Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Stumbling Out Of The Gates - Deep Fried Pork Cutlets at L.A.'s New Specialist Tokyo Tonkatsu Kagura (and The Loss of a Kaiseki Restaurant)

It was only a year and a half ago that Kagura debuted with a splash on a quiet corner in Torrance. Kagura marked the beginnings of a solid Koryouri-ya (Small Plates Restaurant), serving detailed Kappo dishes and one of the few restaurants offering Kaiseki (focused, multi-course meals reflecting seasonality) around Southern California. It had its rough spots, but showed great potential and a low-key, stylish atmosphere.

Jump ahead to today, and Chef Hiro Matsushita has left Kagura, and the owners have been forced to transform the restaurant into a Tokyo-style (or Kanto-style) Tonkatsu Specialist, citing difficulty maintaining enough business in their more upscale form, according to our waiter. I remember driving by a few weeks back and noticing that they changed their sign. It still said "Kagura" but as I was slowly accelerating, I noticed the words "Tokyo... Tonkatsu"(?!) and had to pull over. :)

Entering Kagura, the owners have kept the decor and ambiance exactly the same as before, wisely keeping the beautiful Sake bar, clean lines and lighting.

On the left side of the restaurant, they've kept their semi-private booths, which are welcoming and warm, and a great option when bringing in guests to enjoy their extensive Sake list.

During my 1st visit, we quickly grab a table and peruse the menu. The new menu is completely changed from their old one (their Dinner menu still retains ~10% of their old dishes), helmed by new Chef Kentaro Masuda, a native of Tokyo, who learned his trade from his father, who started and ran all 7 branches of Katsushin (beginning in Ueno and Kanda and expanding from there). With a family pedigree like that, Kagura looks to have a solid foundation.

The first thing I notice is the presentation on the menu. They are definitely going for a "high-end" dining experience. Their use of genteel Japanese words, the price tag (~$13 - $20 for lunch, even more expensive for dinner) for various Tonkatsu (Deep Fried Pork Cutlets) offerings, the overall plating and their amuse bouche, etc., all point to echoes of their former, polished Kaiseki and high-end restaurant beginnings.

To start, we're served a mini Chawanmushi (Steamed Egg Custard) and mini Salad of Kyabetsu (Cabbage) and Tamanegi (Onion).

It's a nice gesture (as a starter for the Lunch sets), but the Chawanmushi is overcooked, the Custard being too dense. It was the same result for all my visits. :(

But when our server puts down the mortar and pestle with fresh Shiro Goma (White Sesame Seeds), along with a jar of their Homemade Katsu Sauce, I could see this had all the makings of a wonderful Tonkatsu Specialist.

By fresh grinding the Sesame Seeds yourself (at the table) and mixing in their Homemade Katsu Sauce, it really elevates the whole Tonkatsu experience, giving you this fresh-cracked nuttiness and aroma you normally wouldn't get at almost all other Japanese restaurants serving Tonkatsu around town.

The 2 Selection Mix Gozen (Atsugiri Kurobuta Hire Katsu, Kani Kuri-mu Korokke (Deep Fried Premium Berkshire Pork Filet Cutlet, and Crab Cream Croquette)) arrives first.

One look and you can tell what Masuda-san is going for: 4 Small Plates (that change daily), little bites of delicately prepared Vegetables or other things that strike the chef's whimsy. For this meal, we're presented with some clean, simple Hijiki (Sea Vegetable), Lightly Poached Enoki Mushrooms, Konbu and Daikon. They're light, refreshing and another nice touch for a more upscale Tonkatsu presentation.

All set meals come with a housemade Tonjiru (Pork Broth with Akamiso and Shiromiso (Red and White Miso)), which is surprisingly tasty and not too heavy.

They also offer 2 types of Rice with your meal (bottomless for those who can't get enough Rice :), the standard Hakumai (White Rice) or Gokokumai (5 Grain Rice). We go with their rarer Gokokumai which has a more noticeable earthiness about it. It's undercooked, though (like their regular Hakumai), which is unfortunate, and nothing like the Tonkatsu Specialists in Tokyo that are as serious about their Rice as they are the Cutlets themselves.

