(Formatted with All Pictures here:
After the tragedy that befell one of L.A.'s best hidden gems - Yakitori Bincho - last year, I was eagerly counting the days until Chef Tomo and Yakitori Bincho could move to a new location that would allow them to continue making their legendary Yakitori (Roasted Chicken Skewers over Japanese White Charcoal). Chef Tomo elevated Yakitori to such a level that all the other offerings I tried around L.A. / O.C. became a disappointment (this same problem struck all of my Izakaya and Yakitori Hounds that tried Yakitori Bincho as well).
I had pretty much given up on sublime Yakitori until Bincho was able to move and reopen again, but then on a fateful night last week, I stumbled upon a newly opened restaurant with a plain, simple sign: Torihei. Coincidentally, I was with the most discerning member of my Izakaya Hound group, and we decided to give it a try.
Torihei sits across from the long-time South Bay powerhouse, Musha, and entering Torihei revealed a warm, stylish interior with a long bar perfect for its menu offerings...
which is what got us completely excited when we sat down to order: They had two simple menus, the first one showing off a variety of Yakitori (Roasted Chicken Skewers) and Kushi-Yaki (Roasted Skewers of Meat and Vegetables). That was interesting enough - a new Yakitori specialist - but then the 2nd menu was the big shocker:
Kyoto-fu (style) Oden (Variety of Items Stewed in a Dashi Broth)! There was an entire menu of classic items that reminded me of Japan and its wonderful Oden cuisine, all available for order right then and there! Stunned, we quickly placed an order and waited with nervous anticipation. :)
While waiting, I noticed the little touches, like how their Utsuwa (earthenware) was just gorgeous in a humble, down-to-earth way (I later discovered that they imported all of their Utsuwa from Japan).
It turns out that Torihei is the dream of Chef-Owner Masataka Hirai, who had previously owned a Yakitori-ya in Yokohama, Japan, also called Torihei. He learned his craft from his mother, who was the original Yakitori chef for Torihei (Yokohama). His mother also opened up a second restaurant in Yokohama, Japan called Tsukinone, focusing on Oden cuisine, which Chef Hirai took over as well. And currently, his father still runs a Kappo restaurant in Ginza, Tokyo, known as Hirai.
Chef Masataka decided to move to the U.S., and brought along his #2 Chef, Chef Masakazu Sasaki, an Oden specialist, focusing on Kyoto-style Oden. This could be very good. :)
We began with an amuse-bouche: Tori Miso Salada (Homemade Miso Chicken Salad). The Homemade Miso was quite tasty, but a touch too sweet. The Chicken Breast meat was decent, but nothing standout.
I then glanced over the counter and saw a gigantic stewing pot that signaled the potential for glorious Oden! :) It was divided up into quarters and each section contained a classic Oden ingredient, gently stewing, ready to be served. I couldn't wait!
In So Cal, one might find an "Oden" dish on a menu, which is usually a variety of items all stewed together in a small clay pot. Another more common way to enjoy Oden in Japan is picking out individual types of items (e.g., freshly stewed Daikon Radish, Eggs, etc.) and enjoying them piece-by-piece along with some of the delicious soup. This is how it's presented at Torihei.
The first item to arrive was from the Kyoto-style Oden menu: Daikon (White Radish). Served with some great Karashi (Japanese Mustard), the Daikon was topped with Katsuobushi (Dried Bonito Shavings) and served with the homemade Oden broth.
