Seated at the Japanese restaurant R-23, waiting for the last of our party of four to arrive, I feel the tensions of the day begin to unravel in this serene space. Just as I order a few appetizers for the table, my friend ambles in. As he sits down, his sleepy eyes take in the sushi bar at the back of the old warehouse, and then the big Gauguin-inspired paintings on the exposed brick walls. "I've been here before," he says. "Years ago, when I first moved to L.A. and had absolutely no clue as to where anything was in relation to anything else. I always meant to come back."
I suspect that happens to most people. The restaurant's location east of Little Tokyo is definitely below the radar, except to sushi aficionados or people who live or work downtown. Even those who have been here have a hard time remembering its location. Just head east on 2nd Street, past the brightly lit sushi bars and noodle joints, and jog to the left across Alameda. When you see the MegaToys warehouse looming on the left, you're almost there. Look for a small sidewalk signboard, and beside it, at least at night, a van with its rear window spelling out R-23 in big letters and an arrow pointing right.
The dozen or so parking spots in front of the warehouse loading dock are filled with spiffy SUVs, a couple of Jags and a BMW motorcycle, along with a handful of unremarkable rides. A brick wall runs alongside, decorated with a hard-edged arabesque of graffiti that's so arresting you begin to wonder whether it's a Geffen Contemporary art installation.
As the waiter serves us a plate of crinkly grilled Japanese peppers and a bowl of edamame, one of my friends notes the Frank Gehry chairs of his first visit. They've held up rather well, considering they're made of corrugated cardboard, and they're surprisingly comfortable, just like the restaurant. The low light, the murmur of conversation, and the music-an old tango, a Portuguese fado, a riff of something sweet or melancholy-soothes and reassures. For this reason, R-23 gets a mixed crowd, everyone from artists and architects from the neighborhood to Japanese visitors; there's even a young hipster's birthday party.
But sushi is not what brings me to R-23. It's good, but not remarkable. The cooked food is what sets the 11-year-old restaurant apart. Those dishes are made with flair. Some are on the menu, but most are on the page of specials.
This night there's a Dungeness crab salad, of sweet and fresh lump crab meat, mizuna greens, crunchy little Japanese cucumbers, a few bites of endive and radicchio, and something with a crisp, juicy crunch reminiscent of Fuji apple, only starchier. It turns out to be Japanese mountain yam. Topping the salad is a lively yuzu-infused dressing. The tempura is terrific. Sweet shrimp tempura comes cloaked in a shaggy jacket of batter laced with shards of "soybean paper" that fry up light and crisp. Lobster tempura is a spectacular platter of the claws and tail, complete with a flap of gorgeous fresh shiitake mushroom, a fan of Japanese eggplant and a few delectable onion rings, all in a gossamer batter. The lobster tastes as if it just came from the sea.
Kumamoto oysters on the half shell, however, aren't compelling and, at $2.50 each, as expensive as I've ever seen.
Shimeji mushrooms are cut as thick as steak fries and sauteed with Japanese hot pepper flakes. They come stacked on the plate like logs. I love the Japanese mussels steamed in sake with squares of tofu and smoky shiitake mushrooms that are scored on top like the gills of a fish. The taste of the sake with the slightly thickened mussel juice is fabulous. Sometimes they'll have silver dollar-sized sawagani crabs from Japan. Fried to a satisfying crunch, just pop them in your mouth whole. There's also a lively dish of shrimp in a spicy tomato sauce with a real kick.
But my favorite dish may be the grilled yellowtail collar. The flesh is rich and pleasantly oily, as satisfying as a prime steak, especially the closer you get to the bone. The grilled duck breast stuffed with Japanese scallions is something special, too, cut in thick slices and served medium rare in its barely sweetened juices. I love the taste of the sweet, mild Japanese scallions with the tender duck breast. This is a dish for a great red wine.
Dessert? Not much is offered, just ice cream wrapped in mochi or a couple of other flavors. They're out of both vanilla and coffee mochi, so we compromise with Haagen-Dazs cappuccino ice cream, a flavor the waiter tells us is available only in restaurants. It doesn't taste much like cappuccino, but the flavors of coffee, cream and chocolate are spun into a delicious balance.