and Chef Sasaki takes fresh Cabbage and poaches it in the homemade Oden Broth to soften it, before rolling it into cylinders and finishing it off with some Tomato Paste and Parsley while steeping in the Oden Broth. It's lightly tart and sweet from the Tomato Paste, but mellowed out with the Cabbage base and Oden broth. It's decent, but not something I'd order again.

From their cooked dishes menu, we try the Torotoro Tamago no Oyakodon (Chicken and Eggs on Rice Ball, served with Soup).

This is a classic Japanese comfort food dish, and Torihei's version is simply wonderful: Extremely tender, succulent pieces of Jidori Chicken, mixed with a lightly poached / scrambled Egg with their housemade Tare Sauce atop steaming Rice. :) Delicious.

For my fifth visit, I was honored to meet up with my 'dachi Noah and some more of the amazing Man Bites World crew: Mr. Meatball, "Danielle" and Dara-chan of Man Bites World's Iran Day's fame, and a few more guests as well. When we arrived, there was a waiting list with people lining up out the door. We quickly got seated and ordered up some of the legendary Takeno Tsuyu Junmai Sake to kick off the evening just right. (^_~)

The first item to arrive is a new menu item: Jikasei Ika no Shiokara (Homemade Squid Guts Pickled in Salt). With the Man Bites World crew in the house, it's no surprise that this would be one of the first items to be ordered. (^_~)

The striking color of this dish comes from the combination of fresh Ika Wata (Squid Innards) combined with Sea Salt and Togarashi (Red Chili Pepper). The result is an intensely briny, pungent aroma and taste that is at once shocking, powerful and, if you get used to it, delicious. We got mixed reactions from everyone on this dish (some loved it, some, not so much :).

The Daikon (White Radish) from the Oden menu is the first dish to arrive from Sasaki-san. It's just as amazing in its simplicity and masterful execution as my first few visits. While it is humble, simple food, it is offset by the soulful purity of the amazing Oden Broth which permeates every bite.

And like before, Torihei's Mochi Kinchaku (Mochikin Rice Cake) is beautifully presented and a hit with the table. :) The melting, oozing silkiness of the fresh Mochi Rice Cake that's stuffed in the center of the Aburaage (Deep Fried Tofu) (and cutely tied together as before :) is light and understated (in a good way), allowing one to further enjoy the wonderful Oden Broth.

More dishes arrive, and the made-from-scratch Hanpen (Hanpen Fish Cake) is just as dreamy and airy as before. It's nothing like the dense, chewier manufactured versions, and brings a smile to everyone's face. :)

A few items from the Yakitori & Kushiyaki menu arrive with similar consistent results: The Gyu-tan (Beef Tongue) skewers have improved, actually, and the Sunagimo (Jidori Chicken Gizzards) are also moist and tender. Excellent!

And then the biggest hit of the night arrived: Jidori no Karaage (Fried Jidori (All Natural, Free Range) Chicken). Visually, it looked simple enough, but taking a bite, this dish elicited hushed exultations from around the table, and caused Mr. Meatball to grab me by the shoulder and proclaim that he could eat a bucketful of this amazing Japanese Fried Chicken! (^_^)

Of the 3 times I've ordered this dish, 2 times have been very good, but tonight the execution was truly *flawless*: A nice crispy crust; super-fresh, clean, moist and very juicy, all natural Chicken within. This was truly amazing! (^_^)

The next dish raised some eyebrows and understandably so:
Shaolonbao (Xiao Long Bao). I realize we were probably setting ourselves up for disappointment ordering a traditional Chinese dish in a Japanese restaurant, but we were curious as to what this would turn out to be.

Torihei's Xiao Long Bao turns out to be nothing like the real version, unfortunately. They are basic Wontons in a modified version of their Oden Broth with Sesame Oil and ample amounts of Negi (Green Onions). When I ask about why this came to be on the menu, our server mentions that there's a large Chinese community in the South Bay, so the kitchen is trying to cater a little bit to them. It's not something I'd order again, as there are much better executions of real Xiao Long Bao and Wonton Soups around town.

