Friday, March 26, 2010

All About The Sake - Bar Hayama

With the rise of numerous specialist bars around L.A. (from celebrating Whiskey (Seven Grand) to Rum (La Descarga)), it got me thinking about my favorite alcoholic beverage that I take for granted: Sake, or its Japanese proper name, Nihonshu. Since I've gotten selective over the years, I know what I like and where to find it, so I don't need to find a dedicated Sake Bar to enjoy my favorites. In addition, I find that Sake pairs much better with food than drinking it straight up with nothing to snack on, so that's another reason I prefer going to specific restaurants to enjoy Sake, instead of a pure Sake Bar. But as I was reflecting on which establishments actually could be considered a Sake Bar, I suddenly remembered Bar Hayama, a quiet, modern Japanese Restaurant / Sake Bar / Sushi Bar on Sawtelle.

Bar Hayama is located in the space formerly occupied by Sushi Sasabune (before it moved to its current "warehouse" location). When it was Sasabune, it was literally a residential house, converted into a small, quaint Sushi Bar. After the move, I remember driving down Sawtelle numerous times, and slowly seeing the conversion into what is now Bar Hayama. I could see flames from a giant, outdoor fire pit, and thought to myself, "What *is* this new place going to be? A tiki lounge?" :) But one day, some of my Izakaya Hounds wrangled me for a trip down Sawtelle, and we ended up at Bar Hayama. Two-and-a-half years later, I've come to appreciate Bar Hayama as a good Japanese Sake Bar, but the food falls a bit short.

On my first visit, I remembered thinking just how nice Bar Hayama was, compared to the former tenants. Instead of a quaint, converted house, Bar Hayama built out a beautiful outdoor area, with a communal fire pit, little tables, and a nice, tented long table area to one side. Inside, there's an inviting long bar, satellite dining tables, and a big Sushi Bar off to the other side of the restaurant.

One glance at their extensive Sake Menu and it's clear that the owners have a solid understanding and passion for this wonderful beverage. :) The menu contains a good spectrum of choices, from very accessible, easy drinking, to rarer finds and old standbys.

While it's unfortunate they don't have my all-time favorite Sake - Takeno Tsuyu Junmai Sake (Yamagata Prefecture, Japan) - they have a good selection, starting with some popular choices like: Hakkaisan Junmai Ginjo Sake from Niigata, Japan. It's relatively clean and easy to drink, lightly sweet, but I don't care for the slightly rough finish. Harushika Junmai Sake from Nara, Japan is in the same category. A solid choice for a crisp, dry drink that pairs nicely with many dishes.

On the more fragrant side, Ken ("Sword") Junmai Daiginjo Sake from Fukushima, Japan has a pleasant aroma and is a good starter. Another good selection is Kikusui Junmai Ginjo Sake from Niigata, Japan. This is one of my fallback choices if a restaurant's menu doesn't have anything better. It's not bad at all - very respectable - but it's not one of my all-time favorites. :) Still, the Kikusui is crisp, has a medium body and light perfume finish, and is probably more enjoyable than the previous choices above for first timers.

But the big surprise on the menu is Kubota Manju Junmai Daiginjo Sake from Niigata, Japan (*not* to be confused with its lesser cousin, the rougher, less-refined Kubota Hekiju which is also on the menu). Specifically, it's not that Kubota Manju is on the menu - it's quite easily found at better Japanese restaurants around town - but it's the price that's amazing: A mere $115 for a full bottle of Kubota Manju! (FYI: Most restaurants around town sell a full bottle for ~$180 - $200 currently. This is a great price.) Kubota Manju is essentially the "trendy, popular choice" for those looking for a high quality Sake. It's a great, delicious, aromatic, smooth mouthfeel Sake that's definitely deserved much of its praise, but the skyrocketing price and showoff status that's being attached to it these days is a bit of a turnoff (and when there are better drinking Sake choices around for half the cost (or less), it's easy to see why some have begun to shun it). Still, for the choices I've tried so far on the menu, you can't go wrong with the excellent Kubota Manju. :)

As for the food, Bar Hayama offers a variety of Fusion Sushi Rolls, as well as traditional Sushi and Sashimi choices, on top of popular, mainstream Bento Box items (e.g., Chicken Teriyaki), and their Kozara menu, which are their version of "Japanese Tapas" Small Plates. Originally crafted by Chef-Owner Toshi Sugiura, the Chef de Cuisine is currently Sato Echiro, who's been honing his cooking (and Kaiseki) skills at Nadaman in Tokyo, Japan.

