Maybe it was the way the evening began as one of those Murphy’s Law types where everything that can go wrong will go wrong that initially lent an odd taste in my mouth concerning Hinoki and The Bird. I had driven in high level traffic to the Cute Gardener’s house on a Saturday afternoon ready for an exquisite dinner with one of our favorite Top Chefs Kuniko Yagi from her newly opened kitchen when I realized I had forgotten my dress. With less than an hour to drive fifteen miles to a bandage-level store specializing in irregular designer clothing, pick out a dress, get back and change for a “dressy” evening out that didn’t allow for any of the usual accoutrement enjoyed prior to a nice, weekly dinner with my partner, my feathers were a little ruffled.
From the outside, the highly touted new restaurant by David Myers looked freshly elegant, with a valet awaiting your arrival while disguising its silk road-inspired cuisine inside. The place is on the bottom of a very high end condo tower for the Century City rich accessed through a gated entrance. But the moment we entered and surveyed the sunken dining room I realized I could have been dressed in jeans or hardly anything at all if the attire of the wait staff and hostesses were any inclination.
What could have been a fun and nicely, sensual nod to the Japanese geisha vis a vis Hollywood through the bevy of tall and leggy hostesses that were in overabundance to cater to your beck and call seemed more like a borrowing of Lisa Vanderpump girls from Sur in their oversized “boyfriend button downs,” long bed-ruffled hair and little else. Although I realize it is to be expected in Los Angeles, I was slightly confused about what vibe the place was trying to express which seemed at odds from the wonderful and inspiring things I had read and was expecting. The natural wood was there, the large windows letting in hints of an outside garden as well, and the atmosphere of boisterousness abounded through loud chatty guests and a constant come and go but the Japanese metaphor was lost in the entertainment industry hub setting.
I decided to slough off my irritation and wardrobe mishaps and settle down to enjoy what I had come for – reminding myself of how I had been anticipating the brilliant, delicate and wonderfully creative dishes from Yagi. Her story seemed as much a fairy tale as the restaurant’s name – having been hand plucked from a noodle joint by David Myers and given a once in a lifetime chance- and we had enjoyed her reign at Comme Ca for a while through the fluffiest quiche we’d ever tasted in our life. Now we were itching to see what signature style would emerge from a canvas created just for her. I was lucky enough to be seated in direct view of the bustling kitchen where she ran back and forth, ponytailed and birdlike, efficient and industrious as I would have imagined, not shaken by the loud and consistent calls of the brisk expeditor.
My submission came full circle as the dishes started to arrive. A tiny ceramic bowl of beef tartare was a perfect pile of room temperature flakes of meat topped with a sinfully light dusting of Parmesan cheese, some pickled jalapeno and a teensy quail egg yolk. A gorgeous circle of pink grapefruit flesh alternated with translucent raw snapper and lime leaf that although needed more fish than fruit in the presentation ratio, was certainly a gorgeous first bite. A triad of chili crab toast on small slices of crostini delivered interesting swaths of crab and coriander – an unlikely combination that played well with the spicy cucumber. The black cod entrée was cooked so tenderly well albeit paired oddly with a chunk of overbearing sweet potato and plain pistachios. Short ribs arrived expertly charred and delicious with a mandolin slice of green apple accenting the sear. Even though all of these aforementioned items started a bit jarring in their unusualness, the overall experience became one overpowered in the end by the complements of unique inspiration and novelty by someone seemingly making up the story as they go.
The true redemption of the evening came with the shiitake mushroom dish – a shallow plate of six shiitake caps, compressed into flat pancakes of the most unctuous earthiness. I didn’t have to touch the small daub of yuzu shishito puree because the mushrooms needed nothing to accentuate their true essence brought out marvelously by magical hands.
I also could have eaten just about everything off of the dessert menu as it was written just for me: mochis and rice creams, matcha donuts and ice cream, sour kogi milk concoctions and odd Japanese fruit-inspired sorbets.
I think my experiences in culinary La La Land have been opposite to those that occur when I read a thick and meaty book that leaves me breathless and then am left feeling cold about the movie adaptation. I fall for the celluloid exploits of these chefs on my weekly addiction of high concept cooking shows and then the live scene leaves me wanting more of the fluorescent and scripted bells and whistles that have informed my expectations.