But at the end of the day it's all about the star of the show, the focus of their revamped menu. Visually, the Atsugiri Kurobuta Hire Katsu (Deep Fried Premium Berkshire Pork Filet Cutlet) looks much different from the usual, local offerings. The Breading crust is looser and more flaky and is starting to resemble some of the offerings I've had in Tokyo.

But then I take a bite:


It's earthy, with a heavy Pork pungency. It's uneven. Some parts are juicy with just the right amount of Pork Fat and Filet meat, other parts are very greasy, and portions of it are overcooked. As you can see from this picture (below), there are massive blobs of Pork Blood strewn throughout the Katsu. It's unsightly, unappetizing and shows the need for more practice by Chef Masuda. (Note: On all 3 visits, we ran into this problem on certain styles of their Tonkatsu.)

This is a far cry from the mouth-watering, succulent, perfection that is Tonkatsu in Japan. :(

We move on to the Kani Kuri-mu Korokke (Crab Cream Croquette). They use the same light Panko Breading and on this visit it's light and has a wonderful crunch. Then the inside comes oozing out. It's a hot, ultra-smooth, silky Cream infused with Crab. It's like a savory, heated version of a sexy Patisserie Chantilly Cream Puff. Wonderful! :) This is probably the best Kani Kuri-mu Korokke I've had in So Cal to date.

I'm hoping their Filet version of the Tonkatsu is a fluke (well after 3 visits, it's sadly consistently not the case), so my guest and I order their other major cut: Atsugiri Kurobuta Ro-su Katsu (Deep Fried Premium Berkshire (Black) Pork Loin Cutlet).

On this 1st visit, the Ro-su (Pork Loin) is good. It's leaner, meatier and has a purity just breaking through the clouds. They serve their Kurobuta Ro-su Katsu with an edge of Fat which is a nice touch, balancing out some of the ultra-lean bites, but overall it's overcooked compared to the "barely well-done" juicy, flavorful happiness of multiple Tonkatsu I've had in Japan. (And sadly, on subsequent visits, the Ro-su turns out worse and completely overcooked. Inconsistency rears its ugly head. :(

The highlight of this first visit is their Sauce: The combination of Fresh Ground Shiro Goma and their Homemade Katsu Sauce really does help hide a lot of the deficiencies in the Pork Cutlet itself. Their Homemade Katsu Sauce isn't the typical heavy Worcestershire / Ketchup / Shoyu blend, but something deeper and more complex. Like all Katsu Sauces, though, it's powerful stuff and dominates the Pork if using more than a tiny bit. Their Karashi (Japanese Mustard) is the standard mass-produced variety, dryish and sinus-clearing. :)

As we finish our meal, our server brings out a complementary searing hot cup of Hojicha (Roasted Green Tea), a great palate cleanser and good way to finish a meal of heavily fried foods.

On my 2nd visit, I'm excited and hopeful that Chef Masuda has turned things around. My guest is excited to try their Omu Raisu (Omelette Rice). I haven't had a good Omu Raisu in years and am curious to see how this upscale version turns out.

Their Fuwa Toro Omu Raisu Ranchi (Omu-Rice Lunch (Omelette Rice)) arrives, nicely plated as expected, and it looks delicious!

Just looking at the surface of the Egg and I can tell this might be something special: I take a bite and the Egg Omelette is fluffy, airy and still moist. It has just enough structure to cover and hold the Chicken Flavored Rice.

The Chicken Flavored Rice within is well-seasoned and while it's supposed to have chunks of Chicken meat, it is primarily just Rice, which is actually OK. My guest is smiling and happily proclaims this the best Omu Raisu they've had around town (I would agree).

