Saturday, October 24, 2009

Upscale In Name Only - The Chicken-Centric Japanese Pub Cuisine of Niwattori

Launching a new restaurant is always a challenging task, but even more daunting in our current economic times. With the right focus and hook, a new restaurant will be on the path to eventual success. But when they don't deliver on their hook, what they claim to focus on, then that's a problem.

For the newly opened Japanese Pub, Niwattori (sic)(meaning "Rooster" or "Domesticated Chicken"), their focus is in creating an "upscale Izakaya (Japanese Pub)" according to our server, with a bold proclamation of focusing on Omotenashi, which is the Japanese concept of genuine, heartfelt manners of the utmost order. It's not simply "5 Star service" at a high-end restaurant; it can be a shopkeeper warmly and genuinely welcoming you to their store, hoping they can really help you find what you're looking for, offering you some tea or water as you browse, and then honestly thanking you when you leave, regardless of if you bought anything or not. In some ways, a restaurant advertising Omotenashi almost turns the sincere concept into an overt, disingenuous marketing angle. At Niwattori, they advertise this angle front-and-center, taking the entire first page of their menu.

During my 1st visit to Niwattori, I bring along an avid Japanese Cuisine Hound, Jotaru. After waiting at the entrance for a couple minutes (with no one up front to assume the maitre d' responsibilities), we're greeted by our eventual server, who takes us to a table. Niwattori is a relatively small restaurant, with a modern, sleek decor and ambiance.

Perusing the menu, a strange sense of deja vu sets in as I'm reading the kanji and kana Japanese names for the dishes. I later discover the reason for that: The menu at Niwattori was created by the head chef at YUZU (next door), Kazu Akatsuku, who was hired as consultant for this new restaurant (Niwattori and YUZU have different ownership). While the dishes are mainly new creations by Kazu-san, and very Chicken-centric, they have similar flavor profiles and ideas to YUZU. It should also be noted that while he was the consulting chef for their menu, Niwattori is looking for an understudy, to learn the menu and recipes from Kazu-san so that he can return to focus on his original restaurant.

We begin with their Paripari Torikawa Wakame to Ponzu (Crispy Chicken Skin and Seaweed with Ponzu Sauce).

The Deep Fried Chicken Skin is fried to a Pork Rind consistency, a little puffy and soft at times, instead of super crispy, but it's still very fresh-tasting and delicious.

When mixed with the bitter zestiness of the Kaiware (Radish Sprouts), the brightness of the Kyuuri (Cucumber), Konbu (Kelp) and a bit of the lovely spiciness of the Momiji Oroshi (Grated Daikon Radish with Red Chili Pepper) and tart Ponzu Sauce, this makes for an interesting alternate starter salad.

Arriving next is the Tsukune "Kari, Fuwa" Age Mitarashian (Fried, Ground Chicken Meatballs with Soy Sauce-based Sweet Sauce).

While ostensibly looking like it could be something overly sweet or salty, Kazu-san's light touch comes through: The Tsukune (Chicken Meatballs) are slightly crisped on the outside, moist inside albeit a little mealy (it's too lean), with a subtle Mitarashian flavor (slightly sweet and still savory).

Their utsuwa (earthenware plates) should be noted for being rustic, yet beautiful, and very well made.

Their Sunagimo to Hatsu no Sakashioiri (Stir-Fried Chicken Gizzards and Hearts with Sake) arrive next.

Up till now, the plating and presentation have been leaning towards the "upscale" aspect that our server mentioned earlier, but this dish looks a bit unappetizing, even for me (and I love Sunagimo and Hatsu). To be fair, it's a bit hard to present a mass quantity of Chicken Hearts and Gizzards in any stylish manner, but it should be noted for those that might get queasy when seeing this dish.

Without the more popular Yakitori / Charcoal Grilled cooking method, you're left with a plate of soft, but chewy Chicken organs that have a mild, fragrant Sake flavor infusion. It's good with some Beer or Sake, but also underwhelming when compared to the more satisfying Yakitori interpretation more commonly found.

Niwattori bounces back nicely with their Yaki Bata- Konnyaku (Grilled Konjac with Butter).

Konnyaku is almost flavorless, so I'm always interested to see how chefs manage to make Konnyaku into something delicious. There's a pleasing aroma wafting up from the dish, and taking a bite, it's a genuinely savory, tasty Konnyaku creation: Chef Kazu grills the Konnyaku first, creating this great texture (normally it's slightly gelatinous), and when sauteed in Butter with a bit of the smoky, lightly briny Katsuobushi (Dried Bonito Shavings), you have the makings of one of the best tasting Konnyaku dishes around town.

