The small, high-ceilinged dining room at Beacon has the unmistakable buzz of the restaurant of the moment.
The staff is in constant motion, delivering little plates piled with skewers of grilled chicken dabbed with sour umeboshi paste and strewn with aromatic shiso leaf, or salads like the one with sliced avocados sweetened with mirin dressing and speckled with black and white sesame seeds. They bring bowls filled with rich braised pork belly and crisp baby bok choy resting atop a pillow of chewy udon noodles. They carry big plates filled with black cod burnished with caramelly miso and grilled hanger steak spiked with fiery wasabi.
The white walls and sleek natural wood structures seem to soak up and reflect back the light that pours in from the tall windows. Light fixtures shaped like box kites float overhead.
In the display kitchen, chef Kazuto Matsusaka stands tall and a little stern, watching every detail. After 10 years of wandering from kitchen to kitchen, city to city, continent to continent, one of California's most influential chefs has come home.
"I guess the last 10 years have been ... bumpy," Matsusaka says, pausing to search for the politic adjective. "But everything here is the result of all those experiences I've had. It's food from all the places I've worked, but it's just the things I still want to cook every day and the things I want to eat every day."
Back when some of his current customers were but glimmers in their foodie parents' eyes, the 53-year-old Matsusaka was a founding member of Southern California's chef elite, and an inventor of the fusing of Asian and European cuisines that has become a hallmark of modern restaurant cooking.
He worked at Ma Maison with Wolfgang Puck, at Michael's with Michael McCarty and at L'Ermitage with Michel Blanchet. He was in the kitchen the first night at Spago, ushering in California cuisine, and at Chinois on Main, where he was head chef for eight years and helped to define fusion cuisine.
But then came more than a decade of what seemed like missteps and curious choices. In 1992 he left Chinois to open Zenzero, which was supposed to be his own restaurant. So why did he walk out after little more than a year? It turns out his supposed ownership was really a front for publicity's sake. The real owner was a Japanese businessman, with whom he soon had a falling-out.
From there he bounced to a six-month stint at the old La Boheme in West Hollywood. Then he decamped to Paris, where he opened the white-hot Buddha Bar in 1996. He left that after a little more than a year to come back to Los Angeles to open the spinoff Barfly, but again split after only 10 months.
He moved to New York, running Restaurant Above for Larry Forgione and Jonathan Waxman for a year before returning to Southern California in 2001; he did some catering and private chef gigs while looking for a restaurant location.
Finally, last spring, Beacon opened, tucked into a back corner of the historic Helms Bakery home furnishings complex in Culver City.
Despite the obscurity of the location -- not only is it not in the Golden Triangle of Santa Monica, West Hollywood and Beverly Hills, it isn't even on Venice Boulevard -- Beacon was packed almost immediately. Times restaurant critic S. Irene Virbila raved that the place "feels like a blessing" and predicted, "Beacon may be the start of a dining revolution."
She was not alone in her opinion. Los Angeles magazine tabbed it as the best restaurant in the city -- extraordinary praise considering nothing on the menu costs more than $20 and most of the dishes are under $10. Heck, Beacon doesn't even have valet parking.
Instead, imagine the neighborhood restaurant of your dreams and you've got a pretty good idea of what Beacon is like -- smart and stylish, with the kind of food you can eat every night. The flavors are focused and bright. The dishes are thoughtfully edited, with only a few carefully chosen ingredients that somehow always seem to taste even better than you think they will.
Forget the jokes about "fusion cooking" being an abbreviation for "confusion cooking." Maybe that's because the cuisine is filtered through Matsusaka's purist sensibility, or maybe it's just the result of 20 years' maturity.
"Usually fusion cooking doesn't work because people try to combine too many ingredients," Matsusaka says. "That's the most common mistake. I think mostly it's because people don't respect the food. They just combine whatever they think might taste good, and sometimes that doesn't work so well. I think our food works because we respect Asian food as it is instead of trying to change it too much. I try to keep it simple and clean and casual enough so everyone can enjoy it."
Ego on the back burner