The minute I cross the threshold at I-naba, I'm overcome by deja vu. In a Torrance mini-mall, I feel as if I've walked into a restaurant in a small Japanese town.
It's a stylish place of dainty flower arrangements, slanted mirrors and mustard-yellow tablecloths. Delicate bamboo shades shield the windows. All you hear is hushed conversation and faint music--at least when the sizzling deep fryer momentarily falls silent.
This spare dining room is not the only place to eat here, though. Hidden by curtains is a private tempura bar for customers who advance-order lavish yorokobi-an dinners.
Slightly worn blue curtains hang above the main kitchen, but not so low as to hide what the chefs are doing. Mostly, they are frying.
I-naba serves a wide range of hot and cold Japanese dishes as well as the obligatory sashimi first course for those with more to spend. But crisp, clean-tasting tempura is the main event here. It comes in elegant, complex set menus; you're supposed to work your way into tempura gradually (rarely, if ever, will you see a Japanese diner plunging directly into a fried food course).
Tempura gozen ($30) starts with perfectly cut sashimi of tuna, yellowtail, white fish, geoduck and octopus, followed by a green salad tossed with a ginger vinaigrette. You also get a bowl of miso soup and a dish of chawan-mushi (a custard stocked with ginkgo nuts, shiitake, shrimp and fish).
Then, and only then, comes some of the best tempura anywhere outside Japan. First, three long shrimp, tails pointing skyward, flanked by two pieces of boned sole. These are followed by a plate of batter-fried green beans, eggplant, onion, pumpkin and a hot pepper stuffed with a little ground beef.
On the side, there is a dipping sauce laced with grated white radish. Steamed short-grain Japanese rice is served in a covered bowl. There are also salty homemade pickles (tsukemono) cured in rice wine with rock salt and basil. Expect to find tiny slices of cucumber, yellow radish and, if you're lucky, purple basil.
There are options. Shrimp tempura gozen ($22) gets you some of the sashimi, no custard and fewer pieces of tempura. An assorted tempura course ($40), the largest of the tempura set menus, adds a second wave of tempura, cold soba noodles and an unexpected dessert, such as New York cheesecake.
Still, tempura isn't all I-naba serves. One entire page of the menu is devoted to fried buckwheat noodles (soba) with toppings, cold with dipping sauce or hot in dashi, the familiar Japanese broth of dried bonito. There are bento dinner boxes, pressed sushi dinners and a variety of wonderful appetizers, a few of which have surprising touches.
I-naba is proud that it makes its soba by hand. My favorite way to eat it here is ten-seiro ($9.50), for which the noodles are served cold on a wickerwork bamboo plate alongside a bowl of hot broth crowned with kaki-age, a deep-fried patty of chopped seafood and vegetables in tempura batter.
The appetizer menu deserves notice. Washu-gyu is a clone of the incomparably tender Kobe beef raised in Oregon. It's cut into bite-sized chunks, broiled and served with dipping sauce. Oddly, it comes with a big scoop of American tuna salad, made with plenty of mayo. Perhaps the chef is attempting a Japanese take on vitello tonnato.
Another appetizer is saikyoyaki, miso-marinated sea bass broiled in the oven. This is one of the best fish ideas anywhere, buttery and sweet with notes of caramel and smoke in every bite.
If you feel adventurous, call a day in advance and order one of those yorokobi-an dinners (basically, Japanese tea ceremony food plus tempura dishes), which range in price from $40 to $70. As in any Japanese restaurant that serves tea ceremony food, it's impossible to predict what ingredients will appear in the meal, only that you can expect everything to be extremely fresh.
And that tempura, in all its deep fried glory, will be the featured player in your dinner.
I-naba, 20920 Hawthorne Blvd., Torrance. (310) 371-6675. Lunch 11:30 a.m. to 1:45 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays; dinner 5:30 to 9:45 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 5 to 8:45 p.m. Sundays. Closed Mondays. Beer and wine. Parking lot. All major cards. Dinner for two, $28 to $90.
What to get: sea bass saikyoyaki, ten-seiro, shrimp tempura gozen, tempura gozen.