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Cutting a Swath on the Sunset Strip

Katana, a new venture from the Sushi Roku guys, isn't your typical Japanese restaurant.

January 10, 2002|LESLEE KOMAIKO | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Angelenos, particularly hip, young Angelenos, don't yet know it, but soon they'll probably want to check out Katana. Certainly that's what Lee Maen, Michael Cardenas, Philip Cummins and Craig Katz, the guys behind Katana, which opens Friday night, are banking on.

The team does have some history with hip, having launched three Sushi Rokus and, more recently, Balboa, the steakhouse at the Grafton hotel. All are restaurants known not only for excellent food and service but also for their beautiful clientele and the palpable sexiness of the scene.

"This is a no-brainer," says Merrill Shindler, co-editor of the Los Angeles Zagat Survey and host of "Feed Your Face" on KLSX-FM (97.1). "Look at their track record. My God, look at the location. Look at how the Sunset Strip with its miserable parking has turned into such a hot destination with Asia de Cuba and the Standard and the House of Blues."

In the midst of it is Katana (which means "samurai sword"), housed in the Piazza del Sol, a gorgeous 1920s Mediterranean building on the Strip, also home to Miramax Films. (For the record, Miramax signed its lease after the restaurateurs.) Though technically a Japanese restaurant, nothing about it feels typical. Nor is it a carbon copy of Sushi Roku.

To enter, patrons ascend a dramatic staircase, walk past two fountains designed to look like part of the original construction, through an antique finished steel door and into a dimly lighted lounge area. The focal point of the room, aside from the sure-to-be-pretty hostesses aglow in candlelight, is the chunky concrete bar with its varied levels, wacky angles and protrusions. Clearly interior designer Dodd Mitchell, who also did the Sushi Rokus, Linq restaurant and the Santa Monica bar Voda, was the kid who wanted to put the circle in the square.

Even without the crowds, there's plenty of eye candy. One wall in the lounge is covered with thousands of tightly packed knobs that turn out to be railroad ties. (Only after their installation did the partners realize that a coin tossed at the top of the wall creates a pleasant pachinko-like tinkling as it tumbles down.) A niche in another wall features a cluster of candle-filled, giant test tubes suspended from the ceiling. These turn up again in the main dining room, which is divided into several areas but retains an open feel.

Front and center is the robata counter. Here, a variety of raw seafood, meats and vegetables will be displayed on ice under glass. After diners make their selection, they can watch the robata chefs skewer, then cook their orders over an open flame fueled by imported Japanese charcoal.

Along the same wall is the sushi counter. Both the robata and sushi counters were fashioned from a 600-year-old redwood tree the owners are quick to point out was already felled when they bought it from the Forest Service. The dining room tables were made from the same tree.

Going for an 'Entire Entertainment Experience'

When they talk about the look and feel of their restaurants, Maen, Cardenas and Cummins refer often to theater and film. "We create a play," says Cummins, "an entire entertainment experience." This is definitely the case with the semi-enclosed space known as the tea room. The gentle name doesn't really fit the steel tent, which looks more like a stylish S&M venue or music video set, with its sliding metal screens and tentacled chandelier.

In keeping with the "play," lighting throughout the restaurant is high drama. People will look good. Then again, the people who frequent the Sushi Rokus and Balboa, and probably Katana, look good to start with. This is an appearance-conscious crowd. They work out. They shop at Barney's and Fred Segal, slum at Banana Republic. They are lawyers, entrepreneurs and designers. Many are industry types: young agents, directors, producers, actors. "The entertainment industry is our meat and potatoes," says Cardenas. The guys insist, however, that they don't actively pursue this business.

Time has been spent on getting the details right. Staff will wear custom, Japanese-style shirts and aprons. Robata items will be served on wood paddles reminiscent of the oars used by Japanese fishermen, who made famous this cooking style.

There's a sake cart for the 40-plus sakes on the menu, which a sake sommelier will wheel through the dining room. And for those who judge a restaurant by its restrooms: walls of luminescent gold leaf.

None of the owners seems especially worried about the competition. Miyagi, for example, the three-story sushi bar a couple blocks to the east, has a "completely different clientele," says Maen, a more collegiate crowd. Nor are the four concerned about competing with themselves. Which they might be.

After all, Balboa is directly across the street. But Balboa serves steak and lobster and Caesar salad. And Sushi Roku, particularly the West Hollywood location, can't accommodate all the callers who want to score a table.

"These guys will do great," Shindler predicts. "They can live for five years on the buzz alone."

*

Katana, Sundays-Thursdays, 5:30 p.m.-1 a.m.; Fridays and Saturdays, 5:30 p.m.-2 a.m. 8439 W. Sunset Blvd. (Piazza del Sol building), West Hollywood. (323) 650-8585.

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