The next dish is another curious dish: Jidori no Nanban Tarutaru So-su (Special Fried "Jidori" Chicken with Tartar Sauce). Unfortunately, this is another odd dish that doesn't quite work out (but fortunately, this and the XLBs were the only two that disappointed this evening). Torihei takes their Jidori Chicken and fries it up in Katsu form. They top it with a housemade Tartar Sauce, and the result is not so good: Tartar Sauce is just one of those flavors that is made for Fish. On the Chicken, it's just out-of-place.

More skewers from the Yakitori menu arrive at this point with the Momo (Chicken Thigh) and Lebaa (Chicken Liver) being the essence of tender and juicy. Chef Masa seems to be settling into the new restaurant more and more, as the Chicken Thigh tasted even more deftly executed, being moist and tender with a hint of smokiness from the Binchotan, but also having a nice exterior without any charring.

The Miso Chikuwabu (listed on their English menu as Miso Chikuwabu :) is another new item recently added to their menu. Chef Sasaki takes a star-shaped Chikuwa (a Fish Cake made of Surimi (Fish Puree), Egg and basic seasonings) and adds a blended Miso Paste which creates an interesting Fish Cake and Peanut combination.

The next item to arrive is their Washugyu (Special Beef Skewer), using American Kobe Beef. While the Beef is more tender than if they used a standard cut, it's a bit overcooked (it was about medium-well for doneness), so it's tender, but much of the fat has been cooked out, so it's not as buttery as it should be.

Another new item is their Sasami Mentaiko (Jidori Chicken Breast with Seasoned Cod Roe). Masa-san shows off his deft grilling skills presenting Chicken Breast that isn't overly dry (like most Sasami skewers around town), still juicy and topped brilliantly with Mentaiko (Spicy Cod Roe) and a bit of fresh Shiso Leaf on top. The light spicy brininess of the Cod Roe and the floral, spring-like aromas of Shiso match well with the Jidori Chicken itself. Very nice. :)

The next dish is another big hit with everyone: Marugoto Tomato (Whole Stewed Tomato) from the Oden menu.

Like the first time I ordered this dish, Sasaki-san presents a perfectly cooked-through, stewed whole Tomato, topping it with Mashed Potato Puree and Soy Milk in the freshly-made Oden Broth. The result is a lush, satisfying Tomato dish. We were fighting over the remaining broth - wonderful, buttery goodness - as it was that good. :)

While working in Yokohama, Japan, Sasaki-san was also trained as a Sushi Chef. He's taken that love for fish and added a few items on the menu, including this evening's special: Saamon Toro Sashimi (Fatty Salmon Belly) from Norway.

The execution was surprisingly good: No gristle / connective tissue, a very buttery, creamy quality with a pointed, salty, inherent Salmon flavor. It's fresh, but not overnighted-from-Norway-fresh. It's enjoyable, but not something I'd go out of my way to order again.

Their Torihei Ramen (Torihei Special Ramen) is a dish that I'm too curious to pass up. :) According to Masa-san, this dish originated at their original Torihei restaurant back in Yokohama, Japan. It became so popular over there that they decided to give it a try here in the U.S. and have added it to the menu.

Torihei makes their Ramen Broth with Jidori Chicken and Torigara (Chicken Bones) with a few other spices and cooks it for hours before serving. They use no Pork nor any Fish, surprisingly. They add a little bit of MSG, unfortunately, which undermines their efforts. They use a straighter, white noodle for the Ramen instead of the ubiquitous yellow, curly noodle, and this straighter noodle matches the broth nicely.

But the biggest surprise is their Chashu: Traditionally Pork Slices, Torihei's is made with Jidori Chicken! The Chicken Chashu is delicious: Fresh and succulent, this is the highlight of the Ramen.

Overall, it was an excellent evening, topped with some ridiculous Man Bites World duets next door at the South Bay's hottest Karaoke, but that's a story for another day. :)

For my sixth visit, I met up with Jotaru to try some more of the new items on the menu (and some old favorites to see how consistent it's been). We begin with Bonjiri (Chicken Tail) which usually sells out fast at Torihei.

It's perfectly cooked: A nice, crisp exterior giving way to decadent fatty, juicy goodness. :) Delicious.

The Wakame (Seaweed) from the Oden menu arrives next.

