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Special Restaurant Issue | Lotus Land

Asian Bold

June 19, 2005|S. Irene Virbila

If you thought you knew Asian food, think again.

It isn't raw fish that's wowing today's Japanese-food followers. It's the inventiveness of the omelet stuffed with rice noodles and slivered octopus at Musha. It's the firepower of the lightly battered halibut dipped in a smoldering curry powder of cumin and cayenne at Orris. It's the comfort of the rice cooked in kamados at Torafuku.

Chinese food is getting bold and bright at New Concept in the San Gabriel Valley, where chef Chen Chen Liang is busting tradition with such dishes as flash-fried shrimp accented by the nuttiness of toasted oatmeal.

And at a host of Asian-themed clubs and restaurant bars, where the entertainment might be over-the-top dancers or the young and the restless vying to get past the red rope, there's nothing zen about the energy level.

Just for good measure, we've included a selection of some of the most eagerly awaited new restaurants in town. And a guide of more than 250 restaurants reviewed by Times critics.

Bon appetit. Or as the Japanese say, Itadakimasu.


Itadakimasu! Sushi is sooo last century. The new wave of Japanese cuisine raises tofu, tempura and ramen to the celestial heavens.

Fabulous Japanese food in Los Angeles is nothing new. Don't forget, it was here that Nobu Matsuhisa developed the distinctive chili and garlic-edged cuisine that globe-trotters in New York, Paris, London and even Tokyo must have. Or that Masa Takayama, now the toast of Manhattan, started out at Ginza Sushiko in a modest mid-Wilshire strip mall.

But if you think the Japanese restaurant scene has run out of steam, you couldn't be more wrong. Japanese chefs, both innovators and traditionalists, are striking out in new and exciting directions.

Sushi fanatics with deep pockets can still find amazing toro, uni and, in season, the notorious blowfish meticulously prepared. The Franco Japanese restaurants that dominated the scene a decade ago have given way to casual, hip cafes that turn out worldly Japanese food. An elegant tofu restaurant has landed in Beverly Hills. Avid foodies are finding their way to far-flung neighborhoods to fill up on char-grilled yakitori or soothing soba, lacy tempura or lusty Japanese pub food. Japanese restaurant chains are looking to Los Angeles too. Gyu-kaku, for instance, offers a stylish Japanese spin on Korean barbecue. And for those in the know, the city harbors the occasional well-disguised dive, where Japanese baseball players go to chill out, or the sake counter with no name on the door. It's all out there if you want to find it.

Umenohana turns everything you think you know about tofu on its head. Hippie food? I think not. This sleek new Beverly Hills restaurant specializes in yuba, the paper-thin skin formed on top of a bubbling pot of soy milk. Plucked out with chopsticks, the yuba resembles fine sheets of pasta. Eat this delicacy plain or with a splash of shoyu, some finely grated ginger and a sprinkling of toasted sesame seeds. It appears as a tofu siu mai dumpling, or in a martini glass topped with caviar as part of Umenohana's set menus. Some involve cooking the yuba or a tofu hot pot at the table. You also can order a la carte, advised by the unusually gracious and well-informed staff.

When Ginza Sushiko's Masa Takayama went to New York, Hiro Urasawa, who had worked with Takayama, moved into the same tiny space. He didn't change a thing, but Urasawa is a subtly different restaurant. Though you can still count on superb sushi, the one-price menu now includes more kaiseki-style dishes based on the Japanese tea ceremony. Urasawa, trained in the kaiseki tradition in Kyoto, shines with the series of delicate small courses. He's retained the same high-quality sources for his seafood, and plenty of Japanese businessmen and aficionados are happy to spend $250 and up for a meal at this intimate Japanese restaurant.

In Japan, tempura chefs are trained in their art every bit as rigorously as sushi chefs. A good one would never use just one batter, but prides himself on matching the weight of the batter to the ingredient being fried. He presents the perfect shrimp or pepper on a square of white paper, the better to show off the finesse of his frying. The closest thing to the experience in Japan is Komatsu Tempura Bar in Torrance. You can sit at the bar and watch the tempura chef's every move, or, if they're available, you can nab one of the three minuscule private rooms with shoji screens that slide shut. The best strategy is to order from one of several set menus. The tempura will just keep coming--asparagus, kabocha squash, shiitake mushrooms, whitefish, shrimp and on and on. Stir some grated daikon into the dipping sauce and you're good to go. The waiters seem a bit undone by non-Japanese diners, but they do their best.

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