Monthly Archives: September 2011

The Secret Japanese Beef Restaurant

Totoraku is LA’s most exclusive restaurant. It is so exclusive that you can’t even get in unless the owner/chef, Kaz Oyama, knows you and has given you permission to make a reservation or you are the dinner guest of someone with such permission. But the appeal of Totoraku is not just its exclusivity. Totoraku is one of LA’s best and most unique dining experiences and if you love red meat, you may very well find your dinner there to be one of the best and most memorable meals of your life.

There is no “Totoraku” sign on the restaurant; it’s located in what appears from the outside to be a closed inexpensive teriyaki house in a strip of non-descript stores on Pico Boulevard. The door is usually kept locked and if they do not know you because you are someone’s guest, you will need to identify yourself and your party before you will be permitted to enter. After entering, the door is locked behind you and you are shown to your table. The inside of the restaurant is not fancy. It’s a small space and there are only six tables, which are all separated by screens so that your dining experience will be private and intimate. Kaz’s super-nice wife Shizumi is usually your server. There’s no menu; it’s omakase and all courses are served family-style. It’s BYOB and most people bring expensive bottles of wine and share them with affable Kaz, who is a major wine connoisseur and will come out of the kitchen periodically to greet his guests. The dinner costs around $180 per person (including tip) and is worth every penny.

The meal starts out with a giant plate of appetizers for the table to share. The appetizers are exotic and spectacular. Highlights include Black Sesame Tofu with Gold Leaf, Monkfish Liver with Jellyfish, and Cantaloupe with Prosciutto. The appetizers are followed by an amazing Beef Carpaccio. After that, you are presented with a duo of charred Beef Ribeye Tataki and Beef Throat Sashimi, both of which are very delicious. Next is a stellar Beef Tartar, complete with a Quail Egg. And then the second act begins, the Yakiniku (Japanese grilled meats)! A small rectangular charcoal grill is brought to your table and as the evening progresses, you are presented with platter after platter of the tenderest and highest quality meats for you to grill at your table. Filet Mignon, Outside Ribeye, Inside Ribeye, Tongue, Short Rib and Skirt Steak; all are excellent as are the marinades and dipping sauces prepared by master chef Kaz. You are also brought a really awesome Momotaro tomato salad and a bowl of large lettuce leaves, cabbage and strips of carrots, cucumbers and radishes so that you can make wraps with some of the meat. Everything has been prepared to perfection, right down to charcoal in your grill which is a special variety from Malaysia. The perfect meal ends with the perfect dessert, your choice of homemade ice cream (white chocolate/raspberry, espresso or pistachio) or sorbet (blueberry or lychee).

I highly recommend Totoraku…if you can get in.

A deceptive facade.  Don't bother calling the phone number.

A deceptive facade. Don’t bother calling the phone number.

A variety of exotic appetizers

A variety of exotic appetizers

Amazing Beef Carpaccio

Amazing Beef Carpaccio

Duo of Beef Ribeye Tataki and Throat

Duo of Beef Ribeye Tataki and Throat

Beef Tartar

Beef Tartar

Marinated beef and vegetables for grilling

Marinated beef and vegetables for grilling

Momotaro tomato salad

Momotaro tomato salad

Skirt steak on the charcoal grill

Skirt steak on the charcoal grill

Homemade Ice Cream!

Homemade Ice Cream!

Totoraku Teriyaki House Pico on Urbanspoon


Filed under West LA


If I want to treat myself to something special on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon, I drive over to Tacos Baja Ensenada, an East LA taco stand which serves the best fish tacos I have ever eaten. These are Baja-style tacos; fresh fish coated in the most delicious batter, deep fried to a golden crisp and then served on top of two warm corn tortillas with crispy shredded cabbage, pico de gallo, salsa and fresh crema. They are out of this world! Equally good are the shrimp tacos, which are the same as the fish ones, but made with battered and fried plump, succulent shrimp. If you’re looking for some citrus or extra spice, a condiment bar provides you with unlimited limes, grilled peppers and radishes.

