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Valley Life | restaurant review

Hometown Cooking

Kobe chef's kansai style not elegant, but excellent.

March 30, 2001|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Kobe was the name of a Japanese port city long before it became synonymous with Laker star Kobe Bryant. It also happens to be the hometown of an unheralded Japanese chef named Hiroyasu Yamasake and the name of his spacious, friendly Woodland Hills restaurant.

Its tile floor is faded and there's little in the way of decor but paper lanterns. But what Kobe lacks in atmosphere it more than makes up for in the food. Yamasake is an expert at kansai, the cooking style of Osaka, Kyoto and Kobe.

Most customers order sushi, and it's certainly good here. The specials board just to the right of the sushi bar may list albacore tataki or the chef's eccentric "Oh Mi God" roll, which is basically spicy tuna inside a tempura-battered rice roll.

But phone the chef in advance, name your price and you can get a multi-course kaiseki dinner at about half the price you'd pay at a trendier address. The crockery and service won't be as elegant, but the food will be every bit as impressive.

Kobe's special kaiseki table of lacquered wood is clearly the A table here. The chef's wife usually serves the dinners there. I ordered the $50 kaiseki for two and got far more than I bargained for.

The opening gambit was appetizers (zensai): shrimp-wrapped quail eggs, a pair of stewed bamboo shoots, white radish swathed in red miso paste. Next was the ethereally light custard chawan mushi, concealing a chunk of sea eel. Later came nimono ("stewed things"), a pot brimming with lotus root, potato, pumpkin, carrot and prawns.

These courses led up to a grand sashimi course of tuna, salmon, fatty tuna belly and sweet shrimp. The sashimi was followed by iced crab legs, accompanied by crab-stuffed rounds of cucumber. Meltingly soft and fragrant swordfish served yuuanyaki style--broiled with a rice wine and soy sauce marinade--was next.

By this time we were nearly sated, but there were still three courses to come. One was a tempura platter, the only course the chef failed to get just right. Tempura seems so easy, but it's actually tricky. This tempura tasted fine, but the batter on the fish and vegetables was rather heavy.

After a break, we got a clear broth stocked with flounder filets; and at the end, three exquisite strawberries, dusted with sugar. What a feast.

Yamasake will make you a kaiseki dinner starting at the modest price of $20 a head (minimum two persons). It's an excellent way to test the mettle of a fine chef, and a good way to make a new friend in the process.

BE THERE

Kobe, 22984 Ventura Blvd., Woodland Hills. Lunch 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday; dinner 5-10 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday. Closed Monday. Parking in lot. Beer and wine only. All major cards. Dinner for two, $40-$100. Suggested: kaiseki, $20-$50 per person. Call (818) 591-8055.

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