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Dishes Accented With a Taste of the Sea

At Hazuki in the Little Tokyo Mall, salmon, cod and other fish are served up in elegant, spicy arrays.

November 26, 1998|BARBARA HANSEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

I knew dinner would be interesting when the waitress apologized that Hazuki had no English-language menu. It was Saturday evening, and I was the only customer in the cool, gray-and-black space until four Japanese businessmen entered and disappeared into a room lined with tatami mats.

Hazuki is worlds away from the fast-food shops all around it in Little Tokyo Mall. While jeans-clad tourists scooped up frozen yogurt, I was eating frozen raw beef, sliced very thin and arranged on a glass plate like flower petals. They were icy cold--and hot, from ginger and grated daikon mixed with enough red pepper to turn it orange. Bonito flakes in the dipping sauce added an unexpected taste of the sea.

The waitress knew no English equivalent for the broiled fish, sawara, that she thought I should have next. It came on a fan-shaped plate accompanied by more grated daikon and thick slices of sweetened omelet, stacked like stark architecture.

The vegetable was mizuna combined with curled slices of whitefish in a bowl of bonito broth. I decided that dessert would only cloud these clean, clear flavors.

Hazuki is crowded at lunchtime, when there actually is an English menu. In one corner of my box lunch, I found broiled salmon, in another fried cubes of maguro tuna combined with wakame seaweed and grated daikon. Maguro sashimi was in the center, and tempura and cold marinated bean sprouts in other corners. Miso soup and tea come with the combination lunches.

Fish can be excellent at this restaurant. Aware of this, my Japanese lunch companion ordered broiled cod, and it was wonderfully delicate and light, tasting salty-sweet from the sake lees (the milky-looking residue that remains after rice wine sake is fermented) in which it had been marinated. On a lunch special it came with maguro sashimi topped with tororo, which is a mixture of oozy white Japanese "mountain potato" with wasabi and minced green onions.

One day I splurged on the chef's special assortment, which, at $19.95, is about twice as expensive as anything else you might order for lunch. The first three courses alone were worth this extravagance. An appetizer plate lined with a sprig of nanten (the common houseplant nandina) contained a single piece of eggplant sushi, topped with a bit of spinach and a few sesame seeds. There were also slices of warm fish cake that tasted freshly made and a little dish of cold clams in mustard sauce.

Next came sashimi--thin slices of halibut and thick slices of tuna belly (toro). The tuna was as pink as ham, with a suave texture and a meaty but delicate flavor. My Japanese friend reached over for a taste and said, "Too good to be eaten at lunchtime," meaning such fine sashimi should be eaten at night with hot sake. After the toro, he couldn't bear to eat the common maguro sashimi in his combination lunch.

Next came the delicate custard called chawanmushi, served in a small, dark cup with a tiny spoon. It was slippery smooth and subtle in flavor. The top was decorated with mitsuba leaf; a chunk of white fish hid in the bottom.

By now, I had eaten enough, but there was still more. The next plate held broiled kinki, a tender, moist fish of the rock cod family meant to be eaten with grated daikon sprinkled with soy sauce and lemon.

The rest of the lunch came all at once: tempura, miso soup, rice and cabbage pickle. Thank heavens the tempura came last. It was, I'm sorry to say, not good. I suspect that stale oil was responsible for the bad-tasting batter. Fortunately, the lunch included dessert. Ginger ice cream helped wipe out the flavor of the tempura.

Meanwhile, my friend's lunch box held a wonderful dish of cold spinach garnished with shavings of smoked bonito (katsuobushi), which tasted like bacon. I would happily have substituted that for the tempura.

The lunch-box special changes slightly each day. One time, the box contained a California roll and daikon slices in broth. Tempura, broiled salmon and maguro sashimi appear to be regulars. Because so few of these boxes are made, it's necessary to arrive early to make sure you get one. They're just $7.90, a good price for a nice assortment of food. There are other daily specials to inquire about, and plenty of regular dishes such as cold noodles and broiled salmon seasoned with miso.

BE THERE

Hazuki, Little Tokyo Mall, 319 E. 2nd St., Los Angeles. (213) 626-6858. Lunch, 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Monday-Friday; dinner 6-10 p.m. Monday-Saturday. Full bar. All major credit cards. Validated parking in mall parking structure. Dinner for two, food only, $33 up.

What to Get: Daily lunch-box combination, broiled cod, chef's special assortment.

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