Oops. Michael Cardenas did it again.
It’s only been two years since he opened the hit restaurant Lazy Ox Canteen, named 2010’s Best New Restaurant by Angeleno Magazine.
Now, enter Cardenas’ latest project, Aburiya Toranoko, which made its debut last Wednesday, right next door to Lazy Ox at San Pedro Street. Apparently, there are at least two more projects on the way.
Cardenas’ plan is clear — turn downtown into a hot, sizzling gastronomical sensation.
Cardenas has found success in all the haute cuisine areas in Los Angeles as head of the Innovative Dining Group, which conceptualized and owns high-scene, celeb-spotting restaurants such as Sushi Roku and BOA Steakhouse.
But he takes a different approach downtown.
Like Lazy Ox, Toranoko is considerably downscaled. Squeezed underneath a Little Tokyo condo complex, Toranoko is compact and inconspicuous, yet evokes an unaffected elegance.
The atmosphere is banquet- hall-meets-izakaya, a Japanese after-work drinking place. The narrow, rectangular dining room squishes an open sushi bar against the back wall, while several tables are pushed together in the middle of the room to form a long strip of canteen-style eating surfaces.
The communal buzz at Toranoko mixed with dim lighting and flickering candles makes one expect to be seated on tatami mats and sip sake next to akachōchin the traditional red lantern of all izakayas.
Yet the brick walls, splattered with brilliant graffiti art by local artist Prime, and the mural behind the sushi bar, boldly painted by local tattoo artist Jiro, lend Toranoko a sublime balance of humble and hip.
The menu is reflective of Toranoko’s creative image. Many dishes could be found on a typical izakaya menu, but are slightly retooled with new ingredients for different modern tastes. Everything is served tapas-style, meant to be shared between sips of Sapporo Beer or sake.
One should expect to see a few unfamiliar Japanese terms on the menu. Thankfully, everyone at Toranoko is eager to help, chef and servers alike.
The chef was also careful to emphasize that the food is “farm to table” style, meaning that all the ingredients are sustainable and appeasing to the growing “locavore” movement.
Nothing is extraneous or substandard in Toranoko’s dishes. Executive chef Hisa Kawabe and kitchen chef Taku Sugawara were both trained at Nobu Matsuhiba, and the same Nobu emphasis on simple ingredients radiating complex tastes can be found in their dishes.
Even a simple eggplant is elevated to caramelized, umami-rich candy by basting in red and white miso.
The humdrum onigiri, a rice ball familiar with school lunch boxes, is baked into a toasty, crusty shell with sticky rice filling.
If you want true izakaya cuisine, make sure to order the okonomiyaki, a fried pork and vegetable pancake that arrives sizzling on a hot plate, speckled with dancing, paper-thin bonito flakes and drizzled with Japanese mayonnaise and a thick, tangy sauce. Even the strips of pickled ginger are spectacular — sour, pungent, yet intriguingly sweet.
Still, not everything at Toranoko earns high marks.
The mountain potato fries were thick sticks that did not quite crisp up, and the plum aioli, though satisfactory, seems to be just regular aioli mixed with Chinese plum sauce.
For a tiny stack of six short potato sticks, it is hardly worth the $8, even if the ingredient quality is superb.
The same can be said for the chawanmushi, a steamed egg custard served in a small ceramic cup. Though the ingredients were fresh and flavorful, the ratio between egg and broth was questionable, resulting in a rather watery pudding.
Dessert, however, was perfect. Though the dessert menu changes daily, get the green tea pudding if available.
Light, creamy and perfectly smooth with the characteristic bittersweet notes of high-quality matcha, the pudding was a delectable finish that will tempt you to order more.
Toranoko does not just seek to send diners off patting their stomachs with glee. It titillates taste buds with edgy and luscious yet rustic food.
It brings strangers together to one table, rubbing shoulders and clinking beer cans. It instills a sense of pride in the local community and a growing excitement that downtown is experiencing a major culinary turnover.