The first bite was a tone-setter for the rest of the evening: The Daikon was so clean and pure, tender, completely permeated with the made-from-scratch Dashi Broth. Chef Sasaki explained that Kyoto-style Oden stood out from other regions' Oden by the type of Shoyu (Soy Sauce) used and slight differences in broth structure. The Dashi Broth was truly a thing of beauty: Completely focused and pure, the notes of Konbu (Kelp), Katsuobushi (Dried Bonito), and special Shoyu (Soy Sauce) worked in harmony to bring about a broth that was so soothing and soul-warming that all I could do was smile. (^_^) He also mentioned that his Tsukune (Chicken Meat Balls) added in flavor, since he used the Oden broth to cook those when ordered. We finished the Oden Soup within seconds. Overall this was simply excellent! :)
Then the first item from the Yakitori (Roasted Chicken) menu arrived: Sunagimo (Chicken Gizzard). It was marinated and prepared Shio (Salt-based) style. It turned out to be *moist* and so pure in its taste. Most Sunagimo can be dried out, or a bit tough. Not so here: It was tender, yet still retained a nice texture. This was the work of a true Yakitori grill master.
(Note: For those new to Yakitori cuisine, feel free to use a bit of the Shichimi Togarashi (a spice mixture of seven different ingredients that is lightly spicy, but not overpowering). In another nice touch, it's beautifully presented at Torihei.)
The next order arrives: Jikasei Tsukune ("Torihei" Meat Ball), which is a house specialty, made of a special blend of spices including Shiso Leaf, mixed with fresh Ground Chicken and then roasted over their Binchotan charcoal.
Most Tsukune can be really dry and/or mealy, but Hirai-san's Tsukune are *outstanding*! Not since Yakitori Bincho and Tomo-san's Tsukune (and before that the Tsukune specialist in Kyoto) have I had Tsukune this good! The Marinated Ground Chicken Meat Balls are juicy, moist and bursting with flavors! Light notes of Shiso and Pepper and other spices combine with a fresh, pure Chicken taste. I would say Yakitori Bincho's Tsukune beats this one out by a touch, but since Yakitori Bincho is no more, this is the best we have in L.A. :) Simply wonderful.
Continuing on is Reba- (Chicken Liver). As some of you may know, I'm not a huge Liver fan, but my guest was, so we ordered one skewer to try it. Ostensibly, it looked like it was something different, but after taking a bite, it was a total flashback to the magic of Chef Tomo and Yakitori Bincho's amazing version: Hirai-san captured the same expert cooking style with this Liver Skewer. It was *so* buttery, light and creamy(!), almost like a Foie Gras, but with Chicken Liver, and with none of the metallic / chalky / chunkiness that is usually found with Roasted Liver. Wow.
The next item was Momo (Chicken Thigh), Shio (Salt-base marinade). Like the other skewers so far, this was another highlight! Moist, juicy, pure Chicken goodness. I would say Tomo-san's Momo Tare at Bincho surpasses this one, but as of right now, Torihei is the best until Bincho comes back. :) Very good!
Their Wafuwafu Tori Tsumire (Chicken Paste Ball) arrives from the Oden side. Finely minced Ground Chicken is formed into Meat Balls and cooked in the Oden broth. Unfortunately the Chicken Meat Balls here are too mealy and chunky, but that's the nature of boiling Ground Chicken. It's comfort food, but it just wasn't that appetizing. The Oden Broth was once again gulped down by the both of us within seconds. :) Delicious!
Here's another pic of their gorgeous Utsuwa (Pottery).
The Jikasei Gobou Age (Fried Burdock Root) is another house specialty. Chef Sasaki takes fresh Burdock Root and gathers a few slices together and binds them with a special coating and then deep fries it. After it's cooked through, he quickly places it in the Oden Broth to simmer for a brief instant before serving.
Burdock Root is inherently fibrous, and Chef Sasaki's preparation retains the crunchiness and fibrous nature, while still making it complementary to the Oden Broth. It's not for everyone, but I enjoyed the healthy crunchiness of the Gobou and it was a great diversion from the usual Burdock Root dishes around town.
The next dish was another classic that goes perfect with alcohol :) - Marugoto Ikayaki (Whole Roasted Squid).