During this visit, we begin with a classic dish: Agedashi Tofu (Fried Tofu with Tempura Sauce).

Bar Hayama's version turns out to be decent, but far too soggy - the Katakuriko (Potato Starch) exterior has become completely waterlogged, and the Tofu itself is a firm Tofu, which is counter to what many restaurants use. This isn't going to topple Izakaya Bincho's heaven-sent version anytime soon, but it'll do in a pinch if you're craving Agedashi Tofu.

Their Albacore Carpaccio (with Diced Chili Ponzu and Warm Olive Oil) arrives next.

The Chili Ponzu Sauce thankfully doesn't detract from the delicate Albacore Tuna, but it's overcooked. :( What should be a nice quick sear on the outside with a delicate, raw interior is instead a basically ~medium-well to near well-done piece of fish.

Their Karaage (Japanese-style Fried Chicken) fares better.

There's a good crispiness and moist, juicy Chicken inside, but the batter is a bit too thick when compared to some of the best Karaage preparations around town (my Izakaya Hounds felt the same way). Still, this is one of the better items on the menu.

One of the best dishes of the evening turns out to be their Ankimo Pate, Hayama Style (Monkfish Liver Pate with Toast).

Thinking about it, I'm surprised more restaurants aren't using Ankimo (Monkfish Liver) for their version of a Pate as well; it's a brilliant idea, with good quality Ankimo giving off its own idiosyncratic buttery, fatty flavors, but without the normal metallic tinge that some Pate preparations can contain. Bar Hayama's version is very lucid, lightly creamy and slightly floral. Delicious! :)

Continuing on is Chef Yama's Special Crab Cake (Back Fin Crab, with Mustard Sauce).

Taking a bite, the Crab Cakes are far too salty, and they have a consistency like paste (~_~). It's really off-putting, and to make matters worse, the Mustard Sauce really overpowers the Crab.

The Marinated Chilean Sea Bass with Sake and Mirin Soy Sauce continues down this path.

Chilean Sea Bass is an inherently buttery, delicious fish, so it's really frustrating when you see it completely overcooked, as it is here. The Sake, Mirin and Soy Sauce base has great flavor and adds this nostalgic, home cooking facet, but all of that is quickly erased when you bite into the dried out, overcooked Chilean Sea Bass. Disappointing.

While Lamb isn't a commonly found item on Izakaya menus, I never would've imagined it being as badly executed as it was on this visit, with their Grilled Lamb Chop with Brown Sauce.

The Lamb Chop, like the Chilean Sea Bass, is completely well-done in terms of doneness. It's dry and tough, and the biggest disappointment on this visit.

The kitchen rebounds nicely with their Hamachi Kama (Grilled Yellowtail Collar).

Despite it being grilled, the Yellowtail meat is moist and flavorful, with just the right amount of salt to pair with a good Sake (or Beer). :) It's baffling that the same kitchen can cook Hamachi Kama just right, and completely mess up Lamb Chops and Chilean Sea Bass.

Everyone's favorite dish of the evening arrives next: Sauteed Shishito (Peppers).

Bar Hayama's version takes the wonderful Shishito Peppers (which are mainly completely mild), and sautees them in a simple Butter Ponzu Sauce, topping it with a bit of Katsuobushi (Dried Bonito Shavings). It exudes a vibrant, green, salty-sweetness, with a touch of butter in the background. Wonderful. :)

Sadly, the final dish of the evening proves to be the most spectacular disaster yet: Main Lobster Dynamite.

The Izakaya Hounds who joined me on this visit know better than to order crazy fusion dishes like this, but someone was craving Lobster, so we ordered it (and they regretted it the moment the first bite was taken). ;) It's supposedly fresh Main Lobster covered with their house-made Mayonnaise and Cream and baked in the oven, but the Lobster is, at the risk of sounding like a broken record, totally and completely overcooked. The dish is really salty, the Lobster is very tough and dried out, and this tastes more like an experiment gone wrong than something that should befit a decent (let alone good) restaurant. Probably the worst Lobster dish I've had in the last ~5 years. :(

Over the past few years, I've had little success in finding outstanding dishes at Bar Hayama, but I wanted to see what the new chef, Sato-san could bring to the menu, so I dropped by recently for another visit.