Although I go mainly for the fish and shrimp tacos, Tacos Baja Ensenada (or “TBE” to its friends) has other excellent offerings that you will want to try including yummy fresh ceviche and shrimp tostadas and amazing fresh seafood cocktails. I also love their horchata (sweet rice drink). The prices for such heavenly dishes are incredibly low. A combo with two tacos, beans, rice and a soda will cost you only $5.00. If you come on a Wednesday, tacos are only 99 cents. Not surprisingly, TBE is a very popular joint and there is always a line. But don’t worry, Amigo, it moves very fast and in no time you will be enjoying hot, crunchy, salty awesomeness.

Tacos Baja Ensenada is located at 5385 Whittier Blvd in Los Angeles (East LA). They have two additional locations; one in Whittier and one in Glendora.

Tostada Ceviche de Pescado

Tostada de Camaron Entero

Cocktail Camaron (Shrimp Cocktail)

Limes, Grilled Peppers, Radishes and Horchata

Always a line!

Worth the trip to East LA

Tacos Baja Ensenada on Urbanspoon
Tacos Baja Ensenada on Urbanspoon
Tacos Baja on Urbanspoon
Tacos Baja on Urbanspoon


Filed under East LA, Glendora, Whittier

Healthy Donuts: An Oxymoron?

Not surprisingly, it’s hard to lose weight when you write a food blog, especially if you have a sweet tooth like I do. So when Waylynn Lucas, the former pastry chef of The Bazaar and Patina, announced earlier this year that she was planning to open a bakery serving only healthier, non-fried, lower-sugar versions of donuts, she immediately had my attention. Fonuts (pronounced “Faux-nuts”) finally opened a few weeks ago to long lines of LA foodies (myself included), curious as to whether a fonut was the latest food trend to hit upscale urban neighborhoods or simply another phony LA model/actress-type rocking a beautiful exterior, but ultimately lacking in substance.

The interior of Fonuts is modern and sparse. There are no tables and chairs, just a small counter with a few stools and a bench out front. Besides the fonuts, they serve coffee drinks made with gourmet Lamill Coffee. Fonuts currently come in 13 varieties, 4 of which are wheat/gluten-free and 2 of which are also vegan. They are not cheap and range in price from $2.75 to $3.75 per fonut. While a dozen assorted donuts will usually run you less than $5, a dozen assorted fonuts will cost you around $40, making you evaluate how much you really like those office co-workers you’re buying them for.

So are fonuts as good as donuts? No; not even close. Essentially, fonuts are low fat cakes, many of which are similar to the low fat cakes that Starbucks sometimes offers, but in the shape of donuts. I tried 6 of the 13 varieties and was generally not impressed (my daughter even less so). The only fonut which I really loved was the savory Chorizo Cheddar. It was similar to a cheese bagel, but with a more cake-like consistentcy, and was really delicious. I thought most of the other fonuts were just OK including the Maple Bacon, which had crispy pieces of bacon on top of its maple glaze, and the PB&J stuffed fonut, which they should have called the “Goober Fonut” because the Peanut Butter & Jelly was unfortunately mixed together. My least favorites were the Strawberry Buttermilk, which was too mushy, and the Chocolate Hazelnut, which I thought was absolutely terrible. I do admire the concept though; selling low-fat cakes in the shape of donuts in a donut shop-type bakery could potentially be quite a brilliant marketing strategy.

Fonuts is located at 8104 West 3rd Street in Los Angeles.

Chorizo Cheddar

Peanut Butter & Jelly

Chocolate Hazelnut


Maple Bacon

It's located on hip West 3rd Street

Fonuts on Urbanspoon


Filed under Mid-City, West Hollywood

Gjelina is Gjust Great

Abbot Kinney in Venice is one of my favorite streets in Los Angeles. It has unique and funky shops and several great restaurants and it’s the perfect place to spend a few blissful hours on a Saturday afternoon. My favorite restaurant on Abbot Kinney is Gjelina, which, despite the lack of signage outside, is no secret to many Angelenos. Gjelina is one of the coolest, hippest restaurants in LA. The decor is vintage industrial chic with rustic wood tables and exposed “Edison Bulbs” dangling from weathered metal bars. It’s loud and fun and filled with an eclectic mix of fedora and Retrospecs-wearing hipsters, eccentric Venice characters and some of the best looking people in LA.