Cooked with a Tare (Soy Sauce, Mirin) marinade, the Ika (Squid) was just perfectly cooked through. It had a nice elasticity while still being tender and easy to break down. They included the Ika Wata (Squid Innards) which were delicious as well, and the Tare marinade gave each bite a light sweetness (just a touch), to tease the palate.
But the next dish was something I couldn't easily forget: Hanjyuku Tamago (Egg with Cod Roe)! Neither the English nor Japanese name did this dish justice. This was a flash-boiled Chicken Egg, with the Yolk still creamy and luscious, filled with Ikura (Salmon Roe).
This Hanjyuku Egg was so silky smooth, with the Ikura (Salmon Roe) breaking and mixing in with the soft, creamy flash-boiled yolk from the larger Chicken Egg... this put every version of Tamago in So Cal Ramen houses to shame. :) It wasn't as divine as Menya Kissou's Hanjyuku loveliness, but this was beautiful.
And then came more greatness from Chef Hirai's side: Tebasaki (Roasted Chicken Wing). Prepared Shio (Salt) style, these Chicken Wings reflected more of the grill master's technique, with a moist interior and crispy exterior; just flawless execution. :)
As if it couldn't get any better, along comes their Tontoro (Fatty Pork). The first thing that came to mind when I took a bite was: "Pork Lovers of the World... Unite!" (^_^) Taking Pork Cheek, Chef Hirai roasted it to perfection - There was enough lean Pork to provide a good meatiness, but enough marbling to impart pure, sexy unctuousness! Probably the best porky goodness you can have outside of pork belly. :) A must order.
The Kurokonnyaku (Konjac Yam Cake) arrived next from the Oden side. Topped with a special Miso blend recipe that Chef Sasaki calls Genkaku Miso, with a touch of Goma (Sesame Seeds) on top, this was a nice, hearty chunk of Konnyaku, which normally has very little taste on its own, but has a nice firm gelatinous texture. The special Miso was a touch too sweet for my tastes, but it worked. The Oden Broth was again, wonderful. :)
Sasaki-san then finished up the Gyu Suji (Beef Collagen).
Presented in a pretty covered serving cup, this was a dish of long-stewed Beef Tendon in a mixture of Soy Sauce, Black Peppercorns and Green Onions. The Beef Tendon was silky smooth and to the point of melting, and it was utterly delicious.
One of the only hiccups of the night, their Asupara Maki (Asparagus with Pork) arrived with 2 long-stemmed Asparagus wrapped in Bacon, with a Sweet Curry Sauce.
The Asparagus was cooked just right, with the Bacon being just fine (and a classic pairing), but the homemade Sweet Curry Sauce overpowers the dish. It would've been just fine without it.
But things rebounded nicely with the Tsunagi ("Special" Chicken Heart), Tare (Soy Sauce, Mirin Marinade) Style. As with many Chicken Organ dishes, Chicken Heart might turn out to be a bit too tough or dried out at many places, but not here: Chef Hirai's version of Tsunagi was very moist and supple yet retained an inherent texture, and the Mirin and Soy notes were present, but never overpowering every bite of the Chicken Hearts.
And then another surprise arrives with their Nankotsu (Chicken Cartilage). It turns out to be Yagen Nankotsu, made from the Chicken Breast Cartilage, instead of the more commonly found Dark Meat Cartilage portion (which is more fatty).