We start off with a promising-looking item on their new menu: Nakaochi Maguro (with Wasabi Soy Sauce).

Taking the Tuna Meat inbetween the ribs, near the spine, Chef Sato's idea is sound, but the execution falls a bit short: The Maguro is fresh-tasting, clean and neutral, but there's a *huge* piece of gristle/connective tissue in the largest piece in the dish (that was inedible), while the rest of the pieces were fine. It's a disappointing mistake to see the kitchen make, but otherwise, it was an OK dish.

Their Shonan Sushi Set arrives next.

While I normally enjoy eating Sushi at the bar, talking with the itamae, on this visit, my guests and I are ordering cooked dishes as well and have lots to talk about, so we order at the table instead. It should be noted that there was no one at the Sushi Bar during our entire meal this time (over 1.5 hours), so we essentially had the sushi chef's full attention in the preparation of this course.

Their Maguro Sushi (Tuna) tastes fresh, very tender and is thankfully gristle-free.

The Hamachi Sushi (Yellowtail) turns out to be the opposite of the Maguro: Quite possibly the worst piece of Yellowtail Sushi I've had in as long as I can remember, it's sadly old-tasting, dull, briny (in a bad way), and I couldn't finish it. (>_<)
The Tai Sushi (Red Snapper) is much better, being firm, yet tender with structure and clean-tasting. The knife skills are fine, but each piece feels a bit too rustic cut at times.

The Shari (Sushi Rice) is on the moist side, and a touch sweeter than I prefer, but it's decent.

The Albacore Tuna Sushi is creamy, very tender, and has just a faint breeze of the ocean.

The Sake Sushi (Salmon) is adequate - not as bright and vivid as it could be, but not old, either.

The Ebi Sushi (Cooked Shrimp) is sorely overcooked and very dense and tough.

The last 2 portions of this course are the Spicy Tuna Rolls and California Rolls. I'm not into Fusion Sushi, so I normally stay away from these items, but I don't like wasting food, so my guests and I divvy up the rolls. The Spicy Tuna Roll is decent, tasting of Sriracha Hot Sauce mixed with Mayo and decent Tuna. The California Roll, however, is inedible. :( I applaud Bar Hayama for using real Crab instead of Imitation Crab (as many places do), but they need some quality control here! The Crab tasted completely old, almost to the point of being near-rotten! (Everyone at the table discreetly spit out their half-eaten California Rolls.) This served as the final, resounding reminder to never order Sushi here.

Back to their new menu, their Uzaku (Unagi (Freshwater Eel) and Cucumber in Tosazu Sauce) arrives next.

This is excellent, and shows off Chef Sato's Kaiseki skills perfectly. The Unagi is fresh, soft, and reservedly sweet - just perfect - and the Tosazu Sauce (made with Bonito Fish, Ponzu, Soy Sauce and Vinegar) gives a perfect counterpoint to the Freshwater Eel. There's also a great play in the texture between the crunchy Cucumber, soft, tender Unagi and little bits of nuttiness from the Sesame Seeds. Excellent!

Their plainly named Beef Tongue (Simmered Tender Beef Tongue) unfortunately can't maintain the level of excellence of the previous dish.

Chef Sato serves up a huge slab of Beef Tongue, thickly cut, and it's just not cooked long enough, resulting in a very stringy, chunky piece of meat that should be a lot more tender. And while it's nice that the kitchen is experimenting with flavors, here's one idea that just doesn't work: On top of the Beef Tongue is a huge layer of Mustard, *and* a layer of Ume (Japanese Plum) Sauce. It's sour upon sour, and just overpowers the star of the dish, the Beef Tongue.

Their Sauteed Black Cod (with Mushroom Ponzu Butter Sauce) arrives soon after.