We finally get our Sake order (one of the early warning signs about the service), Daishichi Sake from Fukushima, Japan. There's an initial burn, a little rough to start, but then mellows out to a sweet, almost silky feeling as it goes down, with an overall nice, slightly fragrant aroma.

Chef Kazu's Tori to Kinoko no Nibitashi (Chicken and Mushrooms Simmered in Light Dashi Broth) arrives next.

Nibitashis are inherently lighter on the flavor spectrum, but this one feels a bit too straightforward, lacking the melding of flavors one hopes to find in a good Nibitashi: The Aona (Japanese Greens), Shimeji and Eringi Mushrooms and Chicken Breast all tasted fine individually, but needed more time together.

I had high hopes for the Kushi Katsu Moriawase (Deep Fried Skewers with a Variety of Ingredients). Featuring 5 different Deep Fried Skewers, we start off with their Buta (Pork), which tastes fresh, but a bit boring. There's a good crunch to the breading on the outside, but it's oversaturated with oil, fried at the wrong temperature.

Their Salmon Skewer is sadly, completely overcooked, dry and chunky. The Nasu (Eggplant) is just cooked-through, soft and tasting like a slice of Eggplant with just a sprinkle of Sea Salt. The Ebifurai (Shrimp) is better, with a fresh, firm meatiness with a light oceany undertone.

But the best of the 5 Kushi Katsu would have to be the Beef Steak Skewer: Surprisingly juicy and tender, the thinly pounded Steak proves to be the most savory, but sadly, it's also a touch too greasy, saturated with oil.

What's frustrating is seeing the inconsistencies with their frying technique: While the Kushi Katsu is disappointing, their Tebasaki Amakara Age (Deep Fried Chicken Wings with Spicy Sweet Sauce) is nearly perfect, with an excellent, fried-just-right crunch and taste, without being too oily.

Besides the great crunchy crust, the Amakara sauce from Chef Kazu has this wonderful understated brilliance: Just lightly sweet with a subtle kick from the spices and still retaining the mouth-watering aspects of good Fried Chicken. :) Definitely one of the better dishes on the menu.

The first dish from their Yakimono (Grilled Items) sub-menu arrives soon after: Tori Umeyaki (Grilled Chicken Breast with Sour Plum Paste).

Niwattori uses a regular gas-fired grill for all their items, resulting in a straightforward taste, but lacking the smokiness of Binchotan (Japanese Charcoal). The Chicken Breast is quite lean, but the Ume Sauce (Japanese Plum Sauce) thankfully imparts enough moisture and delectable tartness to keep it interesting.

Their Tezukuri Satsuma Age Aburiyaki (Grilled Homemade Deep Fried Fish Cake) arrives at the same time as the Umeyaki.

The Satsuma Age is decent, with a good crisp crust and each bite having a pliable, yet firm Fish Cake texture, with a nice crunch from the Gobo (Burdock Root). It's not something I'd order again, but a solid option for those craving Fish Cake.

Our last item from their Yakimono menu arrives at this point, Tori Shoniku Negiyaki, Tare (Grilled Chicken with Green Onion in Tare Sauce).

Sadly, it's very one-note, with a decent portion of dark meat Grilled Chicken (over gas grill), with a light Tare (Sweet Soy Sauce).

The next dish is a classic Izakaya offering which Niwattori gets just right: Tori Kara Age "Dokkan" Negidare (Deep Fried Chicken served with Special Green Onion Sauce).

Perfectly fried, crispy chunks of Chicken bathed in a light Sauce of Mirin, Dashi and Shoyu (Soy Sauce), topped with a giant mound of Green Onions. It's fragrant and crispy and delicious (although the Yu Rin Chi at Izakaya Bincho is still my favorite, with more depth of flavor and better execution).

We finish up this visit with the Hie Hie Tori Su-pu Kakegohan (Chilled Chicken Soup with Rice served with Garnish).

Initially, it looks a bowl of Chilled Shredded Chicken with some Tsukemono (Pickled Vegetables) over Chilled Rice. But then, the waitress pours the contents of the teapot over the Rice Bowl and you get the full glory of this dish.

While it sounds rather unappetizing, the Chilled Chicken Soup is excellent: There's an initial burst of a Torigara (Chicken Bone) and Shio (Salt) Broth, but then it finishes with zero aftertaste as it leaves the mouth(!). It's bizarre and delicious and refreshing. Probably our favorite item on the menu for this visit. :)

It was about 1/3 of the way through our 1st visit that we noticed some service issues - there are only 2 waitresses and no busboys taking care of the entire restaurant (but it's not that large) - but on my 2nd visit, it got worse from the very beginning: We were greeted with a standard "Welcome!" (in Japanese) but the smile from the greeting faded before she even finished speaking the words (turning into a frown), and then we were quickly seated, with our server rushing off to the kitchen.

