Cafe Katsu is more than a great neighborhood restaurant. It sets a standard of excellence by which other neighborhood restaurants would do well to gauge their own worth.
From the standpoint of food, Cafe Katsu is a mini-L'Orangerie. French cuisine at its near best, filled with exciting surprises, great sauces, beautiful presentation.
From a cost standpoint, it sticks closely to its neighborhood price-range mandate. Around $10 for lunch; $25 or so for dinner. And the atmosphere goes beyond the ordinary. Cafe Katsu, like Restaurant Katsu, its big brother clear across town in Los Feliz, is a simple statement of superb taste, environmental appropriateness and thoughtfulness. It's a place where, if you lived in the neighborhood, you would consider yourself lucky to dine every day. If you don't live in the neighborhood, the place that is worth the trek to the far reaches of West Los Angeles for the sheer enjoyment of fine dining. The food is that good. That fresh. And that beautiful.
One would expect no less from Michite Katsu, the owner whose Restaurant Katsu on Hillhurst Avenue in Los Feliz is already a legend. Why he chose to locate the tiny sister restaurant in what one of his own waiters calls a "God-forsaken place" in an obscure mall hidden amid warehouses in a deserted industrial section of West Los Angeles is anyone's guess. But you can bet that Katsu knew what he was doing. People do go out of their way for good food.
Why a French restaurant when his own orientation and training is Japanese is also anyone's guess. But you can also bet that Katsu, a genius of sorts who was one of the first restaurateurs to integrate gallery art and sculpture into the restaurant scheme, would not dream of putting out a product unless it was excellent. When one of the former chefs of Cafe Katsu walked out during the dinner hour several months back, Katsu waited until someone "appropriate" came along, instead of filling the position with just any chef. He closed the doors of Cafe Katsu and waited six weeks for the right chef to come along.
The right chef turned out to be Joseph Miller. American-trained (the Culinary Institute of America), Miller's experiences also go back to Michel Guerard, the minimalist culinary artist in France, and to Los Angeles' L'Orangerie and La Toque.
In fact, on the menu you'll find a slightly modified (but not nearly as perfectly executed) Michel Guerard recipe, the lobster with tagliatelle (pasta strands) and lobster sauce, which is the signature item on the menu, and one of the most beautiful. A whole lobster, whose tail is shelled and sliced, is sprawled on a bed of rolled tagliatelle in a sea of lobster sauce.
Fish predominates on the menu because of Katsu's own sushi orientation (Restaurant Katsu is predominantly a sushi restaurant with Japanese kappo (gourmet) specialties added weekly). So you might find regulars such as salmon and grilled tuna on the menu and whatever other fish happens to be in season or in the marketplace. An example is lotte, a monkfish similar in texture to lobster meat, which Miller roasts and serves with Brussels sprouts and oyster mushrooms in a vin rouge sauce (red wine), or grilled striped bass grilled with zucchini and pepper in an olive oil and lime sauce, or a tian (mold) of halibut and lobster over saffron rice. Salmon is served variously with mustard and other sauces.
For the meat-eaters, there are things such as breast of chicken served with a mousse of mushrooms and truffle sauce, and, in season, roast venison in a red wine juniper berry sauce, served with a cabbage ratatouille.
The lunch menu includes two specials each day, such as grilled roughy or curried chicken salad, and roasted lamb with rosemary sauce among them. But some dinner regulars, such as the grilled shiitake mushrooms and smoked mozzarella salad, and a tuna, avocado and mushroom salad and tuna tartar with mache, also appear on the lunch menu.
Portions are adequate, perfect for those who wouldn't think of ending a meal without dessert. And at Cafe Katsu, you'll want to save some room for the excellent tart tatin or the terrific custard caramel or cheesecake, all made on the premises.
You'll probably be greeted by Katsu's wife, Tama, who helps Katsu operate the cafe, and brings a harmony of elegance, serenity and charm to the place.
Cafe Katsu, 2117 Sawtelle Blvd.; (213) 477-3359. Open daily except Sunday from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. for lunch, and 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. for dinner. MasterCard and Visa credit cards accepted. Mall parking; reservations necessary. Wine and beer only.