But while the food disappoints at many of the other trendy hotspots in LA, the sophisticated rustic cuisine at Gjelina is incredible. A pizza (or two) is a must-have. My favorites are the Pizza with Lamb Sausage, Confit Tomato, Rapini, Pecorino & Asiago and the Pizza with Squash Blossoms, Cherry Tomatoes, Zucchini, Burrata & Parmesan. The pizzas have a thin, crispy crust and are among the best in the City. Gjelina also has really excellent vegetable dishes. I love the Wood Roasted Cauliflower with Garlic, Chili & Vinegar, the Charred Brussel Sprouts with Dates, Bacon and Vinegar, and the Wood Roasted Sunchokes with Salsa Verde. I also recommend ordering the delicious Roasted Half Jidori Chicken with Pea Tendrils, Cippolini Onions, Nantes Carrots & Riesling. Save room for dessert, because Gjelina has one of my all-time favorite desserts, Butterscotch Pot de Crème with Salted Caramel and Crème Fraiche a.k.a. one of the best cups of butterscotch pudding you will ever have.

But one word of warning about Gjelina (and the reason why I rarely take my wife there): per their menu, changes and modifications to dishes are “politely declined.” They are very serious about this policy and make no exceptions. Earlier this summer, Victoria Beckham and dining companion Gordon Ramsay got their knickers in a knot when Gjelina declined pregnant Posh’s request that her Smoked Trout Salad be served plain, without the accompanying grapefruit, avocado, red onion & lemon, and with the dressing on the side. Gjelina refused and Ramsay went ballistic and ranted to the press. I guess we won’t have to compete with these two anymore for Gjelina dinner reservations, which can be difficult to get.

Gelina is located at 1429 Abbot Kinney Blvd. in Venice. Gjelina Take Away, where you can get breakfast and lunch dishes to go, recently opened next door.

Charred Brussel Sprouts with Dates, Bacon and Vinegar

Roasted Half Jidori Chicken with Pea Tendrils, Cippolini Onions, Nantes Carrots & Riesling

Butterscotch Pot de Crème with Salted Caramel & Crème Fraiche

I love the vibe here!

Gjelina on Urbanspoon


Filed under Venice

Domo Arigato Mr. Robata

Robata Jinya is one of my new favorite restaurants and my favorite robata bar in Los Angeles. A robata bar specializes in skewers of meat and vegetables which are cooked on a charcoal grill, often after marinating in a special sauce. It’s a style of cooking that originated in rustic farmhouses around the city of Sendai in Northern Japan. The skewers at Robata Jinya are small and most are only two or three dollars so you can try lots of different things. My favorites are the Tsukune (perfectly seasoned chicken meatballs), the Prime Beef and Garlic (made with a yummy Japanese soy garlic sauce), and the Chasu Pork (soy-braised pork belly which is glazed to perfection). All three are pictured above. I also love the grilled eggplant, which is beautifully plated and sprinkled with bonito flakes. The robata here is not only delicious, most of it (pork belly aside) is ideal if you’re watching your weight, avoiding heavy carbs and trying to “eat clean” and exercise portion control.

But Robata Jinya is much more than just robata. They have an extensive menu of sushi, as well as awesome appetizers such as the Shrimp Toast (delicious bite size sandwiches arranged like a game of Jenga) and really great gyoza (pork dumplings). They also have incredible ramen, which is not that surprising since their sister restaurant, Ramen Jinya in Studio City, is one of the best ramen places in LA. But the one non-robata dish which is a must-have is the Homemade Organic Tofu, which is made instantly right in front of you. The waitress will pour warm soy milk from a pitcher into a bowl. After about five minutes, the liquid forms into a custard-like soft tofu. You are given bonito flakes, grated ginger and ponzu sauce to add on top. It is incredibly delicious! And of course fun. I could seriously eat here everyday.

Robata Jinya is located at 8050 West 3rd Street, Los Angeles (in Mid-City near West Hollywood).

Shrimp Toast Jenga anyone?

Tofu is made at your table!

Homemade Tofu: the final result

Eggplant with bonito flakes

Caramel Nut Ice and Green Tea Mochi Ice Cream

I love the decor.

Robata Jinya on Urbanspoon


Filed under Mid-City, West Hollywood