February 15, 2014
Totoraku, Los Angeles
This is one of those places people whisper about. “You mean you really got in?” They look at you suspiciously. “How?”
The restaurant is so wary of unknown customers that it disguises itself as an empty storefront. It doesn’t take reservations. If you somehow get the phone number, the woman who answers will tell you they are fully booked. Forever.
But if you know someone, who knows someone….
First off, it doesn’t look like much. The kitchen occupies half the restaurant, the tables are modest, and the odd screens shielding the tables look as if they were rescued from a hospital that went out of business in the fifties. Dusty (empty) bottles of (very fancy) wine (red), sit on top of the wall separating the kitchen from the dining room. This then, is all about the food.
All about the beef, in fact; this is a meat-eater’s paradise, the meal I wanted to have in Osaka, the meal I couldn’t get because I could not make myself understood in that city’s equivalent of this restaurant. Although we were able to procure a reservation for the Osaka restaurant, we got there to discover that nobody spoke English. We ordered by pointing at the food on other people’s tables. All I can say is – we ordered wrong.
At Totoraku, however, you don't order. You bring your own wine, and they bring you food. Last night's meal went like this:
This elegant platter of tiny tastes is the one non-meat offering. It contains (amon other little tidbits) a tangle of shrimp topped with caviar, fragrant Japanese uni, crisp abalone, sesame tofu, wild yellowtail, delicate little avocado rolls and a dish of pickled cucumber topped with crisp bits of jellyfish.
Tender slices of raw beef.
More beef, served with grated horseradish and a garlic paste. The joy here is the raw beef on the right, which comes from the throat; smooth and silky, with the texture of toro, it simply evaporates in your mouth.
Now the hibachi comes out, along with a parade of different cuts. I'm sorry to say I liked the soft, rich slices of tongue so much that I forgot to photograph them. Then there was this platter of filet mignon – the least impressive meat of the night – with lovely vegetables to grill. (There was also, full disclosure, a basket of raw vegetables, some marinated tomatoes, and a miso-based sauce to dip them in.)
Outside ribeye (this is the long muscle on the outside of a ribeye, which many consider the single best piece of meat on the animal).
Boneless shortrib – my favorite of the lot.
There was completely unnecessary sorbet for dessert. In the end, what you remember is the meat. Chef Kaz Oyama won't say where he sources it, but it was, truly, spectacular.
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