Kiyokawa – Los Angeles, CA
Two weeks ago, I stumbled across an old restaurant review by Jonathan Gold (published in November 2009) with the following statement:
“His multicourse omakase dinners are epic, kaiseki-style feasts; seasonal, imaginative meals that, while not cheap, rival their equivalents at places charging two and three times as much. In my decades of reviewing restaurants, Kiyokawa may be the first place I was tempted to keep for myself”
I almost crapped my pants at work.
There’s no other food critic or writer I respect more than Jonathan Gold, and it’s very rare to see him give a restaurant such high praise. And to think I’d never even heard of Kiyokawa! Dinner reservations for later in the week quickly ensued.
After a seemingly never-ending week at work, I finally walked into Kiyokawa on a brisk Saturday evening. Shortly after being seated, I ordered a bottle of Horin sake. Wonderfully clean and floral, it was the perfect start to the evening. I relaxed, leaned back in my chair, and let the performance begin.
A few minutes later an arrangement of bite-sized dishes appeared in front of me. On the top right is fried asparagus covered in Japanese rice pearls, not at all oily and perfectly fried – one of my favorites. Sitting on the leaf from the top left: marinated Spanish mackerel, boiled spinach with sesame, tamago, rolled chicken filled with kinpira, and a tomato compote. The tomato was a welcome surprise– sweet with a firm but yielding texture. The mackerel, lightly fried and marinated (in mirin?), was simultaneously crunchy, smoky, and sweet. At the bottom left was octopus done sunomono-style, marinated in vinegar alongside crisp cucumber.
A plate of sashimi arrived next, served with fresh wasabi grated on sharkskin only moments ago! The fresh wasabi was served on a miniature version of the sharkskin grater, and I’m certain everyone in the restaurant (including myself) was tempted to steal the tiny tool.Chef Kiyokawa served salmon, tuna, and kanpachi, tai, and abalone. Salmon was my first bite– superb and unusually sweet. The thick beefy slices of tuna were flavorful, especially with a smear of the fragrant wasabi. Unfortunately, the tai was just mediocre, and the abalone had a nice snappy bite to it.
The kanpachi was undoubtedly my favorite! With an initially crunchy texture giving way to a smooth finish, I’m pretty sure I made a funny groaning sound after my first piece.
Shortly after the sashimi, another composition of small bites arrived. Clockwise from the top left: seared foie gras, marinated uni, fried wonton wrapper with langoustine, fried seaweed, Kumamoto oyster with caviar & ponzu, and shrimp.
Uni, oysters, and foie are amongst my most beloved ingredients around, so expectedly, these three were also my favorite of the group. The Kumamoto oyster was amongst the best I’ve had: a hint of brininess along with a rush of meaty sweetness accompanied by ponzu sauce. I loved Kumamotos when I started aggressively eating oysters, and I still can’t get enough of them today.
I approached the uni was a slight reluctance, thinking the marinade would mask the uni’s natural flavor. Boy was I wrong– the marinade didn’t interfere with flavor or texture at all, with the uni retaining its soft fluffy texture and marinade intensifying the sweetness.
Lastly, the foie gras was spectacular. An outstanding piece of foie devoid of any veins, it melted upon contact with my tongue. Served over a thick homemade miso paste, my mouth was completely slathered in decadence, and the truffle salt provided a musky kick. At this point I was either smiling like an idiot or sighing from sheer bliss.
In between dishes, watching Chef Satoshi work his magic behind the bar beyond entertaining. He seemed to have three different personalities:
1. Army Sergeant– he was very strict with his servers and staff, barking orders and flashing stern looks at them.
2. Monk– I was surprised when Chef Satoshi served and explained the various fish and its provenance to us, as it was a marked contrast to how he talked to his staff. There was a sense of calm and peace about Chef Satoshi, almost as if he was paying respect to the fish he just sliced up.
