Warning: I am still giddy over my experience at this restaurant, so this report may include ramblings and hackneyed descriptors of the food and the experience and it will probably be the longest post I will ever provide on this board. If you wish to stop now, heres your chance otherwise
I found out about Totoraku from reading this board. It is a restaurant that has garnered its share of posts (heated and inquisitive) over the years given its exclusivity. I knew that it was essentially invite only and that you had to have a connection to get in. I have to admit, it seemed pretty interesting to me and I was definitely curious but eating there was essentially a pipe dream to me. Flashback to the summer of 2004 - I was having a conversation with a friend who also shares a love for Japanese food. I mentioned that theres this hush-hush place off of Pico that supposedly serves the best beef in town. My friend casually says, Oh, I have been there several times it is truly a great experience. After collecting my jaw from the floor, I asked him how he was able to eat there. Apparently, he piggy-backs off of his Uncles relationship with the owner, and eats there whenever his Uncle invites him. The story is that his Uncle met the owner once, while dining as a guest of a friend, and found himself eating there often with that same friend. Over MULTIPLE visits over a span of two years, he fostered a relationship with the owner (they both share an appreciation for wine) and was eventually allowed to set reservations on his own. I timidly asked him if there would be any possibility that I could eat there with him and his Uncle some time, to which he replied, Oh sure, just let me know when. - YAHTZEE!
Almost a year later, I had a chance to take him up on his offer. His Uncle was actually able to set-up a reservation for 3 of us (including my friend, a mutual friend, and myself) and we were on our way. I never actually saw the place, but heard it was pretty unremarkable from the outside. A shoddy sign says, Pico Teriyaki House or something to that effect, and looks entirely run down. The windows are covered up, giving an appearance that the restaurant is vacant, and except for the health rating (A by the way), there was no way one would be able to tell that this restaurant actually was operating.
We arrived for our 7PM reservation, and my co-worker led the procession into the restaurant. The space is pretty narrow. The kitchen takes up half of the restaurant and runs along side of the right wall of the restaurant. There are four sets of tables running along the left side of the wall, all four tops. That evening, there was a set-up for eight (not yet arrived), our table, and a table for four already occupied. The tables are separated by standing tatami dressing screens, giving an illusion of privacy. The place is poorly lit, with a fluorescent glow coming from the kitchen and some standing lamps within each of the table areas.
The restaurant is quiet, with little noise coming from the kitchen (which was shielded by a wall that was high enough that one could not look over to see what was going on the other side). The funny thing I found was that the décor was just as shoddy inside as it was outside. The walls were decorated with cheap/common Hollywood prints of Marilyn Monroe, Marlon Brando, James Cagny and other stars from Old Hollywood. Randomly mounted on the walls were pieces of wine cases from vineyards I assume the owner has gotten wine from (Caymus, Mondavi, et al.) Along the top of the wall that separated us from the kitchen were empty bottles from years past. I am not a wine connoisseur by any stretch, but I looked at some of the years 1984, 1996, 1994, 1982, some Cote Rotie, Cabs, all reserve. A quick trip to the bathroom, which was decorated with labels from old bottles that have been poured at the place (again, from the same years, etc.) and I realized that this guy really loves his wine.
We took our table and a very nice waitress came over and offered green tea. We are presented with three bottles of cabernet, and the waitress explains which one of the three would stand best up to the meat served that night. She points to a Lewis Cellars Reserve Cabernet, so we go with her recommendation ($100). My co-worker confirms my suspicion about the owners love for wine and mentions that he often carries nice bottles and sells at cost and there is no corkage at all.
My co-worker asks if there is anything we refuse to eat. I think for a second and after realizing that this will probably be my first and last chance to eat here, I say, I am in the hands of the chef. And so it begins ..
The waitress brings out a tray with an assortment of amuses/appetizers:
- Cantaloupe with prosciutto
- Rice paper wrapped salmon (akin to a cut sushi roll) with avocado and daikon
- Fried tofu cubes topped with a piece of grilled toro
- Japanese potato salad with a sliver of fried fish skin
- Caprese antipasti piece of Japanese tomato and cube of buffalo mozzarella
- Hard boiled quail egg topped with caviar
- Steamed asparagus topped with a peanut butterish sauce
- Japanese silver fish, steamed and dressed with a light dressing
- Japanese vegetable gelatin
I particularly enjoyed the bits of potato salad with the fried fish skin. The caprese amuse was very nice too, the Japanese tomato holding a sweet and delicate flavor- totally new to my Hot- House-Ralphs-Tomatoes palate. Everything else had subtle flavors and texture differences; I think to get your palate ready for the array of courses to come. It was good pre-cursor to the evening.
First out was the beef sashimi. The waitress explains that this cut was from the throat and motions with her hand up and down her throat as she tells us about the dish. The meat is cut into small and thin slices, the outlined shape resembling salmon steaks (like a thick horseshoe that is filled in and has a hole in the middle). She instructs us to mix some garlic in the shoyu and dip the beef. The texture of the beef was intriguing because it actually had some spring to it upon the first bite, but soon melted away after the first two chews. I tried to dip little as to appreciate the beefs flavoring, which I found to be extremely rich.