No matter, I was anxious to try some other new creations from Chef Kazu. In placing our order, another sign of trouble came up: Niwattori was already removing dishes from the menu (they had only been open about ~2.5 weeks at this point). Out of pure coincidence, the first 4 dishes I wanted to order were all "no longer available" on the menu; our waitress mentioned that they were too complicated for the kitchen and/or had sourcing problems (not a good sign).

The first dish to arrive is the Gobo Isobe Age (Deep Fried Burdock with Dried Seaweed) served with Matchashio (Matcha Green Tea Infused Sea Salt) and Kare-jio (Curry Infused Sea Salt).

The enjoyment of Gobo (Burdock Root) is really subjective, with some of my friends thinking it tastes too much like you're eating an extreme root from the ground, while others (including myself) really enjoy the fibrous nature of Gobo. :) Niwattori's version is standout for accentuating the woodsy, earthy, fibrous Gobo with the briny saltiness of Seaweed, and then paired with a great Matchashio. The Kare-jio is a little too pungent and overpowering for the Gobo.

As much as I'm looking forward to this next dish, I have low expectations due to the sourcing: Zenpin Hiyashi Do-fu (Fresh Chilled Tofu with Vegetable Garnish served with Special Sauce).

Having been lucky enough to experience extremely fresh Tofu (made in-house) in Japan, I'm still searching for a good replication of that experience here in L.A. And Niwattori's version tastes like a standard, store-bought Silken Tofu, lacking the vibrancy and focus I was hoping it might achieve.

It's not bad, and taking a spoonful of the Chilled Tofu with a bit of the Kyuuri (Cucumber) and Konbu (Kelp) and dipping it into the light Shoyu Negi (Soy Sauce Green Onion) Sauce makes for a decent, cooling starter.

Continuing on, the Tebasaki Shioyaki (Grilled Chicken Wings with Sea Salt) arrives next. Given the location of Niwattori (in the heart of the South Bay, near some of the most popular Yakitori (Grilled Chicken Skewer) restaurants in So Cal), serving up a version of Tebasaki grilled over gas is just putting yourself at a major disadvantage.

The Tebasaki are just fine, with a decent grill technique (none of them being too overcooked), but lack the enticing smokiness of the best Yakitoriyas in So Cal.

But it's their next dish that nearly saves the entire experience and is easily my favorite dish on the menu: Tori to Rakkyou no Makkuro Amazuan (Deep Fried Chicken and Japanese Shallot Glazed with Sweet and Sour Black Vinegar Sauce).

Imagine a juicy morsel of Chicken with a crispy sliver of Chicken Skin, coated with a slightly tart and sweet Black Vinegar that has just the right amount of fattiness and meatiness. Outstanding! :)

At this point, I'm bracing myself for a letdown with the next dish, but thankfully it's not too bad: Tori Hakkaisan Hon Jyozo Kasuzukeyaki (Grilled Marinated Chicken with Hakkaisan Sake).

One thing that's a little surprising is that about 1/3 of the Chicken is still undercooked (nearly raw) and blatantly visible for the server (and customer) to see. For the parts that were cooked through, there's a fragrant Sake undertone and even without Binchotan, the Marinated Chicken is enjoyable.

While most of the usual Izakaya dishes are nowhere to be found on this menu, the humorously named "Noodle and Rice After Drink" section of the menu still has some favorites. :) We order the Tori Soba (Ramen Noodle with Chicken in Hot Soy Broth).

I'm always a huge fan of Ramen Noodles, so when I heard they served Ramen (even though I know Izakayas serving Ramen have disappointed me repeatedly in the past), I had to try it. :) Niwattori's version has a few problems: Firstly, there's no actual pieces of Chicken in the dish (but I chalk it up to them meaning the Torigara (Chicken Bone) Soup itself at this point). Secondly, the Noodles they use have a distinct egg flavor and taste just like standard Lo Mein Noodles instead of Ramen. And sadly, the Broth itself tastes mainly of pure Shoyu (Soy Sauce) with a touch of Torigara, lacking any complexity whatsoever.

Probably the best dish from my 3rd visit would have to be the Mushitako to Kureson no Salada (Steamed Octopus and Watercress Salad).

The Steamed Octopus is cooked perfectly, having a light chew, but being quite tender and working well with the spicy, slightly bitter Watercress. Unfortunately it's also a bit messy, with the raw Watercress stalks poking out in all directions and making eating this Salad a bit hard (in order to get a bit of the Octopus, some Carrot and Watercress with each bite).