The Gindara (Black Cod) used here is soft and still moist, but lacks that great suppleness and creaminess of a properly cooked version. It's not overcooked (whew!), but could be better. But it's the Sauce that disappoints: It's dull and flat, tasting of diluted Butter and nothing else. There are no discernible notes of Ponzu nor Mushrooms.

At this point, we're about done, but we overheard our waitress talk about their Kare-, a House-made Japanese Curry that's supposedly "delicious." I can't resist the urge to try a good homemade Japanese Curry so we order their Pork Katsu Curry (Fried Pork Cutlet Curry). :)

Their House-made Curry tastes made from scratch: It's a spicy, slightly sweet, moderately thick Curry that's fragrant enough. It's not as amazing as Murakami-san's version at Foo Foo Tei, but it's not bad. But the Katsu (Pork Cutlet) itself falls really short: The breading is really thick and rough, and the Pork itself is too fatty and doesn't stay with the breading, so that really undermines what could've been a solid Katsu Curry dish.

Service has been consistently decent over the years, with our servers taking the time to refill Hot Tea or drinks and clear away plates within a reasonable amount of time. If they haven't done it yet, you can always wave and get their attention as they zip around the room covering their tables. Prices range from $5 - $55 (for their 16 oz Filet Mignon). Sake Prices range from $4 - $9 per Glass, with most Bottles reasonably under $100, and some excellent Sake Flights (samplers) of 3-4 different types for ~$14.

If viewed as a Sake Bar first, Bar Hayama is an enjoyable, quiet, neighborhood establishment to explore a substantial Sake Menu that happens to serve some adequate food (at times) to pair with the extensive beverage menu. If viewed as a restaurant first and foremost, Bar Hayama is a disappointment, with the inconsistent kitchen serving up dishes that are sometimes spot-on great, to wildly overcooked and inedible. Given that its name - Bar Hayama - mentions a "Bar" first, I'd like to see it as a good Sake Bar on the Westside that has a few things worth snacking on, like their Ankimo Pate (Monkfish Liver Pate), Sauteed Shishito Peppers, and their new Uzaku (Unagi in Bonito Ponzu Sauce), with a fun little open fire pit on the outside patio. But if you're looking for a place to dine, there are much better options on the same street. One hopes that eventually, Chef Sato can clean-up the kitchen and execute dishes with the brilliance of his new Uzaku. In the meantime, Bar Hayama is a great place to sample some common and rarer Sake offerings from across Japan.

Rating (Restaurant and Bar): 5.0 (out of 10.0)
Rating (Sake Bar Only): 7.9 (out of 10.0)

Bar Hayama
1803 Sawtelle Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90025
Tel: (310) 235-2000

Hours: [Lunch] Mon – Fri, 12:00 p.m. Noon - 2:30 p.m.
[Dinner] Mon – Thurs, 5:30 p.m. – 10:30 p.m. (last call 10:15 p.m.)
Fri – Sat, 5:30 p.m. – 11:00 p.m. (last call 10:45 p.m.)
Closed Sundays.


gourmetpigs said...

Hi Exile Kiss,

What a coincidence, I am about to post a review on Bar Hayama too, soon. I found it to be a good enough place even though it's not spectacular. But for me, this place is a mere few blocks away, so I think I would tend to view it more positively since it's so close to me.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi burumun,

Nice. Can't wait to see what you thought of it. :) Yah, I didn't mean for it to sound too negative, it essentially had some hits, but also seemingly an equal number of misses. But their Sake Menu is great. :) Now that I know what's good (and what to avoid), I think Bar Hayama is a more enjoyable experience if my friends want to take me there. :)

Secret Asian Man said...

I have to agree with the good-not-great assessment of Bar Hayama. The vibe is certainly fun, but if we are bowling for food and not drinks, there are much better executed izakaya dishes around town.

Secret Asian Man

Exile Kiss said...


Thanks for your thoughts. I'm sorry to hear that you also get the same vibe as I do about Bar Hayama. It's not horrible, but purely for food (no Sake), there are many other places I'd rather go to around town.

Unknown said...

thanks for the review and i totally agree on your food vs bar assessment. after many trips to bar hayama (few blocks from my home), i now only go for the sake.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Wilbur,

Thanks. I'm sorry to hear your experience was the same as mine. It has great potential, but after multiple visits, I realize it's just better to enjoy their great Sake Menu.

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