It's moist and very good, but still behind Yakitori Bincho's amazing version (which again, can't be had for now). It's still better than most versions easily, and is a delight to have expertly made again. :)
The Sasami Umejiso (Chicken Breast with Japanese Plum) arrived at the same time. Hirai-san presents perfectly cooked chunks of Chicken Breast topped with Japanese Plum and Shiso Leaves. It's a great match, with the fragrant herbal notes from the Shiso and nice tartness from the Ume mixing together against the backdrop of moist, white meat Chicken. Very nice. :)
Rounding out the evening was a pair of favorite Kushiyaki items: Okura Maki (Okra with Pork) and Yaki Shiitake (Shiitake Mushrooms). The Okura Maki was a solidly executed version of the dish, very good, with the Okra cooked through without drying out, and the Bacon imparting enough fat to make the whole dish sing. :)
The Roasted Shiitake Mushrooms were fragrant and earthy in a way that only Shiitake Mushrooms can be. They were a perfect way to end the evening. :)
On my 2nd visit to Torihei, I found more friends to enlist and try out some items. We started off with an amuse-bouche of some Jikasei Nukazuke (Home-made Pickles). The Daikon was the best of the pickled vegetables - lightly tart, but still carrying a freshness - with the Ninjin (Carrot) being the weakest (not bad, but nothing too noteworthy).
And then it started again (the goodness :), with their Itawasa (Home-made Fish Cake). Essentially a hand-made version of Kamaboko (Fish Cake), Chef Sasaki's version has a much more tender consistency than the usual firm gelatinous Fish Cakes. It's also served with a tiny dab of Wasabi and a blended Shoyu (Soy Sauce), and the result is a perfect balance. It engages your tongue and taste buds, and is a great starter.
The first main dish to arrive was their Tori Kawa Ponzu (Chicken Skin with Ponzu Sauce). This dish took me by surprise: Thinking about the Yakitori side of the restaurant, I had thought that this might be open-roasted Chicken Skin (roasted to a crisp) and then served with Ponzu, but instead, it turned out to be *Stewed* Chicken Skin, lightly poached actually, and served with Negi (Green Onions) and Momiji Oroshi (Grated Daikon Radish with Red Chili Peppers). It's surprisingly good and buttery, probably due to the Chicken Fat and Skin. The Momiji Oroshi helps to add a small bit of spiciness while still helping cut through the fat a bit.
Next up is Hatsu (Chicken Heart), Shio (Salt) style. This turns out to be Chef Hirai's favorite (even over his "Special" Hearts dish). The Salt marinade brings out a completely different facet to the Chicken Hearts than the previous night's Tsunagi, with a good chew (just lightly), with a flavor that's so clean and direct.
And then the Gyu Tan (Beef Tongue) arrives, with an encore of the Tontoro (Fatty Pork). While I had recently had some amazing Gyu Tan Shio at Tsuruhashi, this was a mouth-watering, luscious, thicker cut of Beef Tongue and it was absolutely delicious! (^_^) I can't stop thinking about it, it's that good (along with the Tontoro (again))! There's this deep, mesmerizing beefiness to each bite, being extremely juicy as well. Just outstanding!
Another shot of their beautiful Utsuwa (Tableware).
The Musubi Konbu (Sea Tangle) arrives next. Gorgeously presented to look like a giant, cute Bow made out of Kelp, this is long-stewed Konbu (Kelp) in the made-from-scratch Kyoto-style Oden Broth. It's simple and delightful, and for fans of Konbu, this is a definite must-order. And like the previous visit, this visit's Kyoto-style Oden Broth is just as addicting as before! :)
The next item is even more beautiful and kawaii in its presentation: Mochi Kinchaku ("Mochikin" Rice Cake). Chef Sasaki takes Aburaage (Deep Fried Tofu) and stuffs it with Mochi (Rice Cake), and then ties it at one end, to resemble a Kinchaku (traditional Japanese Purse) (^_^). After stewing for a while, the Mochi inside gets softer and softer until it becomes a luscious melted core, and a nice match for the Oden Soup and the Tofu exterior. Light and simple.
And then the Marugoto Tomato (Whole Stewed Tomato) arrives. Also from the Oden side, Sasaki-san takes a whole Tomato and stews it in the Oden Soup, and then tops it with a puree mixture of Mashed Potatoes and Soy Milk.
It's surprisingly very sweet and so fresh. The Mashed Potato and Soy Milk mixture works really well with the Stewed Tomato and the Oden Broth is again a great complement.