Another simple dish that's flawlessly executed: Soft, thin strips of Wakame are marinated in the Oden Broth, served with a touch of Sesame Oil and Sesame Seeds and Green Onions. This is clean, light, fragrant food; just wonderful. :)

The Burikama no Nitsuke (Simmered Yellowtail) arrives next. The adult Yellowtail Collar portion of the fish is stewed for hours in Chef Masa's recipe of a dark Shoyu (Soy Sauce), Mirin and blended spices.

It's one of the boldest, strongest flavored dishes on the menu: Sweet, Salty (a touch too much, but perfect with some Steamed Rice), an enticing Ocean aroma, and the Yellowtail meat is still tender (not overcooked).

Their Ninniku Oiru Yaki (Garlic Wrapped in Foil) arrives next. This is just simple goodness: Cloves of Garlic are roasted in Sesame Oil until tender, and it's the perfect complement and snack for Garlic Lovers. :) Beautifully fragrant from the Garlic, as well as the Sesame Oil.

Torihei has also added 4 different types of Ochazuke (a Liquidy Rice Dish made with Tea and different toppings) to the menu. We decide to try their Jikasei Ika Shiokara Ochazuke (Rice & Squid in Oden Soup and Green Tea).

The beauty of their Ochazuke is that they use a blend of a good quality Houjicha (Roasted Japanese Green Tea) and their amazing, made-from-scratch Oden Broth as the base with the Rice itself. With a good base, the Ika Shiokara (Squid and Squid Guts) topping is nicely diluted and blended into something milder and still very flavorful. It's not as potent, nor pungent as before (with the standalone Ika Shiokara dish), and it's a good way to end the evening. :)

For those wanting to try a milder version of Ochazuke, Torihei also offers a Jikasei Okaka (Finely-minced Dried Bonito), Gyusuji (Beef Collagen) and Kaisen (Seafood) versions.

Their Honetsuki Karubi (Beef Short Ribs) from their Robata-yaki portion of the menu arrives next. This is essentially an open-grilled version of Karubi (or Galbi) Short Ribs, and there's a good clean, meatiness with each bite. The Beef Short Ribs have a sweet sauce that's made in the spirit of a good Korean BBQ marinade, and the overall execution is great.

We finish off dinner with their Buran Manjie-fu Annin Tofu (Blanc-Manger aux Amandes "Annin-Tofu").

Sasaki-san makes a made-from-scratch Almond Tofu dessert that is decadent but not heavy, smooth and silky. Topped with Coconut Milk, fresh Strawberries, Lychee and Oranges, it's delicious! (^_^)

While Torihei has added an additional waitress and an additional assistant in the kitchen (to compensate for the booming business), service is still a little uneven. It's not that the servers are bad - they are quite the opposite, being really friendly and always welcoming and earnest - they are just overwhelmed when they run at full capacity (in these last 3 visits, Torihei has been at 100% capacity, and with only 3 servers and no busboys, it can be tough at times to get refills on Tea or other needs, etc.). Still, the staff and the chefs are always eager to please and warm and cordial.

Prices range from $1.80 - $5.25 (Whole Squid) on the Yakitori Menu, and $1.95 - $2.80 for the Kyoto-style Oden Menu. Their cooked dishes menu ranges from $1.95 - $7.95.

Torihei continues to improve and expand upon their foundation of Kyoto-style Oden and Yakitori / Kushiyaki Skewers. With Chef-Owner Masataka Hirai's grilling techniques only improving as time goes by, Torihei is easily my favorite Yakitori (Roasted Chicken Skewers) restaurant in So Cal, delivering juicy, top-notch skewers. It still doesn't reach the level of Tomo-san at Yakitori Bincho, but until they come back, I'm happy to have Torihei as a destination. :)

And what never ceases to amaze me is that that's only *half* of what makes Torihei so great. Chef Sasaki's Kyoto-style Oden Menu is humble, simplistic, soul-warming food. Down-to-earth and oh so good! Add to that some juicy, outstanding Jidori no Karaage (Fried Jidori Chicken) and homemade Almond Tofu, and the wonderful Takeno Tsuyu Sake, and Torihei is a truly delightful way to enjoy the evening. :)

Rating: 9.0 (out of 10.0)

1757 W. Carson Street, #A
Torrance, CA 90501
Tel: (310) 781-9407
(Reservations recommended.)

Hours: 7 Days A Week, 5:30 p.m. - 12:00 a.m. Midnight (Last Order @ 11:00 p.m.).


