(Formatted with All Pictures here:
For those that have been following the developments around the temporary loss of one of L.A.'s best hidden gems - Yakitori Bincho - and its subsequent transformation to its current incarnation (as "Izakaya Bincho"), there's some good news as Chef Tomo has debuted a new Seasonal Menu in addition to his original Menu. For those that haven't been following, no worries. Just know that a quiet little Japanese "Small Plates Pub" has just expanded its menu to include some wonderful new creations! :)
I was lucky enough to try out the new Seasonal Menu that Chef-Owner Tomo-san and his wife Megumi-san (who runs the front of the house) just finished putting together for the month of November. It includes 8 Specials, new dishes that Tomo-san has been working on since his restaurant reopened almost a month ago. Tomo-san explains that he hopes to have a Seasonal Menu of Specials that will change each month, and from customer feedback, he will incorporate the most popular and successful dishes into the permanent Izakaya ("Japanese Pub") Menu as time goes on.
I was surprised and delighted to see Tomo-san incorporating some great classic dishes (staples of many Izakayas in Japan) such as my all-time favorite comfort food: Buta no Kakuni (Stewed Pork Belly). I brought some of my Izakaya Hounds as we sampled some of the dishes we missed on our last visit, as well as most of the new Seasonal Specials.
We started off with their Rikotta Chi-zu no Tofu (Home-made Ricotta Cheese Tofu). We found out that Tomo-san used fresh Soybean Milk and a certain type of Ricotta Cheese and blended them together to create what looked like 2 silken pieces of "Tofu." The resultant home-made "Tofu" was extremely smooth and creamy, with a beautiful note of Ricotta, but balanced by the nutty sweetness of the Soybean Milk that was combined with it.
Tomo-san served this with 2 types of Shoyu (Soy Sauce): Murasaki Shoyu (which is lighter and more fragrant than normal Soy Sauce), and his special, house-made Tare Sauce (which originated during the legendary Yakitori Bincho days). The Ricotta Cheese Tofu paired beautifully with both dipping sauces: The Murasaki was saltier (but not overpoweringly so) than the Tare, but the Tare Sauce was equally compelling with its sweeter facet. Excellent.
Their Tsukune Mizore So-su (Radish Sauce over Meat Balls) takes marinated Ground, Free-Range, Jidori Chicken Meatballs, deep-fried, and topped with fresh-grated Daikon Radish, Green Onions and a house-made Ponzu Sauce. The savoriness of the Jidori Chicken is nicely complemented by the Mizore Sauce, the bits of fresh Daikon and the tang of the Ponzu work together in harmony.
Bincho's famous Nankotsu (Chicken Cartilage) returns as Nankotsu Kara-age (Deep Fried Cartilage) on the new Izakaya menu, but without the Binchotan (Japanese White Charcoal), this version suffers from lack of that special smoky flavor. It's still very nice however, with Tomo-san serving Yagen Nankotsu, which is the Cartilage from the Chicken Breast area (instead of the fattier Knee Cartilage that's more commonly found).
The Chicken is fried to a nice, crisp outer texture, while turning the Cartilage soft and crunchy, and keeping the Breast meat moderately moist without being too dry. This is great with a nice cool Beer or Sake. (^_~)
Their Tomato Be-kon (Tomato Bacon) skewers are still delightful, even without the Binchotan charcoals, because the Bacon itself has a good smoky flavor already. Each bite-sized Cherry Tomato explodes with a sweetness and balances wonderfully with the smoky, salty Bacon surrounding each one. Very nice.
And the dish I was desperately waiting for appeared: Buta no Kakuni (Braised Pork Belly). For those that were able to try out Tomo-san's cooking at Yakitori Bincho, you know the love and care and devotion that he puts towards each skewer he was cooking. That same devotion is found in this new Seasonal Menu item!
Chef Tomo mentions that he spent almost 3 weeks from the time his new restaurant (Izakaya Bincho) opened to perfect this Braised Pork Belly recipe! This new dish takes 2 Days(!) to complete (from marinade to the full braising process). I gently broke off a piece - it was so tender, it easily parted with a push from my chopsticks - and took a bite...
This has to be the best version of Buta no Kakuni I've had in Southern California, but falls just a touch short of the best version I had in Tokyo. Still, this was impressive, and the fact that Tomo-san was able to create his version of the classic Japanese dish with such excellence, just weeks after re-opening his restaurant speaks volumes to the care and dedication he has to cooking.
The Braised Pork Belly had a beautiful balance of a delicate Shoyu, Mirin, amongst other sweet and savory notes. It was meltingly tender, and truly unctuous with every bite. I'm so happy to find an excellent version of this dish in So Cal! Delicious!
Another new item sounded very suspect at first, but turned out to be delightful: Kuri-mu Chi-zu to Mentaiko no Tsutsumi Age (Fried Wonton with Cream Cheese and Spicy Cod Roe inside).
While ostensibly this could be seen as "bad fusion food," the dish turned out to be pretty tasty: Each Wonton was lightly fried, retaining a great crispiness, and the filling of Cream Cheese with Mentaiko (Spicy Cod Roe) gave each bite a deep Oceany, Spicy edge.
Their Maguro no Fritta- (Tuna Fritters) was a complete disaster, however. The choice to deep-fry Tuna, resulted in a block of ultra-dense, tough fishiness, that wasn't appetizing at all. I know that Tomo-san is experimenting and trying to develop dishes that befit an Izakaya that he would like to run, working outside his normal boundaries of the Roasted Skewers of Meat and Vegetables and the core group of good Japanese Comfort Food dishes. I mentioned the problems I had with this dish to Tomo-san, and he noted that he's still testing out certain dishes (like this one), and he wasn't satisfied with it yet. Hopefully this dish will be dropped, or he changes the preparation.
