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EATS: Restaurant Reviews and News | COUNTER INTELLIGENCE

The Two Faces of Hana Yashiki

The restaurant offers ramen at noon, then at 6 p.m. transforms into a beer and sake bar with serious food.

March 20, 1997|BARBARA HANSEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Drop into Hana Yashiki for a bracing bowl of ramen at noon. Return six hours later: Presto, it's a beer and sake bar, open until 3 a.m. Either way, the food is very good at this sparely decorated place, which opened late last year in Little Tokyo's Honda Plaza.

Kobe-born chef Yoshikatsu Shimizu's noodle soups are worlds apart from the instant ramen sold in those little packets. The chicken-and-pork stock takes six hours to make, and the noodles are imported frozen from Japan. I was impressed to find a real crab claw in the seafood ramen, along with scallops, shrimp, fish cake and a mussel. Asian soup places where I lunch mostly use imitation crab.

There's a curious miso ramen, garnished with corn kernels and a pat of butter--not everyone's cup of soup, perhaps, but interesting. Takana ramen, my favorite, combines shredded pork with takana, a green related to nappa cabbage, which bestows a subtle pungency on this soup. Spoon in garlic and pickled greens from the jars on your table and you have something really wonderful.

If you can handle something bigger, try rice balls with fried shrimp: puffy snowballs with a shrimp tucked inside each, wrapped with a band of nori seaweed like a floppy tie. There's also a set lunch of ramen and a fried rice (made with sticky rice, so it's easy to eat with chopsticks).

Apart from noodle items, there's a combination lunch that lets you taste tarakasu--cod pickled in sake lees. The fish is broiled, emerging with a crisp black coating. Also on the plate are a sweetened omelet (tamago), a chili-hot chunk of bamboo shoot and slices of spicy pickled konnyaku, a translucent, gelatinous paste made from a vegetable called devil's tongue. You also get rice, miso soup and a pretty good semi-mashed potato salad.

I returned in the evening to see Hana Yashiki in its bar incarnation, which proved very mild and decorous, as bars go. The first group to enter was a family carrying a plastic baby chair for one of their brood. Two young women meeting after work occupied another table. Of course, it was only 6 p.m., perhaps a little early for serious bar celebrants.

The night menu runs an amazing gamut from tacos (tacos?) to tuna salad to umaki (eel-stuffed omelet), all things to snack on with drinks. Order several and you have dinner. If you want really big food, there's the house special nabe, a hot pot in which you poach your own lobster, shrimp, crab, fish, beef, pork and vegetables.

Artistry is as important as the food. When I finished ordering, my spot at the cool gray counter was littered with plates and bowls of various shapes, sizes and patterns. A black iron kettle held steamed clams in their broth. A beautiful mottled brown pottery plate was circled with a sheer bed of salt, like sand in a Zen garden. On this were mayonnaise-coated mussels on the half shell, broiled until appetizingly browned.

A big bowl held squares of fried tofu with a thin, crisp, pale golden crust. They sat in broth along with shrimp, beef, green and red bell pepper, grated daikon, sliced green onion tops and nori shreds. I'm not a tofu fan, but I would order this again.

Deep-fried canned sardines? This sounded awful, but someone behind the counter assured me that it was good, and he was right. The sardines, coated in pale, lacy tempura batter, came artfully stacked on paper folded like origami. Plain white paper would have been fine, but this sheet showed blushes of pale peach, like clouds at sunset. The pile of salt at one corner of the dish was rock salt, which the restaurant bakes, crushes and mixes with a few grains of powdered wasabi.

Steamed mushrooms arrived in a foil packet inflated like a balloon. Inside were shiitake, enoki and ordinary mushrooms seasoned with sake, soy sauce and salt. Lemon sauce for dipping came on the side. Then there was nikujaga, a whopping bowl of broth, potato chunks, sliced beef and konnyaku noodles, sort of like sukiyaki without the trimmings. This is home-style Japanese food.

From that simple dish it was a long step to the dessert, a champagne sorbet made by chef Shimizu who, I am told, cooked French food in a hotel in Japan. The sorbet came in a dainty green glass bowl atop a clear glass plate. It was refreshing, like a cool drink after all the salty dishes. And when it melted, you could taste pure wine.

BE THERE

Hana Yashiki, 410 E. 2nd St., Los Angeles. (213) 613-9410. Lunch daily 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Dinner 6 p.m.-3 a.m. Monday through Friday, to 11 p.m. Saturday, Sunday. Live music Friday at 9 p.m.; MasterCard and Visa; wine and beer only. Bar snacks run $3-$8. What to get: takana ramen, cod pickled in sake lees, fried tofu, fried sardines.

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