Charlie Fu said...

how does the bamboo work in the Sake service? Is there ice in the pitcher as well or is it separated by something? Very cool presentation =)

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Charlie,

Yes, the Bamboo is pre-chilled in a big pitcher of ice. Then they fill the Bamboo with whatever Sake you choose and you pour it out of the Bamboo into your own Sake Cup. :)

weezermonkey said...

Wow! High praise! I will have to let my South Bay friends know. :)

Exile Kiss said...

Hi WeezerMonkey,

I hope you get a chance and try out Torihei. Let me know how it goes. :)

Pink Foodie said...

The Jikasei Ika no Shiokara caught my attention. I will have to order it when I go. Thanks for the report and great photos.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Pinkfoodie,

Thanks. :) I hope you enjoy it; it's definitely unique and interesting, but not for everyone. (^_~) Let me know how it goes.

Kung Food Panda said...

I've been meaning to visit Torihei, along with a return trip to Ichimian. I can't believe you've been here 6 times already! Thanks for pointing out the hits of the restaurant!

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Kung Food Panda,

Thank you. :) I hope you enjoy your visit to Torihei (and Ichimian again :). Let me know how your meal turns out. Enjoy!

Mama said...

Wow, that food looks amazing! Great pics.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi pink,

Thank you. :) Please report back if you end up trying Torihei. :)

Noah said...

Thanks so much for taking us here! This was a truly great dinner and one of the best evenings I've had in a while.

I will definitely be back.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Noah,

I had a blast as well. :) It was great seeing everyone again and I still dream about the simple and good Oden and Yakitori. :)

rick said...

this place is amazing, thanks to you again for discovering it. i can't wait to go again, maybe we'll see you there!

Exile Kiss said...

Hi rick,

I'm so happy to hear you enjoyed your meal there; good to know! :) I'd love to go back as well.

Kung Food Panda said...

This place was simply awesome. I finally got to check this place out this past weekend.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Kung Food Panda,

I'm so glad you enjoyed your dinner at Torihei! :) Did you have any favorite items?

Kung Food Panda said...

I'd have to say the flash boiled egg with ikura takes it. That was one delicious dish. Along with the yakitori (esp the tongue), and the stewed tomatoes were delicious. So good in fact, I'm driving again from SGV back to Torrance for Torihei tonight.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Kung Food Panda,

Oooh! Yes, the Hanjyuku Tamago is one of my favs as well! (^_^) I love the creamy center of the Egg and the Roe... delicious. :) The Tomato as well.

If you haven't tried it, give their Hanpen (Fish Cake) a try off their Oden Menu. Wonderful! :)

Kung Food Panda said...

Hey Exile Kiss. The fish cake was delicious. I had that the other day, and as well as tonight. My friend and I loved the egg&ikura so much, we had to make a 2nd order. I have to say a few other things def stands out. The tongue, the liver, thigh meat, gizzard. I think the only thing I thought was OK was the breast meat w/wasabi, but it's better than most places I've had in the past. I'm definitely going back to Torihei often from now on! Along with a stop at Ichimian :)

Exile Kiss said...

Hey Kung Food Panda,

Very nice! (^_^) Glad to hear you liked the Hanpen as well. And yes, this place and Ichimian make me very happy that we have places like this in L.A. :)

Kung Food Panda said...

Went back for a 3rd time last night and I'd have to say the Fried Jidori Chicke (Chicken Karage) was the best yet. I'm a big fan, but sadly that Times article made even a Wednesday night a two hour wait. My suggestion to you and anyone else is to call and make a reservation. Thankfully Musha was close by to make a pre-meal meal for my friends and I.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Kung Food Panda,

Nice! :) I'm glad you're still enjoying the food at Torihei. And wow! Thanks for the info on the long wait. I'm happy for Torihei that they're getting some good business.

And yes, Reservations are the way to go there! :)

Blog Widget by LinkWithin