Where you are: Tsubaki, a cozy izakaya on the eastern edge of Echo Park, in the spot formerly occupied by Kush Sake Bar. Tsubaki is a higher-end izakaya, a tiny, upscale tavern offering Japanese staples such as chawanmushi and sukiyaki. Everything on the menu is meant to be shared and eaten with plenty of alcohol.
Who’s cooking: Tsubaki is a collaboration between chef Charles Namba and sommelier Courtney Kaplan. Namba grew up in Los Angeles with Japanese parents, and after working at Bouchon in Beverly Hills as well as New York restaurants Chanterelle, Macao Trading Company and EN Japanese Brasserie — where he met Kaplan, who has worked at Bestia — he’s back home exercising his talents on the dishes of his childhood.
What you should eat: It’s hard to go wrong here — there’s an $8 dish of yaki-kyabetsu, or grilled cabbage, for example, that is exactly what it sounds like. The firm leaves are cooked on a binchotan charcoal grill and flavored with miso butter. That grill is also responsible for the supple, smoky tako, or octopus, served with shishito peppers, scallions and Kewpie aioli.
Namba offers some dishes you might not find in a traditional izakaya, and he puts his own spin on some of the classics. The sake-marinated foie gras is sinfully creamy, layered with salmon roe and pickled white peach, with dots of aged soy and Yamazaki milk bread on the side. The chawanmushi is a Japanese restaurant standard, but Namba’s has a smoky depth and savory richness. The steamed egg custard is studded with lobster, shiitake, baby corn and myoga. The kara-age pairs Japanese buttermilk fried chicken with a side of cubed, pickled daikon, taking a page from the Korean food playbook. The “fish and chips” tempura evokes the pub spirit with delicate ling cod and an irresistible heap of daikon fries.
If creative “chef takes” on dishes aren’t your thing, you have your choice of expertly executed izakaya classics. A skewer of tsukune comes heavy with four chicken meatballs, brushed with sweet soy tare and a shichimi-dusted poached egg for dipping. The buta shoga-yaki is a lovely bowl of tender ginger pork belly with a snowy heap of dressed cabbage that threatens to steal the show. Sukiyaki is a worthy centerpiece for any izakaya meal, and Tsubaki’s is great, with a layer of thinly shaved New York steak simmering in a skillet with forest mushrooms, chrysanthemum leaves and a soft, yielding egg.
What you’re drinking: No full liquor license, but you’ll hardly miss vodka when there’s so much sake on the menu. Kaplan has gone all out creating a sake program built around jizake, or local craft sake, and honkaku shochu, the traditional Japanese distilled spirit. If you don’t know sake and shochu, don’t worry — the servers are trained to help you. There’s also a short, French-focused wine list and a small selection of beers, which includes Hitachino Nest brews on draft.
Uh-oh: The place is tiny. It’s so tiny that walk-ins are generally difficult, and even a reservation might come with a warning that you have to clear out within two hours. Thankfully, Tsubaki is planning to expand in the near future, which should nearly double its capacity.
How to end on a sweet note: Don’t skip the hoji-cha soft cream, a roasted green tea soft serve that’s light on the sugar and melts on the tongue. It’s even better in parfait form with corn flakes and bouncy cubes of coffee jelly.
Info: 1356 Allison Ave., Echo Park, (213) 900-4900, tsubakila.com.