Thursday, December 10, 2009

Birthday Omakase at R23

923 E 2nd Street
Los Angeles, CA 90013
(213) 687-7178

Wednesday was D's birthday, and in true food loving form we decided to have a mid-week night on the town.  Neighborhoods and names were bandied around like gossip about B-list actresses in the offices of TMZ. What do we feel like eating? Do we want to have to drive? How much are we willing to spend on a taxi? Do we feel like eating red meat at place x? Can we even get a reservation at place y?

Ultimately, in a very busy week we decided to stay close to home, and not having eaten at R23 in forevers, we decided to ignore internet rumors that their food is no longer "what it used to be", and try omakase in the ex-railroad loading dock located somewhere beneath the nether regions of Little Tokyo. Truly an odd duck location, our taxi driver refused to drop us off until he could indeed verify there was an open business in their alley.

Informed over the telephone that the restaurant only offers omakase at a table, we played cowboy and asked for it at the sushi bar anyway. Our chef, while not loquacious, was extremely hospitable and attentive.

We tried two sakes from the cold menu. Wakatake first, a mild sake, not sweet and not dry. Very pleasant.

Second, we sipped at Otokoyama. Also characterized as mild, D liked the flavor of this less expensive Junmai sake better than the more refined Junmai Daiginjo. It seemed to have a little more flavor, a touch floral with that slight hint of melon I always swoon for.


The room was still beautiful but the much ballyhoo'd corrugated paper chairs (Frank Gehry or no, they are memorable) are starting to look a little the worse for wear. Still comfy though.


In her 2002 review, Empress S. Irene notes that what earns R23 their two stars are the hot kitchen constructed items on the menu rather than the sushi, which she calls, "good, but not remarkable".  I have eaten some wonderful sushi here in the past, and am in the mood for raw fish so that's the direction we head. But not before being tempted by salmon dumplings, the quality and flavor of which have me wanting to head back to R23 stat for an entire meal of small non-sushi dishes.


Steamed salmon dumplings in soup, they are called on the menu. Succulent silky dumplings around meaty clumps of salmon sitting in a dark clear broth flavored with smoke.  The broth bowled me over. The smokiness was a perfect counterpoint to that standard salmon flavor. Heavenly dish.


Before the omakase games begin, our chef asks us about preferences, allergies, dislikes, etc.  We both have pretty open minds and palates, and I warn him only against raw shrimp. It bugs me. Our sashimi platter arrives first.


The most unusual item on the platter, and my favorite, is a squid roll. A long slice of raw squid wrapped around a tiny bit of cucumber (not enough to dominate the delicate flavor of the raw squid), shiso leaf and nori, topped with tobiko. The wonderful verdant flavor of the shiso pops forward, the nori and tobiko follow, the mouthfeel of the squid being the last to leave the palate.


Not unexpected but delicious nonetheless, snapper rolled into pretty little circles. We are advised against dipping this in soy. It melts in my mouth, I barely have to chew.


Tako.  This has been prepped by brushing a little vinegar and oil across the slices, barely perceptable.  I like how chewy it is on the very outside of the slices, being more stereotypically raw texture toward the middle of each slice. No shoyu.


D has come around to the yellowtail. He used to really dislike my favorite sushi item, hamachi. But last night he enjoyed it very much and now declares it one of his favorites.  This we can dip, and I use the shoyu sparingly.


Spicy goodness. A few posts ago I was complaining that my tako poke at Ono Hawaiian foods on Oahu was not spicy enough despite the fact that I asked for it spicy. This chef could teach those Hawaiian folk a thing or two about spicy. At some point D was unable to eat anymore, I finished every last morsel.  Since eating Ludo Lefebvre's raw scallop appetizer, I have been on a raw scallop tear. The spices here definitely overpowered the flavor of the scallop, although the texture was still beautifully glossy and just short of firm. Some people advise against eating spicy anything in a Japanese restaurant, reasoning that the spices can cover up poor or less than fresh quality fish. However, I saw the chef make this dish from the wonderfully fresh looking scallops right in front of my face in the cold box. Just saying.