The next course is a raw steak tartare I believe called Yukke. Chopped steak with a quail egg, mixed with slivers of cucumber, fuji apples, pine nuts, and daikon root. My friend mixed the ingredients and parsed out the servings. I love steak tartare, and this was definitely flavorful and delicate. Unlike the European version which can be spiked with flavored Worchester, the meat was dressed simply with sesame oil. The texture of the meat along with the fruit slivers and pine nuts made for a great mix which we all appreciated.
The waitress checks in and asks if we are all down with some liver. Our third friend finches, but we convince him that no better place to go with liver for the first time than at this place so we give the thumbs up for the liver. Out it comes, crimson slivers of liver, topped with some green onions. On the side of the plate are slivers of ginger and mashed raw garlic. We are instructed to dip the liver in a sauce that is provided salt and sesame oil, and to use the garlic and ginger accordingly. I am not the biggest fan of liver, but I just HAD to try this. Raw liver has the texture of a raw oyster. Slippery, and requiring some chewing, I had to be careful not to dip it into too much of the oil and salt mixture. Raw liver I found had little to no aftertaste normally associated with cooked liver. I really enjoyed the slippery texture and the complexity of flavors I accomplished through mixing the garlic and ginger.
At that point, the raw dishes were complete. The waitress cleared the plates and brought out a small grill. Unlike a hibachi grill which I understand to be round, this grill was square, contained charcoal and had a metal grate above. Next out was the beef tongue. Slices of LIGHT pink beef all arranged on a plate ready for the taking. My friend pronounces that this is one of his fave, and he puts on a few slices on the grill. We grill up the slices rare to medium rare and we dig in. I have had tongue before, so it wasnt new to me but I really enjoyed this version. We were provided bowls of rice where I placed the slices of cooked tongue on top. The tongue was soft and very flavorful, and the oils and juices that cooked off the tongue ended up in the rice, making for a very flavorful bowl of rice.
At one point, we are presented with a whole tomato, which had been peeled and dressed with a light vinaigrette. It was cut into pieces and was soooooo good, sweet and chilled. A perfect complement to the beef courses.
Up next was the tenderloin. Very soft and flavorful, even without the marbling we would later witness with the other cuts of beef. We grilled these up rare and chowed down. At this point we were provided with a plate of ruffage; lettuce, cabbage, cucumbers, carrots to eat with our meat. We filled up on some more bowls of rice (damn, it was some good ass rice!) and we were off again.
Next up was what the waitress called, inside of ribeye. Marbled like a ribeye should be, we went at em and on to the grill we went. At this point I realize that I have had tons of beef thus far, and while I have had a lot the flavors of each cut seems distinct and comes out (through the level of marbling, etc.). I also notice that on some cuts, the chef dresses the beef with subtle sauces (if needed), and this totally enhanced the flavor of the meat without disguising it. I can say that I never dipped my beef more than twice that entire night (liver aside).
Next up was the filet. The filet was cut into slices that were about an inch, inch and a half in thickness. On to the grill they went. Like a nice filet very flavorful despite the lack of significant marbling. I notice that the courses stagger between fatty cuts and lean cuts, giving the palate a kind of taste tango with the different courses.
Out next came the short-rib, to my friends delight. He said if he had to choose just one cut, it would be this cut. The meat was extremely marbled, with lines of white running throughout all of the thin slices. We all threw on some slices and tended the grill, since these suckers would cook up fast. I dig into my first slice and it is better than any piece of Korean/Japanese bbq beef I have ever tasted. The taste is deep and pronounced, my cholesterol level's soaring through the roof I crack a smile and I just have to laugh its THAT good.
By that time, my rice had run out I decline a refill. The waitress asks if we want more beef, and recommends the skirt steak which is on special tonight. We say, What the hell? and go for it. Great end to the meat course, a little leaner than the short rib and ribeye cuts, but not as bare as the filet. Great ending and at this point the waistline begins to expand (ok, I lie - it started to happen after the tongue).
We then are given 3 bowls of an egg flower soup which has a beef broth base. Very delicate and cleansing to the palate. I thought this soup was rather wimpy compared to how I like my soups (just to be fair, I DID have Daikokuya the night before, so my palate was more inclined for robust soups), but it was nice and didnt seem to stick to my ribs. The chef even dressed it with some chili oil to give it a little kick, which was appreciated.
The waitress came out with three bowls of ice cream, comprised of a sampling of that evenings flavors. White chocolate with raspberry, green tea, espresso, blue berry sorbet. Homemade, and pretty damn good (if I may borrow from the Perceptor).
We got the check $411(without tip and including the $100 wine) and paid up. We get up and say our goodbyes, and my friend peeks behind the Wizard of Oz curtain that serves as the entrance to the kitchen, the Owner comes out and gleefully says good bye and asks us if everything was good. Oddly enough, he reminded me of the gentleman at the bar who is killed by Gogo Yubari in Kill Bill. We shower him with compliments as we step out of the restaurant, we bow and we smile and we thank and we smile and we bow and we laugh and we smile and we - SLAM, LOCK, EL FIN.
Silence as I turn around and realize its over nothing but a quiet Pico behind me and I make it back to my car. I pinch myself a few times haha just to be sure. Great place. Sorry I did not take pictures. Thanks for reading. Have a good weekend.
Oh, quick side note neither of my friends, or I am Japanese (just to give demystify the myth that this place only caters to Japanese clientele).