Totoraku – Los Angeles, CA
Some chefs that are so inextricably linked to specific foods that you wonder if they grew up cooking it their entire lives, eventually perfecting it in their professional cooking careers. Who thinks about Judy Rodgers without Roasted Chicken? Tomohiro Sakata’s yakitori’s is peerless. Scott Conant perfected spaghetti, and I’m pretty sure David Chang’s has cooked enough pork belly to feed a small country. These chefs struck something deep inside me and changed the way I saw a particular dish or ingredient– almost like a food epiphany.
When I first ate at Totoraku years ago, the experience was one of those moments. One dinner made me reconsider what I knew about beef. By the end of the meal, I was certain Totoraku was finest example of Japanese barbeque (yakiniku) outside of Japan.
There’s just one hitch though: it’s likely the hardest reservation in Los Angeles. The front door is locked; the phone number listed on the awning is a fake. Totoraku technically isn’t open to the public and one generally does need to be invited by Chef Kaz Oyama to attain reservation privileges or at least know a regular to get in. However, once you step inside, the door is locked behind you (kinda freaked me out the first time), and the magic begins.
Upon entering, the first thing you notice are the rows of empty wine bottles lining the shelves, and various labels stuck all over the restaurant. Look a little closer and you’ll find the bottles and lables to be those of First Growths, cult wines, Super Tuscans, and other rarified wines. Make no mistake: Chef Kaz is a true oenophile. Bring a bottle that Kaz especially likes, and he might just put the label on the wall somewhere.
So leave the Yellow Tail at home and bring a stellar wine– this particular night, we chose a 1991 Vega Sicilia Unico and a 2001 La Turque. The former was breathtaking; it was my first time drinking Vega Sicilia, and I marveled at its seemingly endless, whisper-thin layers of fruit, leather, and oak backed by velvety-soft tannins. The latter, though not as stellar as the Vega (we could have decanted it longer), was an astonishing example of Cote Rotie wine, with globs of dark fruit, stone, and charcoal.
Meals begin at Totoraku with an assortment of (usually 7 to 8 ) bite-sized appetizers. While they change every visit, the quality is always uniformly excellent. Favorites this time around included quail eggs topped with uni and white truffle, ankimo (monkfish liver) encased in a dashi gelee, and asparagus with candied walnuts. All were deceptively simple in preparation and highlighted the quality of Kaz’s ingredients.
We were next brought a succession of five raw beef dishes, which are amongst my favorite beef dishes anywhere in the world. First up was plate of beef tataki along with a small bowl of beef throat sashimi. Lightly seared, the beef tataki was impossibly tender and had an addictive charred flavor that kept me going back for more.The beef throat sashimi, my favorite of the raw dishes, was sublime. The initial springy texture turned very soft after a few chews, and it worked incredibly well with soy sauce, scallion, and a hint of ginger. Maki, our longtime server at Totoraku, once told me it took two cow throats for one portion!
The short rib carpaccio that followed was ridiculous. Topped with some greens and a ponzu-based dressing, the beef was sliced so thin it disintegrated upon contact with my mouth. I was surpised such thin slices of meat packed so much beefy flavor.
Next, we were served some smoked tongue; Oyama-san mentioned he smokes his tongue for over 12 hours, and it showed: the tongue was so soft I could separate it with my chopsticks, and it’s rich, smoky, salty flavor lingered long after the meat was swallowed.
Lastly, Chef Kaz served a beef tartare reminiscent of Korean beef tartare, yuk hwe. A mound of beefy red strands sliced to the same thickness of udon noodles was surrounded by its best friends: cucumber, asian pear, daikon, and pine nuts. Sitting proudly on top of the mountain was a bright yellow raw quail egg. I’m guessing there was also a lashing of sesame oil involved. Mix it all together before consuming and you’ll find Totoraku’s version to be the best beef tartare you’ve ever had in your life. Other times I’ve dined at Totoraku Chef Kaz has served raw liver and kidney; too bad they weren’t available tonight– both were exceptional.
What ensued after the appetizers was a seemingly never-ending parade of meats: beef tongue, filet mignon, outside ribeye, inside ribeye, short rib, and skirt. As most probably don’t want to read an essay about beef, I’ll only elaborate on my favorites but all were excellent and memorable.
Without a doubt my favorite dish at Totoraku is the Beef Tongue. I’m convinced it’s heaven on earth; a carnivore’s wet dream. Yakiniku aficionados I’ve brought here remark Totoraku’s is better than the best beef tongue in Japan. Sprinkled with salt and pepper then lightly grilled on your table top grill, it had a perfectly spongy, yielding texture. One bite and my mouth was slathered in an oily, beefy goodness that almost tricked me into thinking I was eating foie gras. A slight dip into lemon juice deftly cut the oil back, and I was left simultaneously smiling my ass off and feeling sorry for vegetarians around the world.
Another one of my favorite cuts at Totoraku is their Filet Mignon. normally I’m not a fan of the cut as I find it too bland in flavor and not fatty enough, but at Totoraku it is unreal! To give an example of the filet’s softness, I often eat a 2″ by 3″ cube of meat completely raw, as was once recommended by Chef Kaz. There was no difficulty in chewing whatsoever, and the unadulterated flavor of beef shone through. This was served alongside some vegetables which we happily grilled.
The Outside Ribeye here is always a standout. Juicy, voluptuous, and practically laced with fat, it’s how you wish every rib-eye was served. Just look at that marbling! I made sure to chew extra-slowly in hopes the beef would never leave my mouth.
Totoraku’s Short Rib is also a revelation. Eating it makes me feel like I passed away, gone to heaven, and had korean barbeque surrounded by silk-robed angels. Kaz’s short ribs had the perfect balance of fat and meat and were lightly marinated in a slightly sweet sauce. A welcome departure from a lot of Korean barbeque, which I find to be cloyingly sweet. In addition to the above, we were also served some Inside Rib-eye as well as Skirt.
The vegetables Oyama-san serves are also noteworthy: batons of cucumber, carrot, and radish along with an exemplary sweet miso paste. Kaz has mentioned he uses seven (!!!) different kinds of miso to create his paste. Along with the crudites were a bowl of sliced momotaro tomatoes that would make tomato farmers across America weep. Cold and superbly sweet, I’m certain these are the platonic ideal of tomatoes.
Once the meat parade ended, we opted for a bowl of Alaskan King Crab Soup.Collosal pieces of king crab legs were floating in a giant bowl of spicy soup along with fistfuls of udon and vegetables thrown in. Of all the soups I’ve had at Totoraku (I think he serves three different kinds), this is by far the best. The spice is subtle but melds very well with the sweetness of the crab.
The meal ended with an assortment of homemade ice creams and sorbets, which were all excellent. The pistachio, espresso, and lychee are my favorites, and I remember one dining companion I brought here requested for three extra scoops of pistachio ice cream haha!
Totoraku remains one of those rarified places that has changed the way I see a particular food group- in this case, beef. Impressively, the restaurant also remains one of the few places where I am willing to spend over $150 on a meal, not flinch, and feel like I got a helluva deal. Best of all, it’s evident this restaurant is a labor of love. I’m sure the Oyamas don’t make much money only serving dinner to a very select group of customers, but the secrecy is there to keep the atmosphere quiet and intimate as well as to make sure that every diner that walks in is not just a customer but a friend.