Totoraku - A Hidden Gem
Unassuming yet exquisite. The dining experience you'll have at Totoraku will change the way you view beef. Totoraku (meaning "lucky dad" in archaic Japanese) was named the "most exclusive restaurant in Los Angeles" by Huffington Post. The restaurant has catered to patrons such as Anthony Bourdain and Chef Ludo Lefebvre. Unless you know Chef Kaz Oyama himself or were referred by one of his customers, it's unlikely you'll get a reservation. Calling the voice message will advise that you won't be getting a response unless you're a regular. You could imagine my excitement when I was presented with the opportunity to dine there for my birthday this past weekend. C first visited Totoraku years ago and has been a fan of the place ever since. Referred to as the "secret beef" restaurant by many, David Hochman calls Oyama-san the "Zen Master of Beef". Quite the title I must say and a change of pace from his previous gig at Hide Sushi on Sawtelle.
The restaurant lies in the heart of west LA along Pico Boulevard. I had brunch at Food on Saturday, not even realizing it was across the street. You'll find no signage, glitz, or glam but rather remnants of the old teriyaki house and black awnings. I'm not kidding when I say this place is a "hidden" gem. Upon entering, you'll be greeted by Oyama-san's wife, Shizumi, at the door who will seat you should you have a reservation. Inside there are only a few tables set up and the place definitely has the feel of a family owned business. Chef Oyama is quite the wine connoisseur which is apparent by the collection of bottles on display in the restaurant separating the dining room from the kitchen. We brought along a bottle of Duckhorn Merlot I had picked up in Napa for the occasion. I'll be sure to pick up a special bottle for any future endeavors as there is no corkage fee.
We were escorted to our table for two which was adjacent to the kitchen, only separated by a waist high wall and thin curtain. The table was set up with a place setting of three dipping sauces: ponzu, lemon juice, and soy sauce. Oyama-san's daughter-in-law carefully explained each dish as she brought them out with specific instructions as to how they were to be enjoyed and if a specific dipping sauce was to be used. Although, I hardly felt it was necessary given the quality of the meats.
(On a side note, I decided to test out my new QX10 lens and shot all of the photos with my smart phone. How neat is that? Definitely easier than carrying around my DLSR.)
The first dish of amuse bouche included a wide assortment of treats:
From left to right: gelee with vegetable assortment, shrimp with caviar, uni risotto, and jellyfish with pickled cucumber
Sliced okra, octopus with cherry tomatoes, and housemade black sesame tofu
Lastly, some pickled vegetables, sockeye salmon stuffed with avocado and sprouts, and steamed abalone with zenmai.
Following began the main courses of beef, prepared in a multitude of ways. It was amazing to me all the different flavors he was able to capture with just one main ingredient. How very Iron Chef-esque.
Beef Tataki & Beef Throat Sashimi
The tataki was served with a slight sear with just the right amount of marbling. Of all the wonderful things I've tried in my food crusades, I can say that it was my first time trying beef throat. I must say it tastes just like it looks, soft and tender yet close-grained and substantial.
Beef tartare with pea shoots, daikon, and quail egg
Is it just me or does a raw quail egg make everything better? It adds a buttery texture that cant be matched. The ultra thin sliced veggies when all mixed with the fine cut beef creates an interesting flavor combination which tastes much lighter than expected.
At this point, Chef Oyama's wife brought out the tabletop grill for the Yakiniku. It was an old wooden rustic charcoal grill filled with character. I think I might just have to get myself one of these for the house!
The meats were served along with some crudites to break up the flavors and refresh your palate. Also served was a plate of momotaru tomatoes which proved to be refreshing as promised. They were served skinless sliced into chunks. I regret that I didn't capture a photo.
Easily my favorite dish of the night. I've been to plenty of Korean bbq spots which serve tongue, but nothing like this. Unbelievably tender and perfection as prepared. There was no need for any dipping sauce here.
For dessert Chef Oyama and his wife brought out an assortment of ice creams and sorbets with a candle on top. I was definitely humbled by the happy couple singing happy birthday to me as they clapped their hands.
I dare say the level of service and attention provided by Totoraku definitely matches that of any Michelin rated restaurant out there, with the added luxury of intimacy and feeling of home. Upon leaving, the cheerful energetic Chef handed me his business card with his personal number to arrange future reservations. I already feel excited for my next experience here. Dinner came with a hefty price tag but absolutely worth every bite.