A note for first timers trying Omu Raisu: This is one of those classic, funky Japanese interpretations of Western cuisine, some weird merger of an Egg Omelette with Flavored Rice, topped with their Demi-Glace Sauce (which is more like Ketchup and a quick reduction with Stock). For myself and my guest, it's more of a nostalgia thing; it's definitely not haute cuisine. :)

The last of their major cuts of Pork arrives at this point: Mirufi-yu Katsu (Millefeuille Katsu (Deep Fried Multi-Layered Sliced Black Pork Loin)) with Kaki Furai (Deep Fried Oysters).

Seeing this "Millefeuille"-style Pork Cutlet on the menu is a sign that the owners and Chef Masuda are aware of the latest trends in Tokyo. One restaurant in Tokyo has popularized the concept of taking ultra-thin slices of top-quality Pork and layering them, breading them and then deep frying the whole thing, to create a more juicy, tender, less dense Tonkatsu. The last time I was in Tokyo we saw lines going out the door, waiting for a seat (on multiple nights). I'm excited and hoping to see if Masuda-san can actually reproduce that Layered Tonkatsu dish.

Sadly, the answer is a resounding, "No." :(

If one has never tried this Layered Tonkatsu in Tokyo, it's actually a decent style to try at least once. But Kagura's version is completely overcooked, with the slices of Pork becoming dry and chunky throughout. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, this is another dish that's a distant runner-up to the versions I had in Tokyo. Very disappointing. (And this is another dish that had multiple blobs of Pork Blood running throughout.)

The Kaki Furai (Deep Fried Oysters) thankfully rebounds from the travesty of their Tonkatsu.

It's briny, juicy and creamy, perfectly cooked (like their Crab Cream Croquette), which makes you wonder what's going on in the kitchen.

Their big, non-Pork dish is their Jidori Chikin Katsu (Deep Fried Free Range Chicken Breast Cutlet).

Unlike their Pork offerings, their All-Natural Chicken Cutlet proves to be outstanding! It's so juicy and pure and bright. There's a good, fresh poultry essence coming through, and it's cooked perfectly. Easily the best Chicken Katsu I've had in So Cal. I'm stunned. :)

But unfortunately, this is yet another example of inconsistency with the kitchen. On another visit, the Chicken Katsu is completely overcooked (horribly so). :(

We finish this meal with one of their desserts: Nihonshu no Sha-betto (Sake Sherbet (Homemade Yuzu Citrus Flavored Sake Sherbet)).

It's very crisp and refreshing, with just the right amount of tantalizing Yuzu Citrus flavors coming through with each bite. Excellent.

On my 3rd visit, I invite Jotaru and another dear friend of ours to try their more extensive Dinner menu.

We begin with their Hotate no Karupaccho (Hotate Carpaccio (Fresh Hokkaido Scallop Sashimi with Garlic Soy Sauce Dressing).

I've always been a huge fan of Hokkaido Scallops and Kagura's dish doesn't disappoint. The Scallops are so fresh, vibrant, very tender and supple, yet still having the right amount of firmness, and the Garlic Soy Sauce Dressing doesn't overpower. The one quibble with this dish is Chef Masuda's odd decision to use a dab of Mayonnaise. It doesn't clash, but it feels unnecessary.

After having Heaven-sent Agedashi Tofu from Tomo-san, I know I'm setting myself up for disappointment ordering it anywhere else around town, but I'm curious how Kagura's version will turn out. Our Agedashi Tofu (Deep Fried Tofu with Fish Broth Soy Sauce Soup) arrives soon after the Scallops.

The Katakuriko (Potato Starch) breading is too thickly applied (and uneven at that), with the entire exterior of the Tofu being mushy. :( The Tofu itself is a medium firmness Tofu, but it's the funk of slightly older Tofu that completely brings down this version. Definitely a far cry from Izakaya Bincho's stellar dish.

Their Agedashi Soft Shell Crab (Deep Fried Soft Shell Crab and Rice, served with Fish Broth Soy Sauce Soup) arrives next.

