Monday, March 23, 2009

Crispy Rice Tower & Nigiri at Gonpachi

GONPACHI of Beverly Hills

It was one of those days.

After hours of fighting traffic and a failed attempt to get into a sold-out food festival (for which I discovered I could not buy tickets at the door), it was time, I realized, to search for a Plan B. Thankfully, that’s not hard to do in L.A.—although it may get confusing, with such a vast array of dining options.

I consulted my newly purchased Black Book of things to do and places to eat in the big city, and after calling various sushi restaurants listed in the guide, I felt more befuddled than ever. Adding to the frustration, many of the places I contacted were closed (it was Sunday) while a few others were not open until 5 or 5:30 (it was 3 in the afternoon).

I was starving.

But rather than compromise by selecting substandard casual fare, I chose to wait till the grander establishments threw open their doors. Simply put, I just had to eat well to make up for the road congestion and the rejection by the promoters of the epicurean feast back there. And okay, so maybe I also went shopping for a couple of hours and purchased a few items I didn’t really need to make up for the aforementioned snafus.

Contemplating Spanish tapas at The Bazaar inside the SLS Hotel (I recently read a rave review about their food), I cruised down La Cienega Boulevard. And then, like the ambivalent Aquarian it was my birthright to be, I changed my mind.

The austere gray building which read "Gonpachi" in contrarily small letters called out to me; I had seen it and heard about it before, but it remained one of the places on this restaurant row I had not yet experienced. Across the street sat my past experiences, like tally marks lined up in a row: The Stinking Rose, Matsuhisa, Nobu, Yabu….

Finding the perfect parking spot at the curb right in front of the formidable sushi-fortress, I eased my car into the slot (valet parking costs $5.50). Tapas will just have to wait.

Entrance to the restaurant is granted after you wind your way down a stone path through the large Japanese garden, complete with koi pond and soothing waterfalls, which is reminiscent of the majestic landscaping maintained by Yamashiro Restaurant in the Hollywood Hills. The interior is overwhelmingly spacious, with separate large dining areas and tatami rooms. Even the sushi bar, which is remarkably small considering the enormity of the edifice it sits in, is only accessible by a major trek down a long walkway.

The Nigiri Sushi menu is a bit confusing, as it lists the prices for a single piece as opposed to the standard two-piece order, but the selections are interesting (most sushi bars don’t offer shiitake mushroom sushi), and the king crab is as sweet as it is fressssh.

I also had to request a specials menu, since I just knew there was more to this Japanese palace than what the plainer Nigiri menu offered.

Sure enough, the other menu featured a Crispy Rice Tower for $14, for which I had immediate interest. Tuna and albacore tartare, it said, with avocado, garlic chips and garlic ponzu sauce. Sounded delectable enough for me.

The dish turned out delectable, indeed—and more importantly, for this blog, it was photogenic. Ingredients which had not been listed on the menu (but which I found delightful) were fried onions and shredded seaweed, both of which added the final touch, the perfect flair.

Orange, incorporated

Off-the-Menu, Off the Charts

One of the chefs even presented one of his own off-the-menu creations—an apotheosis of the California Roll, wearing masago and dressed with the unusual toppings of orange pieces and serrano chili slices, then brushed with an orange-based secret-ingredient sauce. It was like imbibing the fresh sea, albeit fruity-spicy. I did tell him he should add it to the menu.

It turned out to be a good day, after all.

Gonpachi is located at 134 N La Cienega Blvd. in Beverly Hills, and can be reached at (310) 659-8887.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

The Spicy Tuna Bowl at Bento-Ya


Sometimes, you just want fast food.

No, not fast food—not the mass-marketed, artery-clogging, greasy meat-and-bread culprit for obesity that most people would call food, but fast sushi. For there will be days when you find yourself driving around town wearing sweats and just not feeling in the mood to partake of the formalities of a fine dining establishment (let’s face it, restaurants can be a pain: gratuity-hungry waitstaff, gawking sushi chefs, canoodling couples and other annoying revelers).

Of course, many wouldn’t believe there is such a thing as fast sushi, but it does indeed exist.

Enter Bento-Ya and Sushi Boy, two of my favorite casual sushi-to-go joints. The latter is actually a chain with locations all over Southern California, from West Covina to Torrance, and has been known to supply boxed sushi sets to the Japanese mart “Famima!!”—which proves its integrity and consistency.

Bento-Ya, located on First Avenue in Arcadia, looks like a drive-up burger joint from the 50’s. And perhaps the unfortunate emission of hip-hop music from its speakers doesn’t match its architectural style, but this little rinky-dink diner serves up the finest spicy tuna you could ever hope to enjoy.

The roll is just okay, as the flavor of the mashed tuna somehow gets concealed by its thick layering of rice and offset by the refreshing coolness of cucumber pieces, but the spicy tuna bowl just rocks. Sitting on a bed of shredded nori, with the perfectly seasoned rice well beneath all the dominant flavors, the spicy tuna is satisfyingly abundant and surprisingly sweet. A delightful blend with the savory sushi rice.

I always ask for extra avocado, and nix the wasabi-ginger duet—although useless little packages of soy sauce still find their way into the big stapled brown bag. The extra avocado adds $.50 to your $9.95 raw-fish rice-bowl.

It is obvious that Japanese mayonnaise, green onions and chili sauce are mixed into the tuna concoction—but I had to ask in order to get them to reveal sesame oil as another key ingredient.

Non-sushi items such as the chicken teriyaki or beef bowls can also be found on the menu, along with sides such as “Mix Fry” for $7—an appetizer combo that includes one each of shrimp tempura, vegetable croquette, spring roll and aji fry (a triangular piece of battered Spanish mackerel with the tail sticking out of it). But their sushi rolls are limited: besides spicy or regular tuna, only the California or Cucumber Roll are offered. I must say this is a place I would hardly frequent, were it not for the Spicy Tuna Bowl—the one item they make incredibly well.

SUSHI BOY: one of many in the Southland

Oh, Boy!

Sushi Boy may offer a myriad of maki, from Teriyaki Chicken to Rainbow rolls—but their spicy tuna isn’t so sweet. In fact, compared to Bento-Ya it hardly holds up, but their mulitple locations provide in-your-face convenience, and the rice isn’t bad either. The menus will vary, however, depending on the location—which is a good and bad thing, as we may want the surprise of new items but long for continuity.

For example, the Torrance location is the only one that I’ve seen serve spicy shrimp hand rolls. And the limited-time-only item known as the Shrimp Crunch Roll (featuring panko- as opposed to tempura-battered shrimp) disappeared after a couple of months from the West Covina branch inside the Markuai Supermarket, and as yet has not resurfaced.

But the best feature of Sushi Boy has to be the half-orders (or shall we say, half-rolls) that are sold for less. Four pieces of the California roll, for example, can be purchased for $2.55, as opposed to $4.30 for the entire roll of eight pieces. Most of them are available for half-orders, thereby allowing more sampling of various rolls.

The Sushi Boy in Gardena can be found amid other eateries in the food court of an extra-large Mitsuwa Japanese supermarket, making it almost impossible not to stop by on your way out after a grocery-shopping trip. It’s nothing fancy, this fast sushi—you order it, pay for it and pick it up at the counter; but just like fast food, it’s cheap, convenient, and hits the spot.