While I tried the Whole Squid on the first visit, on this visit, they had another dish that was totally different in preparation: Ika Geso Oiru Yaki (Roasted Squid Legs in Oil).
Chef Hirai uses a blend of Sake, Shoyu (Soy Sauce), Ika Wata (Squid Innards) and Oil to roast and create a beautifully oceanic sauce that the Squid Legs sit in. The Squid Legs are cooked just right and the sauce is a great match.
And then the Tori Soboro Gohan (Ground Chicken Rice Bowl) (w/ Soup) arrives as dinner is winding down. Normally, Soboro bowls are pretty boring and quickly prepared, but Torihei's Tori Soboro Gohan reflects the same love and care that's put into their other dishes. Their version captures the essence of a good Soboro Don: It's lightly sweet from the Mirin and Light Soy, and the essence of the Chicken comes through. Chef Hirai serves it with Uzura (Quail Egg) and mixing it all up adds a nice creaminess to the dish. This is a great way to end a meal. :)
The Tori Su-pu (Chicken Soup) that comes with the Soboro Rice is a homemade Chicken Soup from scratch that has a good purity with lots of vegetables, but it's undermined by being served in a plastic bowl (there's a distinct plastic-y, chemical taste that comes through here). This is the only item on the menu that's served in a plastic bowl, while everything else is served on a variety of their gorgeous Utsuwa. Hopefully they switch the soup over to an earthenware Utsuwa bowl which will help with the taste and aroma.
Finally, we had forgotten about the Robata-Yaki Onigiri ("Robata" Rice Ball) since it takes so long (normally) to slowly cook on the Yakitori grill. This was a very good version of the Roasted Rice Ball, with the Rice being cooked to a crisp and served with some of the Homemade Pickles.
Torihei is run by only 2 Chefs (Chef Hirai for the Yakitori menu and Chef Sasaki for the Oden) and 1 assistant. They have only 2 servers working at present, but it was more than enough for both of our visits. The staff was friendly and we had no complaints. Prices range from an absurdly low $1.80 - $5.25 for items on the Yakitori menu, and $1.95 - $2.80 for the Kyoto-style Oden menu. We averaged about ~$30 per person including tax and tip (and we over-ordered).
A word of caution about Oden for those that are new to it: Oden represents the simplicity and lighter side of Japanese cuisine. Those that enjoy bold, big flavors may find Oden to be "bland," but all my Izakaya Hounds I've taken here so far have enjoyed it (and I just love Yakitori and Oden in general (^_~)).
Torihei is a stunning development in the L.A. landscape: One restaurant that houses *2* Master Chefs and 2 Styles of Cooking that rise to the top of the list in their respective areas - Yakitori (Roasted Chicken Skewers) and Kyoto-style Oden. While Yakitori Bincho exceeds Torihei in many of the offerings (some of it due to the use of Japanese Binchotan (White Charcoal) at Yakitori Bincho vs. low-cost alternate Charcoal by Torihei), the skill of Chef Masataka Hirai is undeniable: With Yakitori Bincho shuttered, Torihei is easily my new favorite Yakitori in Southern California, turning out mouth-watering Roasted Skewers of Meat and Vegetables expertly cooked and unrivaled currently.
Add to that the excitement from finally having an Oden Specialist (let alone a Kyoto-style Oden Specialist) that serves individual pieces of Oden like they do back in Japan, with a made-from-scratch Oden Broth that is *so* pure and genuine in its purpose - all under one roof(!) - and you have the makings of a new L.A. treasure that's worth celebrating. Highly recommended.
*** Rating: 9.0 (out of 10.0) ***
1757 W. Carson Street, #A
Torrance, CA 90501
Tel: (310) 781-9407
Hours: 7 Days A Week, 5:30 p.m. - 11:00 p.m. (Alcohol Last Order @ 10 p.m., Food Last Order @ 10:30 p.m.).