Finally, we finish with another classic dish: Fuwafuwa Yonshoku Torisoboro Don (Crumbled Minced Chicken, Fish Seasoning, Egg and Vegetables served over Rice).

After mixing up all the toppings, the Soboro Don is surprisingly bland: I enjoy a lighter hand on seasonings, but this dish tasted like the Ground Chicken had no salt added to it, with the shredded Egg being unseasoned as well. My guest (who enjoys Soboro Dons a lot) also nods in agreement: It tastes like a super-light, healthy version of Soboro Don that ultimately is a bit too one note.

Service at Izakayas (Japanese Pubs) can be hit-or-miss, especially when at the more popular establishments around town (e.g., when they run at full capacity on a busy weekend with more Sake, Beer and additional orders being requested constantly by the clientele :). But the problem at Niwattori goes deeper than that: They loudly and proudly proclaim their angle of "Omotenashi" (the heartfelt, genuine, beyond-expectations type of exceptional manners / service) and when held to that standard, it utterly fails. But even looking past that, the service on a "regular level" is sub-par at best, with there being only 2 waitresses serving the whole restaurant, with no busboys. It's more the management's fault than anyone for understaffing the restaurant, but even with limited help, the servers seem to going through the motions more than anything. On my 3 visits, we've had finished plates piling up at our table, requests for more drinks (Sake, Tea) were met with either rolled eyes or an exasperated expression, and for all 3 visits the restaurant was between ~30% - 50% full at the most.

Prices range from $3.80 - $13.50 per dish, and we averaged about ~$43 per person (including tax and tip).

It's always great when a restaurant opens up with an interesting and/or good focus. For Niwattori, with the sleek, minimalist modern decor and declaration of Omotenashi on their menu, it's about trying to create an upscale, classy Izakaya (Japanese Pub) with a focus on Chicken dishes. Unfortunately, Niwattori falters on the menu (with some notable exceptions like their Tori Rakkyou (Deep Fried Chicken and Japanese Shallot Glazed with Black Vinegar Sauce)), and completely fails on their upscale, Omotenashi service angle.

The ultimate expression of Omotenashi I've experienced is probably at Hyotei in Kyoto: When our taxi arrived at the front gate, the head waitress and second waitress were waiting out front to greet us and guide us to our dining room. They kowtowed and patiently waited as we took our first bite of the food, being on hand to make sure that there were no problems, and throughout that wonderful evening, you could feel the warmth and sincerity for every interaction with them.

And while Hyotei is a 300 year old, top-class Kaiseki establishment, the concept of Omotenashi can be seen in many other examples: When I was trying to find the little Yuba specialist, Komameya, I was lost and after asking for directions from a shopkeeper, she took the time to leave her post, and personally guide us on a ~10+ minute walk through a maze of neighborhood streets, helping us find the restaurant, all the while, cheerful and earnest in helping out some strangers who didn't even shop at her store.

And even with an award-winning, top class restaurant like Ryugin, with a chef who's won multiple awards, we saw the chef come out and personally greet and genuinely ask about the food at each table, and who, at the end of the evening, saw us to the exit of the restaurant, bowed and thanked us... and who remained standing and smiling all the way until we reached the intersection at the end of the alley (minutes later). As I turned around, he was still there, and he bowed one more time, making sure we found our way out. Those are just a few examples of real Omotenashi, sincere, heartfelt manners and service, something Niwattori would do well to learn from.

Rating: 4.7 (out of 10.0)

1231 Cabrillo Ave., Suite 107
Torrance, CA 90501
Tel: (310) 781-9200

Hours: Mon - Fri, 5:30 p.m. - 10:30 p.m.
Sat - Sun, 5:00 p.m. - 9:00 p.m.


gourmetpigs said...

It's a bummer that they advertise otomenashi yet their service fell so short. At least the food looks interesting enough and good when you managed to maneuver around the disappointing dishes.
I think I'll give it time for the dust to settle before trying it ..

Exile Kiss said...

Hi burumun,

Yah, that's probably the biggest disappointment; that they openly advertise Omotenashi and deliver something that would be on par with a mediocre national chain restaurant, or worse.

weezermonkey said...

I love the look of the place! Too bad service didn't measure up.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi weezermonkey,

We were pretty excited when we first stepped inside - nice sleek, clean lines (although they were playing Muzak for all 3 of our visits). But yes, sadly, the service was pretty disappointing and many of the dishes felt... too meek and safe.

glutster said...