3. Dancer– this was my favorite! Whenever Chef Satoshi was slicing fish, garnishing dishes, or even simply taking fish out of the sushi counter, he looked like he was dancing! Anyone who has eaten at Kiyokawa can attest to this– he’s all over the place, twirling and slicing with flair! It almost felt like I was a kid at Benihana again but in the best possible way.
A warm therapeutic soup of daikon, tofu, taro, and crab arrived next. This was outstanding– perhaps the best dish the night! Jonathan Gold refers to it as “a dish worthy of a three-star French chef.”A contrast to the explosion of flavors I’d just eaten, this was an exercise in simplicity and restraint. The daikon, which skin had been gently scraped off, had soaked up the strong dashi broth. The taro was particularly good– not chalky or grainy at all! It was perfectly smooth and fell apart when I poked it with my spoon. Each ingredient seemed to stand on its own, its individual flavors ringing very clear.
Once again, I was humbly reminded about how one doesn’t need the flair of luxurious ingredients like foie or uni to make a statement. I was amazed at how something so simple could be so satisfying. One bowl of soup wasn’t enough for me– I was tempted to ask for more but knew there was more awesomeness to come.
At this point, I ordered another bottle of sake. I don’t remember the name, but they should’ve just renamed this one Macallan! It tasted almost like whiskey: animalistic, rich, and musky. Imagine Seven Grand -whiskey, cigars, and all- got liquefied and bottled. Needless to say, it went very quick.
Next came a piece of miso marinated cod served alongside a small salad. The fish was sweet and buttery, with the tart salad providing nice foil to the unctuousness of the cod. I found the dots of miso paste were superfluous (probably decorative), and my attempt at dabbing the fish there ruined the delicate meat. While not bad, this was a dish one could find in many places (hi Nobu), and Chef Kiyokawa’s interpretation of this was nothing to write home about.
The penultimate savory dish was a seafood ball, made from what I think were scallops, fish, and tofu sitting in a thick almost gooey mushroom soup of sorts. The ball was lightly fried with a crisp exterior giving way to a soft and fluffy interior. I wasn’t a fan of the soup, and along with the mediocre miso cod dish above, was starting to fear this meal was moving downhill. At this point, I could’ve used more of that glorious dashi broth! The service was also starting to lag, as I think I was waiting over 20 minutes for my next dish.
I was contemplating ordering more sake to ease the long wait when our last dish arrived: Chef Satoshi’s sushi plate. Thankfully, it was a return to the excellence I experienced earlier in the night. Clockwise from top left: toro, hamachi (yellowtail), salmon, uni, and hotate (scallop). Nearly all the pieces had a unique twist to it: Kiyokawa’s toro was finely separated then reconstituted, ensuring no veins remained; the hamachi was noteworthy, with marinated wasabi sitting pretty on top; salmon was accompanied by a smear of yuzu kosho (a spicy citrusy paste); uni was sprinkled with truffle salt. The hotate was a knockout– soft like silk and drizzled with what I think was a sweet soy sauce.
I was impressed at the quality of sushi here. While certainly not the best I’ve ever had, it was near the top, with his uni, salmon, and scallops being the best of the bunch. More importantly, I was amazed at how well his imaginative twists were implemented. Just like the marinated uni from earlier in the meal, I was skeptical they would add any value to the already fresh seafood. Instead I was proven wrong. Here you’ll find the musky kick of truffle salt pairs beautifully with creamy uni just as that dark sauce unobtrusively brings the scallops’ sweetness to fore.
Lastly, I was served a bowl of black sesame ice cream. I love black sesame desserts when going out to Chinese restaurants, and I thoroughly enjoyed this. Heavy and dense, I’m pretty sure Chef Kiyokawa doesn’t make this in-house, but the flavor was spot-on, with no hints of artificial sweetness leaking through.
Fully satiated, I sat back in my chair and looked around. Chef Satoshi was blow-torching some sushi, Aburi-style. I took a picture. An old Japanese woman to my right was eating what seems to be ochazuke (green tea, dashi, and rice) topped with seared foie gras. It looked incredible, and the smile in her eyes verified that.