The menu mentions that this is done in an Agedashi style (similar to their Tofu we presume), but instead, what we get is Deep Fried Soft Shell Crab - and it's enjoyable (not great, but decent) - with a small pitcher of some clear looking liquid. We ask the server what this is, and they bluntly reply, "Corn Starch." (^_^; Yikes. Well at least they're honest. It's a bit of a disappointment when the restaurant is aiming for a high-end Tonkatsu angle to take a shortcut and instead of serving some freshly-made, long-distilled, naturally concentrated base, they serve a Corn Starch thickened Sauce (that's rather bland) to douse the Soft Shell Crab in.

Our first main dish arrives: The Atsugiri Kurobuta Hire Demi Katsu (Deep Fried Premium Berkshire (Black) Pork Filet Cutlet with Demi-Glace Sauce). Being their most expensive Cutlet on the menu, I'm really curious what sets this apart from the normal version.

It turns out that the only difference between this dish and the regular Pork Filet Cutlet is the Demi-Glace Sauce. But I'm eager to try it and hope that the 3rd time's the charm. For using quality Berkshire Pork, my guests and I are disappointed: It turns out the Hire (pronounced "Hee-Reh") Katsu is, like my previous visits, overcooked. This particular cut tonight is also very uneven with huge blocks of Fat in about ~35% - 40% of the Cutlet, and the rest of it being quite lean.

Any attempts at enjoying the lighter Breading are lost as the Demi-Glace Sauce has turned the entire Cutlet into a very soggy mess. :( The Demi-Glace Sauce itself is a rather enjoyable Beef Stock Reduction, not as refined as a great French Demi-Glace, but for Yoshoku cuisine, this is one of the better ones locally.

One of the holdouts from Kagura's previous incarnation makes a spectacular return: Gindara no Saikyoyaki (Grilled Black Cod Marinated in Saikyo Miso Sauce).

The Black Cod is *flawless*. It's perfectly cooked, beautifully moist, tender, buttery and the best version of this dish I've had in the past year. Excellent.

Another dish I'm really looking forward to is their Ume Tofu (Cold Organic Tofu with Sour Plum and Okra).

I love Ume (Japanese Plum) and eagerly take a bite: The Organic Tofu tastes old and dull, and to make matters worse, they use a Firm Tofu. The Okura (Okra) and Ume are fine, but the disappointing Tofu really ruins this whole dish.

Perhaps the biggest disappointment (after their Tonkatsu, or maybe even exceeding it) is their Kurobuta no Saikyoyaki (Grilled Black Pork Loin Marinated in Saikyo Miso Sauce).

Just one look at these pictures (and comparing it to the ones on the menu) will show you the obvious problem. Besides it looking nothing like the menu picture (at all), this turns out to be the *worst* devastation of top quality Berkshire Pork I have ever had in my life (no hyperbole). (>_<) The Pork is so overcooked it's become completely dried out and chunky (at about the same density and chewiness as Beef Jerky(!)). I'm shocked at how bad this is. Jotaru and my other guest stop chewing their first bite and I can tell they want to spit it out. I'm so embarrassed that they had to suffer this dish I'm at a loss for words. Even if this was Chef Masuda's "homage" to, say, a classic Hong Kong / Cantonese-style Chasiu (BBQ Roasted Pork), even the worst, driest Chasiu I've had is an upgrade from this dish. :(

At this point, I'm hoping against hope that the next dish quickly rectifies things: Sake no Yuzu Shoyu Yaki (Grilled Salmon Marinated in Yuzu Citrus Soy Sauce).

The Sake (Salmon) is moist with a light ocean breeze coming off of each bite. It's a solid dish, but there's no trace of the beautiful Yuzu Citrus, which is disappointing. Their Gindara (Black Cod) is much better, but both of them are the highlights of our evening so far.

So, being as excited as I was over the first time I had their wonderful Chicken Cutlet, I order it again, this time for my 2 new guests: Jidori Chikin Oroshi Katsu (Deep Fried Free Range Chicken Breast Cutlet with Radish Ponzu Sauce).

Only this time around, the Panko breading looks like it's saturated with oil, fried at the wrong temperature.