Wow, always manage to surprise me how comprehensive all your reports are Ken.

Anyways, oh well hope the shabby service and food isn't permanent.

I love konyaaku despite it's blandness!

It's crazy how it virtually has no calories...

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Teenage Glutster,

Thanks. Yah, I love Konnyaku as well. :) It's definitely a dish that almost makes it worth the hassle here.

Sam said...

omotenashi is all about the subtleties too. haven't experienced anything like it in LA for a you know of any places that actually practice what Niwattori preached?

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Sam,

Well said. It's the little things that really add to the Omotenashi experience. As for a place around L.A. that really practices this in every way, I would say, no, sadly, I haven't found one.

There are aspects of Izakaya Bincho with Tomo-san and his wife Megumi-san that expresses Omotenashi (they genuinely look at each customer in the eyes, smile and greet and then personally stop what they're doing and thank the customer on the way out (in a heartfelt manner)), but even there, they are too understaffed to take care of the customer completely throughout the evening in a 100% Omotenashi manner.

Food, she thought. said...

Looks promising despite a few missteps. Too bad it's in Torrance.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Food, she thought,

It definitely has potential and that's what's so frustrating about the whole experience. I suppose if one ignores the front page Omotenashi proclamation and thinks of it just as a standard Izakaya, it's better.

But since it's in Torrance, there are quite a few options close by that are better (e.g., Torihei, Kagura, etc.). Let me know if you end trying it. :)

Gastronomer said...

I'm always weary of blogs with a grading rubric, but I must say, your 10.0 scale is very effective. How do you choose where you dine?

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Gastronomer,

Thanks. Where to dine? I'm not sure (^_^; sometimes it's friends talking new places, or hearing about a place with a certain culinary angle, or just trying out places blindly and discovering things. Hope all is well. :)

Unknown said...

you tried a lot of chicken that all they had or is that all you wanted to order?

Exile Kiss said...

Hi james,

No, the vast majority of the menu is Chicken-centric items. Thanks.

Foodie Traveler said...

Hi Exile Kiss, thanks again for sush a thoughtful review. What a shame it was so disappointing. Amazing how Cabrillo has such a mix of really great and also really mediocre specialty Japanese. I adore Yuzu and noted the connection with the Chef. Are you generally a fan of Yuzu? If so, it sounds like this is a dumbed-down version of that restaurant's chicken dishes, would you agree?

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Foodie Traveler,

Thanks. :) Yes, I agree that in such a concentrated "large block" of Torrance (between Mitsuwa -> Ichimian on Cravens) there's a great concentration of good and bad Japanese restaurants (some amazing, some not so much).

I enjoyed YUZU a lot more than Niwattori, and your assessment hits the nail on the head: Niwattori feels like a watered down version at times, and missing the mark on trying to be upscale.

Kung Food Panda said...

Another in depth review EK! It's too bad the service, and sounds like some of the food were subpar. Although I'd give it a shot, there seem to be other restaurants that's better (and prob cheaper) that awaits my patronage! Thx for the heads up!

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Kung Food Panda,

Thank you. :) I still hope they work out their Service issues (and some dishes' issues), but yah, in So Cal the competition is so high for a person's income, there are many other choices to try.

sallysf said...

Hi, first time reading your yummy posts..I just wanted to check out this place myself, so it was nice and interesting to read yours. Thanks! Too bad the service was not "Omotenashi" level, not even to "Atarimae" level, but glad you've had several opportunities to experience the real thing at Hyoutei and other places in Japan.

I think the intention to offer great service is still there at this restaurant and with proper management and staffing maybe they could improve the service later hopefully... They are still new and I would give more time, but my hats off to you giving three chances already to be fair instead of trying just once and feel that you know everything about the place like some other

"Makuro" should be "Makkuro" meaning "truly black", and the name "Niwattori" is a kind of fun wordplay coined by the owner I assume.."Niwatori" is the right way to say "chicken" and when you add one more "t" it sounds more amusing and alive like "Mihatteru" "Kibatteru" Gambatteru" (present participle) and also a dialect ("..toru" instead of "teru") It's actually obvious from the playful, almost joking and inviting way the chef has named the dishes..."fuwa fuwa" "pari pari" "dokkan"...:-)

Hope I could try some dishes soon. Thank you.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi sallysf,

Thanks so much for your detailed post! :) Thanks for the typo note (shimatta! This is what I get for romanizing everything instead of typing in -kana/kanji :).

Yes, I agree on their naming: I think it was a fun way to play on the real way to spell Niwatori and the menu's names in general. I'm still hoping they improve over time; I love their space / ambiance. If you end up going, please let me know how it goes. :)

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