The Japanese sushi/kaiseki scene in L.A. just got even hotter (and better) with Yamakase, an “invitation-only” kaiseki restaurant which opened earlier this year. Yamakase represents a partnership between Chef Kiyoshiro Yamamoto and business partner Stan Liu. When it came time for me to review Yamakase, I had some trouble describing just how good this place is. Since my first meal at Yamakase, I have been fortunate enough to return for a second dinner (yes, I have one of Yama-san’s business cards now, so I can make my own reservations in the future). For this review, I will describe my first meal here back in August.
Though I usually try to avoid comparing specific restaurants head-to-head, I feel the best way to convey the dining experience at Yamakase is by comparing it directly with the current “gold standard” for sushi kaiseki in L.A.: Urasawa in Beverly Hills. Because let’s face it (and I’ll cut to the chase) – I think Yamakase is the absolute closest thing to Urasawa in L.A. right now (even more so than Shunji and n/naka). Keep in mind, however, that Chef Yama, Chef Shunji and Chef Niki are each aiming for their own niche, and not looking to replicate Urasawa.
In some ways though, Yamakase may surpass Urasawa for many people out there who want a high-end sushi kaiseki experience. Please allow me to explain.
My first visit to Yamakase was remarkably similar to my meals at Urasawa. Imagine you and a few of your closest friends having your own personal kaiseki chef for one night. Like Chef Hiro at Urasawa, Chef Yama sources his seafood globally, with a good portion of it flown in directly from various parts of Japan. And like Urasawa, the progression of my initial meal at Yamakase was one blissful “ooh” and “aah” after another. Also, like all great shokunin, the respect shown to all the ingredients (especially the rice) is obvious at Yamakase. Both places seat only 8-12 people per night. And, the food is utterly fantastic.
There were, of course, some notable differences between the two establishments as well…
One: Unlike Urasawa, newcomers cannot make a reservation at Yamakase out of the blue – You must be INVITED to dine there. The first meal for anyone at Yamakase is as a guest of someone who is a regular customer. Originating in Kyoto, this style of dining is called “ichigen-san okotowari”, which rougly translates to “regular, recognized customers only”. The concept is not new to Japanese eateries in L.A. – The venerable temple of beef known as Totoraku on Pico has been practicing this mode of operation for years. This way of doing business is somewhat controversial here in the U.S., but is well-accepted in Japan.
Two: There aren’t as many courses at Yamasake (which may actually be a good thing for many diners out there with a smaller gullet). The number of courses I had (including dessert) was approximately half that of a typical visit to Urasawa. Regardless, I was very full and content by the time dinner concluded.
Three: The prices are less severe at Yamakase. The tab at Yamakase runs anywhere from one-third to one-half of Urasawa’s per person cost.
Four (and this is may be most important): Yamakase feels a lot less “formal” than Urasawa. Where Hiro-san at Urasawa is appears every bit the enthusiastic, serious practitioner of his craft that he is, Yama-san is more like an uncle who’s dropped by with his catches of the day to cook some incredible food for you. Yama-san’s kitchen is a simple and unassuming “working” kitchen. Every customer sits at his sushi bar (no tables), with a front-row view of the action.
OK, onwards to the food! As the seasons and availabilities of ingredients all change throughout the year, expect each kaiseki at Yamakase to be different.
Course #1: Appetizer “sunomono” of Japanese mini-red surf clams, fish broth gelee, heirloom tomato, and cucumber… Refreshing! The fresh little clams had a nice crunchy texture to them.
Course #2: Sweet summer corn “potage”, with minced young albacore tuna & prawn paste, topped with San Diego uni (sea urchin roe) and (a very generous serving of) black truffle… This dish was gentle but rich, full of complexity. I find San Diego uni to be among some of the most delicate, delicious uni I've ever tried, and I'm glad chefs in L.A. are discovering it as well.
Course #3: Japanese “ratatouille” of layered heirloom tomatoes, summer corn kernels, eggplant and tenderized tako (octopus), in a wasabi-pesto sauce… So creative and tasty!
Course #4: Slow-steamed (for 12 hours!) Japanese awabi (abalone) with morel mushroom, garnished with sea salt, served with its liver… Melt in your mouth. THIS is what abalone is supposed to taste like. I haven’t had awabi this good since I went to Sushi Kanesaka in Tokyo years ago!
Course #5: Stewed turnip & Wagyu beef “roll” in daikon stock… So tender!
Course #6 & #7: Oyster/ quail egg served 2 ways: Steamed oyster with kani miso (crab innard/roe) paste, paired with a raw quail egg, and raw oyster with transmontanus caviar, paired with a poached quail egg… DISH OF THE MEAL! My God. These 2 spoonful bites were worth the price of admission alone.
Course #8: Steamed hanasaki (Japanese king crab) & kegani (Hokkaido hairy crab)… Both just flown in from Japan, these crabs were served with cracked shells and choice of 2 dipping sauces: Kani miso paste (mindblowingly good) and also traditional Japanese sweet vinegar & minced ginger
Course #9: Matsutake mushroom chawan mushi with zuwaigani (snow crab) and ikura (salmon roe)… We were lucky enough to be the first customers to enjoy the 2012 matsutake mushroom season!
Gari (sweet pickled ginger) was offered, which meant it was time to proceed onwards to sushi! Yama-san's sushi rice vinegar is a rather unorthodox red vinegar of his own formulation. The rice itself was just terrific. Each piece of sushi was at the height of its freshness, as one would expect from a restaurant of this caliber.
Course #10: Akami (lean tuna) from Spain
Course #11: O-toro (fatty tuna)
Course #12: Iwashi (sardine)
Course #13: Sayori (needlefish)
Course #14: Aji (Spanish mackerel)
Course #15: Mirugai (giant clam)
Course #16: Tairagai (razor clam)
Course #17: Isaki (threeline grunt)
Course #18: Kani miso uni don
Course #19: Blue crab temaki (hand roll)
Course #20: Cucumber & shiso leaf temaki (hand roll)
Course #21: Brown sugar yuzu gelee with fresh fig emulsion
Verdict: Yamakase is HIGHLY recommended.