I take a bite and what I expected to be a repeat of the succulent, juicy, perfectly cooked Chikin Katsu turns out to be completely and utterly overcooked. The Chicken is so dry that this version turns out to be one of the worst Chicken Katsu I've had in So Cal. My guests finish their 1 piece and never touch this dish again for the rest of the evening. How can a kitchen (with the same chef no less), cook one of the best Chicken Katsu I've had and the worst Chicken Katsu I've had within the course of a few days?! It's completely baffling. (Note: Kagura was only ~60% full for dinner.)

I wanted to give them one more chance and order their Atsugiri Kurobuta Ro-su Katsu (Deep Fried Premium Berkshire (Black) Pork Loin Cutlet) yet again, hoping that Chef Masuda could perform some magic here.

It's overcooked. More overcooked than my previous visits, resulting in a very chunky, dry Berkshire Pork Loin Cutlet. :( And the Breading falls apart and off the Pork itself (unlike previous visits).

To finish things off, we try their Kuri Zenzai (Sweet Red Bean Soup in Chestnut).

One of the things I enjoy most about many traditional Asian desserts is that they tend to be less sweet than most desserts you'd find in the U.S. Well it seems Kagura wants to challenge those expectations: I'm completely blindsided as a wave of saccharin sweetness overwhelms my mouth. It's beyond pure Sugar and the most grossly sugary Japanese dessert I've had in years. :(

We originally ordered a Matcha Pudding because I love Matcha Green Tea, but our server tells us they ran out this evening, but recommends their Tofu no Chi-zu Ke-ki (Tofu Cheese Cake (Homemade Tofu Cheese Cake with Blueberry Sauce)). This turns out to be thankfully less sweet than their Zenzai, and surprisingly decent being made from Tofu.

One highlight that should be noted is their extensive and *very fairly priced* Sake Menu. They carry some rare selections and popular classics like the ubiquitous, trendy Kubota Manju which they sell for only $110 per bottle (compared to the usual price of ~$180 - $200 around town). They have some rarer selections from Shizuoka, Ohita and Hyogo, but they feel out-of-place. I'm all for Sake (anytime, anywhere :), but these rather elegant selections feel like leftover stock from their previous Kaiseki and Koryouri-ya restaurant, Kagura, than a great pairing with Deep Fried Pork Cutlets. At least for Beers, they thankfully carry Koshihikari Echigo Beer (Niigata, Japan) which is wonderful. :)

Service is another disappointing aspect at Kagura. I understand that ownership may be trying to be careful in this economy and having to close their previous incarnation of Kagura and completely change the menu, but having only 2 waiters covering the entire restaurant (with no busboys) for lunch, and 3 waiters (with no busboys) for dinner is unfortunate. Trying to get more drinks, refills, or extra Rice or other things is painfully slow. And even for lunch on one visit, when there was only 1 other table, our waiter never stopped by to refill Tea or check on us. Plates were left uncleared for most of the meals (all 3 visits), and there seems to be a general lack of quality service. This is forgivable if this is a casual eatery, but Kagura is clearly aiming for "top quality" "high end" dining, with prices to match. With that in mind, their service is severely lacking. Prices range from $11.50 - $19.50 for Lunch, $4.50 - $24.95 for Dinner, with most main entrees around ~$18.

While it's sad to see Kagura the Kappo & Kaiseki restaurant go away (along with Chef Matsushita), it was with great excitement and hope that their new focus - Kanto-style Tonkatsu - would see the birth of a true, high-quality Deep Fried Pork Cutlet Specialist here in L.A. that could match the offerings in Japan. Sadly, this is not the case with Kagura. They have elements that excite and dazzle the eyes and palate - mortar and pestle, grind-at-your-table Sesame Seeds and Homemade Katsu Sauce! And a pretty darn good version of Omu Raisu - but the most important aspect of being a Tonkatsu Specialist - their actual Tonkatsu - falls miserably short.

