It's the rare chef who doesn't dream of eventually opening his own place. That moment has come for Makoto Tanaka, head chef at Chinois on Main for the past eight years, where every dish that left the kitchen had to pass his scrutiny. The cooking was not only vibrant and delicious, it was also a model of consistency.
Tanaka, who took his wife, longtime Chinois maitre d' Lisa Brady, with him to Mako, is still trying to get his menu in focus. After cooking Wolfgang Puck's Franco-Asian fare all these years, it's natural that he would want to do something different. (I suspect that many of Tanaka's longtime fans were hoping his place would feature fare similar to Chinois because you can never get into that restaurant on short notice.) You won't find sizzling catfish, tempura ahi tuna sashimi in uni sauce or those tender Mongolian lamb chops in cilantro sauce on this menu. Tanaka is experimenting with introducing more French and Italian elements to his repertoire. His menu fuses Asian and Mediterranean cuisines, with sometimes mixed results.
The good news is that Tanaka is quick to adjust anything once he realizes that it's not quite working. During the past few months, for example, the lobster salad evolved from a staid mix of lobster and roasted potatoes weighed down by a heavy dressing to a sprightly asparagus salad surrounded by croutons stacked with peeky toe crab and lobster, with slices of potato and pearly salmon roe or black caviar.
Situated in a storefront on Beverly Drive south of Wilshire Boulevard, Mako has a fresh, contemporary design with the feel of an informal cafe. A handful of sleek garden tables and chairs are outside. Horizontal slats of wood cover a tall door. Inside, tables are pulled closely together in the L-shaped room, which features a display kitchen at the back. This is where the best seats are: at the counter overlooking the action in the kitchen.
Lisa Brady's experience in a busy restaurant like Chinois is evident in her smooth running of the front of the house. Waiters stay on top of everything despite the frenetic pace at this already popular restaurant. They know when to pour wine and when to give diners a few minutes to relax before dessert, and all are well-versed in the food and wines.
On each visit, I haven't been able to resist ordering the crispy oysters as an appetizer for the table to share. Cloaked in a shaggy, crisp batter, the oysters are set back in their shells in a puddle of green sauce and topped with a pinch of piquant olive and tomato relish. In the center is a pickled beet salad. Vegetarians will enjoy the Asian vegetable plate, a handsome array of asparagus spears, luscious shiitake mushrooms, broiled Japanese eggplant glazed with miso and black-green Chinese gai lon, which is like a bitter broccoli. (The spicy whole-grain mustard dipping sauce, though, doesn't set off the vegetables particularly well, and its thick, oily texture isn't as appetizing as it could be.) Tanaka does a good job with foie gras, too, pairing the seared liver with a poached pear and serving it with whole-grain mustard soy glaze and fresh wasabi.
Whole Maine lobster tossed in a subtle coconut curry sauce with fine angel-hair noodles would please just about any lobster lover. And, when it's in season, the bluefin tuna is as nice a piece of fish as you'll find, grilled like a steak and served with a lovely fennel-cucumber salad drizzled with fresh wasabi oil. The other good bet among the main courses is the grilled rib-eye with black olive pesto (shades of Campanile's Porterhouse with black olive tapenade).
Do listen to the specials: One night it was a terrific dish featuring monchong, a Hawaiian fish I'd never encountered, served in a black bean sauce that complemented it perfectly. I wish, though, that Tanaka hadn't decided to Mediterranean-ize his fried rice. The taste of the beautiful basmati rice is lost under the strong pesto. And red rice with tomato basil and black olives is concentrated enough to be a condiment. The rice should dominate, not the flavorings. Risotto tends to be just as wrongheaded: Braised short ribs are not served well by the gummy mushroom risotto that accompanies them.
There are other missteps. The seafood in the Chinese bouillabaise tastes tired, and the broth is too tomatoey; the rice crouton is delicious, though, soaked in the seafood broth. Sashimi aficionados may find it hard to appreciate the sashimi here. The quality of the raw fish is fine, but it's hard to distinguish one from the other when the taste of the fish is covered by mingled black vinegar, Chinese sake ginger and sizzling sesame oil. I don't like the idea any better here than I do at Matsuhisa. A roasted duck breast salad is boring, and the accompanying sun-dried cherry and apple spring rolls are greasy.