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Japanese pop

Izakaya, those trendy late-night gastropubs, are bursting onto the scene here.

November 09, 2005|Linda Burum | Special to The Times

IT'S after midnight on a Saturday night at the izakaya Honda Ya, a Japanese pub in Tustin. When the door swings open, a roar of laughter and conversation blasts out to the waiting crowd. Inside, the room pulses with electric energy.

Diners sit elbow to elbow at heavy wooden tables in front of the open kitchen or the smoky yakitori bar in the back, drinking sake or draft Kirin and sharing plate after plate of sakana, the Japanese tapas always served with drinks. From Honda's nearly 100-item menu, diners are ordering plump fried oysters, plates of grilled salmon collar, spicy tuna rolls and garlic leaves stir-fried with bacon. The dishes will often be shared throughout the evening along with a few rounds of sake.

Izakaya (ee-zah-KAH-yah) in Japan have come a long way from their origins as street-food stalls or carts, common through Japanese history, where customers would stop to drink and snack. They're often described as pubs or taverns -- but those terms barely hint at the amazing panoply of highly creative dishes most serve today.

Drinking and nibbling, often until very late at night, through a wide-ranging menu -- which may include innovative takes on sashimi, smoky charcoal-grilled fish or Lilliputian servings of such Japanese tapas as braised Berkshire pork with potatoes -- is the essence of the izakaya experience.

And these days the izakaya experience in and around Los Angeles is growing more varied by the day.

In contrast with the rough-hewn wood and country-style feel of Honda Ya, at ultra-trendy Beaux in Torrance, the set-designy room is done in edgy chain-link fence decor with an Italianate bar. There always seems to be a rush of customers around 10 p.m. ordering up Japanese-influenced Mediterranean snacks such as beef carpaccio salad or a steamy dish of Japanese-style spaghetti vongole spiked with shiso, green onion and garlic.

At Ikko, an izakaya in Costa Mesa with a kitchen headed by chef Ikko Kobayashi, the mood is more sedate and the cuisine, though still small plates, is kappo ryori, called kappo in conversation, a more refined and imaginative variation on the pub-food tradition. Each temptation that comes to the table is a delicious step in another direction: In quick succession you might try house-smoked giant clam with fresh wasabi, organic three-radish salad and yellowtail carpaccio with jalapeno ginger sauce.

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Tapping into a trend

THIS is the sort of food that blew away David Myers, chef at the West Hollywood restaurant Sona, when he visited Japan in July. So impressed is Myers with kappo's creative potential, he's teaming with sushi chef Kazunori Nozawa to open an izakaya called Sokyo in West Hollywood next year.

Sokyo will be just the latest of more than a dozen new izakaya and their fancier, chef-driven siblings, kappo restaurants, that have opened in Southern California within the last year or so -- and more are on the way. An outpost of the six-branch Suttokodokkoi chain in Japan is slated to open near West Hollywood in the spring, and an opulent multilevel izakaya, Gonpachi, opens early next year in the former Ed Debevic's space on La Cienega.

Izakaya aren't exactly new here -- the first in L.A. opened in the 1970s. But since tapas and small plates have taken off so dramatically, Angelenos of all backgrounds are suddenly hungry for this Japanese version -- in fact, the dishes are referred to as tapas in some of the recently opened izakaya. It's beginning to feel like a real phenomenon.

Because many of the owners and customers at the new spots are young and recent immigrants, they're taking cues from the ever-changing pub trends in Japan. That might mean fusion or Japanese-influenced European cuisine or edgy decor.

Today in L.A. as in Japan, izakaya can be as edgy as Geisha House in Hollywood, with its sexy, swanky lounge interior, or as homey as Azuma Izakaya's Gardena dining room fitted out with Formica-type tables and stacked sake drums. They can be chic boites suited for intimate conversation, like Izakaya Yuzu in West Hollywood; rooms with fashion-statement decor that attract a scene, such as Geisha House; or late-night yakitori and robata places offering ippinmono (little dishes) and long lists of sake and shochu, like the charming Izakaya Haru Ulala in Little Tokyo. Some sushi spots are also izakaya.

But whether it's a stylish high-end lounge or a place that replicates the funky taverns of old, the hallmark of izakaya or kappo restaurants is usually the communal table or a dining bar from which you can watch the chef working in an open kitchen.

In the past, izakaya were strictly after-work watering holes frequented primarily by salarymen who would loosen their ties, escape the day's tensions with a couple of sakes and a few tidbits from the charcoal grill, then pour out their sorrows to friends.

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