From blobs of Pork Blood sitting in their Cutlets, to overcooked Cutlets, to oil-saturated Cutlets, and some tragic Dinner "specialties" (Kurobuta no Saikyoyaki (Grilled Pork Cutlet with Saikyo Miso Sauce)) that were some of the worst dishes I've ever had in my life, it's clear that Chef Masuda and Kagura need to seriously look at quality control in their kitchen. After my 3rd visit, the expressions of my guests says it all: One guest (who's so nice and gentle) quietly averted eye contact and meekly thanked us for dinner and slipped away as fast as possible; Jotaru (who's also a kind soul) simply said, "I'd rather eat the Tonkatsu at Mitsuwa's Food Court." :(

Rating: 4.8 (out of 10.0)

Tokyo Tonkatsu Kagura
1652 Cabrillo Avenue
Torrance, CA 90501
Tel: (310) 787-0227

Hours: 7 Days A Week, [Lunch] 11:30 a.m. - 2:00 p.m.
[Dinner] 5:30 p.m. - 10:00 p.m.



weezermonkey said...

How can something deep-fried be so bad? :(

So says the girl who just ate a KFC Double Down...and liked it. [embarrassed look]

Exile Kiss said...

Hi weezermonkey,

Oh, of course compared to Fast Food, Kagura is nowhere near that bad. I'm looking at it compared to the best Tonkatsu and Yoshoku cuisine I had in Japan. It's just unfortunate because it had so much potential. I'm still hoping they can improve over the next few months.

kaori said...

I always enjoy your blog!すごく楽しく読ませてもらってます。 When I had been to Kagura (I believe it was a soft opening day and another regular day), I was super disappointed both time! And I heard they changed the menu completely to ". So, I always wanted to try... でも、かつ花の方がやっぱりおいしいんですかねー?(笑)いつも、すごいいっぱい注文してますが、たくさんのお友達と行かれてるんですか? I just curious.... :)

Exile Kiss said...

Konnichiwa kaori-san,

Thank you! (^_^) Kanshashimasu! _(._.)_

I'm sorry to hear you also were disappointed. I hope one day they improve and get close to the Tonkatsu in Tokyo.

Unn... I agree. :) It's just my tomodachi's opinion (Jotaru-san was so disappointed that night :(. Soshite, it just depends on the meal: Sometimes I bring along many friends, sometimes just a few. :)

Banana Wonder said...

Never heard of a rice omlette before! Funny it was nostalgia for you and totally new for me.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Anna,

Yah it's an odd dish. Let me know if you end up trying and what you think of it. :)

Unknown said...

So sad to see the Tonkatsu is a disappointment. I've had great Tonkatsu in Japan as well...However, it seems like they've nailed 3 of my favorite Japanese dishes: Kaki Fry, Kani cream croquette and Omu Rice. I'm also very interested to try their Jidori Cutlet. Will pay a visit soon.

Thanks for the review

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Acebrigade,

I'm definitely glad they were able to deliver on some of the menu items, although none of them are the major specialty they claim they specialize in. I hope they continue to improve. I'm pulling for them.

Let me know how your visit goes. :)

Anonymous said...


Thanks for the rundown on Kagura. In your opinion, which restaurant serves the best pork tonkatsu in LA?

I still dream about the tonkatsu I had at Maisen in Aoyama...


Exile Kiss said...

Hi Daniel,

Thanks. That's the sad part: So far there hasn't been any consistent, amazing Tonkatsu specialist in L.A. When Kagura is on, it does make some of the best in L.A., but it's still not as good as the ~medium-good to great places in Japan.

I hope they get more consistent over time, or else it'll be hard to see myself going back.

Andrea (TheFoodieTraveler) said...

I am very sad to read this. I was just about to plan a high-end Kaiseki dinner there. Where else in LA do you like for authentic high-end Kaiseki experience?

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Andrea,

I know, I'm really sad they changed their concept and menu as well. :(

Kaiseki is the one major sub-cuisine from Japan that still hasn't found good representation here in So Cal. I've been looking for a long time.

Now that Kagura is gone (the Kaiseki menu), the next best Kaiseki experience (it's a more humble, stripped down version) would be at Kappo Hana:


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