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RESTAURANT REVIEW : A Bit of Japan in Tarzana : Ueru-Ka-Mu is typical of pubs of the Far East, where the art of conversation mixes well with fine food and drinks.

August 06, 1993|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Max Jacobson reviews restaurants every Friday in Valley Life.

When I lived in Tokyo, I spent up to three hours a day learning Japanese. My classroom was the local izakaya , or drinking pub, where the art of conversation is valued only slightly less than the art of cooking.

Ueru-Ka-Mu is a remarkably typical izakaya , despite a Tarzana strip mall location next to the now-defunct Brunello Ristorante. (A poignant note on the recently vacated, now darkened Brunello's door: "Lord knows I tried--Bill.")

And it is, like all typical izakayas , a rabbit warren, no bigger than any of the hundreds, even thousands of ones just like it in Tokyo. The largely Japanese clientele is also typical: suits unwinding after a hard day at the office, women in traditional Japanese dresses, young adults in groups of five or six dressed in the latest fashions.

Everyone sits at one of the half-dozen undersized tables jammed up against a side wall or at the long, L-shaped sushi counter, where sushi is only an afterthought. Hot jazz plays loudly in the background, and the noise level gets quite intense when the restaurant fills up, usually around 8:30 p.m. First-time customers had better reserve in advance or come early. If not, they are likely to be turned away.

You'll easily understand why. This kitchen is second to none among local Japanese restaurants, thanks to an amazingly large and diverse menu of ippin-ryori , the little dishes one orders with beer or sake. Sushi is made in limited quantity here, but the prime focus is on these little dishes, which can be porridge, noodles, fried or grilled fish of any shape and size, savory vegetable preparations, marinades, salads or tofu specialties.

A huge menu of daily specials, written in English and Japanese, is probably the best look into what Japanese people eat at their local pubs. One dish almost everyone orders is ankimo , the Japanese equivalent of pate de foie gras. Instead of goose liver, those clever Japanese serve the liver of the anko , or monkfish. It comes in a pinkish, ultra-creamy textured chunk, the most swooningly rich-tasting food in the Japanese repertory.

Beef yanagawa seems a lot more familiar by comparison, especially to anyone who has sampled sukiyaki. It's a large ceramic plate covered with tender strips of sukiyaki beef, all bound up with eggs, onions and gobo , a stringy root known in English as burdock. Also look for ebidango and wakaayu tempura. The former are light, luscious shrimp balls that might easily pass for Chinese, without their overcoat sauce, a kind of mock Russian dressing. With wakaayu tempura, expect about eight tiny fried whitebait fish, draining lightly on a paper shell. It won't take a minute to dust them off.

Actually, these are relatively rich dishes, and Japanese people generally work their way up to them by lining their stomachs with an exotic sake (many are available here) or with a good frosty glass of Ichiban Shibori, Kirin's premium label beer. I like to start off an evening here with things like sutamina tofu and umekyu , though I admit both are somewhat acquired tastes.

Sutamina tofu is just one of Ueru-Ka-Mu's tofu preparations (the trusty bean curd protein source may turn up cold, hot, grilled, stuffed or deep fried here). I find the dish remarkable because it manages, in one bowlful, to combine nearly all the ingredients most non-Japanese find off-putting about this cuisine: quail eggs, tororo (glutinous grated yam), natto (bitter, slimy fermented soy beans) and nameko (slippery little mushrooms). It's also about the healthiest thing you could possibly eat.

Other things you may not want to brave include shiokara , morogamo yaki and namako. They are, from left to right, salted squid guts, grilled giant clam liver and pickled sea cucumber. If those dishes do not excite you, you can retreat to the more familiar ground of rice and noodle specialties.

The chef snickered when I ordered tori-chiri , an iron pot of boiling dashi (broth) filled with cut-up chicken, bamboo shoots, shiitake mushrooms, cabbage and konyakku , squiggly tangles of rubbery yam. "That's a winter dish," he said. But he shot me a look of respect when I replied, "Then why are you serving it at this time of the year?"

That's what I meant when I said that the art of conversation is valued at the local izakaya. The art of cooking speaks loudly enough for itself at a place like this.

Where and When Location: Ueru-Ka-Mu, 19596 Ventura Blvd., Tarzana. Suggested Dishes: ankimo , $4.50; sutamina tofu, $4.75; beef yanagawa , $4.75; umekyu , $3.50; wakaayu tempura, $3.50. Hours: Dinner 6 to 11:40 p.m. Sundays, Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays; 6 p.m. to 1:10 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays; closed Tuesdays. Price: Dinner for two, $18 to $35. Beer and wine only. Parking lot. MasterCard and Visa. Call: (818) 609-0993.

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