First sushi. Albacore with onions and ponzu. No surprises here.  Great tasting, and the portions of rice he uses to support the fish are quite small.  I understand from somewhere (and I cannot seem to find the source this morning) that how much rice a chef uses under the fish is subject to trend, and the use of two fingers worth of rice is quite out of vogue.  The construction here has about the same amount of rice as my pinkie finger, and my hands are small-medium sized for a woman.


The salmon presentation. On the upper right you see seared salmon sushi, not for dipping in shoyu.  It was seared ever so slightly. The entire piece of fish retained the soft droop of raw salmon, rather than the stiffness you see with a cooked piece of salmon. The outside was just barely warmed, it seemed. The flavor was wonderful, salmon with something slightly savory that must have been used prior to searing. The salmon to the left was just classic salmon sushi, please dip in shoyu if you like.


Three tunas. To the front left is a piece of very fresh maguro, and immediately to its right is toro. I rarely order toro, it's usually so pricey and there are always a million other things I want to try when eating sushi. It was so delicious, I understand why it has such a following.


The third tuna he called a "cured" tuna.  Cured using shoyu, sake and vinegar, the texture of this is quite meaty, firmer than even the maguro although sliced more thinly. An unusual preparation, I have never seen it. The chef told us very few sushi restaurants offer this on the menu. If you see it, I highly suggest giving it a shot. It's offered at Sushi Ran in Sausalito, Sushi Sushi in Beverly Hills, and supposedly at Kiriko on Olympic although it is not on their menu.


I cannot remember what this was and I did not write it down. It was not mackerel. It was something I haven't seen, or maybe didn't recognize. At the time, I thought perhaps it is replacing a more common sushi fish that is currently over-fished. Nevermind, it was very nice. On the meaty side texturally, served with a little ponzu.

At this point chef asks us if we are still hungry, if so he can make us an eel roll. An eel roll after all this wonderfulness seemed so anticlimactic. And we were full, so we declined.


The staff sent D out a beautiful birthday mochi plate. Vanilla and coffee mochi of very nice quality. Not the same quality of the mochi I ate in Tokyo, but wonderful nonetheless.


With very top notch service (I cannot remember having had better anywhere), delicious food (being introduced to something new always makes me happy), and the warm inviting environment I have to conclude that R23 is indeed still living up to my expectations.

Happy birthday, D. And here's to another year.
R23 in Los Angeles


e*starLA said...

I love R23, Liz! Glad to hear you & Dan really enjoyed yourselves...haven't been there for awhile but am so happy to hear about your great experience and that it may very well be the same restaurant I remembered. :) Great review.

weezermonkey said...

I love this place so much, and I agree with SIV re the cooked dishes -- innovative and exquisite.

So glad to hear that R23 has still got it!

Marie said...

Breathtaking. What a wonderful birthday dinner for D (and you, too, of course)! :)

It's With A K said...

I was drooling from from the words Wednesday to year. Great sushi can be so light and decadent at the same time. When I think of food orgasms, sushi definitely comes to mind. So does carrot cake.

Happy birthday to D :-)

Diana said...

A perfect birthday dinner!

Ludo's raw scallops floored me too - they were my first encounter with a raw scallop, actually. Anyway, everything looks beautiful -- even the mochi! So glad it was such a lovely evening for you both.

Food, she thought. said...

Marie, I will always happily celebrate someone else's bday! With food!

K, Sometime we must do sushi together!

Diana, Ludo's creation was MY first intro to raw scallops as well. And I still have not stopped thinking about them!!!

Kristine said...

What a beautiful space R23 is. Your photos are awesome. :)

joanh said...

what a great birthday dinner!! it looked delicious! thanks for sharing!

Cara said...

What a great post to live vicariously through! Hotate, hamachi, and any incarnation of tuna are by far my favorite raw seafoods, so this review pretty much made me wet my pregnant pants. Fabulous - and happy birthday to D!

LetMeEatCake Eat With Me! said...

I have yet to try R23 but I really am dying to now! Glad that they are still living up to expectations I have heard so many mixed reviews. That salmon dumpling had me salivating!

Anonymous said...

i believe the unidentified sushi is spanish mackerel

Food, she thought. said...

K, it really is pretty special.

J, TY for sharing with us!

LMEC, try it, you'll like it! (although it's not my favorite in LA).

Anonny, it was not mackerel. I asked & he said no. The weight of the fish was much thicker, heavier than a mackerel.