The next dish rebounded nicely: Ginnan Yaki (Roasted Ginko Nuts). Tomo-san roasts freshly shelled Ginko Nuts in Salt, and the result is just a good, down-to-earth execution of this dish. If you're a fan of Ginnan, this is a must order. The Ginko Nuts are meaty and earthy, with a slight touch of bitterness, which contrasts nicely with the salt bed on which they were cooked in.
Izakaya Bincho's version of the classic Tori no Kara-age (Fried Chicken) is clean and direct, due to the nice taste of the Free-Range Chicken, and simple batter and spices used. Unlike the Tuna earlier, each bite of the Chicken is moist, tender, and juicy. The light spice mixture is perfect.
My Izakaya Hounds and I were pretty happy with this dish, until the next dish arrived: Yu-Rinchi- (Fried Chicken with Green Onion Sauce).
Tomo-san takes his Fried Chicken base and tops it with a house-made blend of Green Onions, Mirin, and 3-4 other ingredients that he's been blending together to perfect this dish, and the result is outstanding! The flavor explosion from his home-made Green Onion-base Sauce is lightly sweet, very aromatic, and really amplifies the taste of the Free-Range Chicken with each bite! Wow! (^_^) My second favorite dish of the evening.
Another new dish for the November Seasonal Menu is: Buta Kimuchi ("Kimchee Pork, Stir-Fried"). This is another popular dish at local Izakayas, and Tomo-san mentioned that he spent quite a while trying to perfect the flavor of this dish. This dish is a little bit salty, but with a great punch of spiciness and very fragrant from the blend of sauces that Tomo-san put together, mixed with the sauteed Onions, Kimchi and Pork. The cut of Pork used in this dish is excellent; very clean tasting, and as a great Izakaya dish, this is perfect with some Rice, or Beer, Shochu, or Sake. (^_~)
Another new dish from their November Menu is the Yasai to Kudamono no Nama Hamu Maki (Prosciutto-wrapped Vegetables and Fruit).
There were 3 types of pairings. We started with the Prosciutto with Kyoho Grape, which was by far the best of the group. The Kyoho Grape was *so* naturally sweet and juicy, and served as the perfect foil for the Prosciutto. The Prosciutto with Cherry Tomato, was slightly disappointing because the Tomato used wasn't as sweet as it ideally should be, and the Prosciutto with Eggplant & Lettuce was flat. The texture combination was nice, with the Nasu (Eggplant) and Lettuce contrasting nicely with the Prosciutto, but it lacked any distinct flavor from the Eggplant and Lettuce in this dish. The use of a better Olive Oil would also elevate this dish significantly.
With the Autumn and Winter coming, it was a great time to try out their Tsukune Dango Nabe ("Meatball Pot"). The simple name of the dish belied the excellence within the iron pot as it was brought to our table: Like the amazing Zosui dish here, the Tsukune Dango Nabe is made from scratch, made-to-order. This took Tomo-san about ~45 minutes+ to make for us, and it was so worth it!
Basically, it's a fresh, home-made soup of Enoki Mushrooms, Shiitake Mushrooms, Carrots, Tofu, Napa Cabbage, Green Onions, and Free Range Chicken Meatballs stewed together to create this light, healthy and airy soup. This broth is so clean and *pure*, you can taste the love that went into it. If you're not in the mood for Zosui, definitely give this dish a try. Excellent!
We ended the evening with their Banana Spring Rolls with Ice Cream dessert, which was a playful dessert from Megumi-san. :) These are Spring Rolls stuffed with fresh Banana, and then flash-fried, and served immediately with a scoop of Vanilla Ice Cream and topped with Chocolate.
The Banana Spring Rolls themselves were good, but interestingly, the Banana flavor wasn't strong enough for my tastes. When combined with a bit of the Vanilla Ice Cream and Chocolate, it made the dessert just right. :)
The service is just as honest, down-to-earth and humble as usual: There are only 2 employees at Izakaya Bincho (Tomo-san, the Chef, and Megumi-san, his wife, who serves as busboy, waitress, cashier and manager). Their new November Seasonal Menu has dishes ranging from $3.50 - $8.50 (very reasonable), and their regular menu ranges from $2 - $11. With some delicious (extra) bottles of Karatamba Sake this evening, we averaged roughly ~$37 per person (including tax and tip).
Izakaya Bincho continues to impress with its new Seasonal Menu. Most notably, the Buta no Kakuni (Braised Pork Belly) achieves "Legendary" status with me (^_^), and when combined with their amazing Agedashi Tofu, Zosui, Onigiri and Yu-Rinchi- (Fried Chicken with Green Onion Sauce), amongst other interesting dishes, Bincho continues its steady climb toward becoming a truly great Izakaya (Japanese Pub). Even as is, still rough and in development, the passion and dedication that Tomo-san expresses with each dish out of the kitchen is something worth celebrating. I'm already looking forward to their December Seasonal Menu. :)
(Note: The November Seasonal Menu debuts this Saturday, November 1, 2008.)
*** Rating: 8.7 (out of 10.0) ***
Izakaya Bincho (formerly Yakitori Bincho)
112 N. International Boardwalk
Redondo Beach, CA 90277
Tel: (310) 376-3889
* Note: They only have 4 Tables and a long bar that seats 8 more people, so call ahead for reservations!
Hours: Tues - Thu, 5:00 p.m. - 10:00 p.m.
Fri - Sun, 5:00 p.m. - 10:30 p.m.
Closed on Mondays.
112 N International Boardwalk, Redondo Beach, CA 90277