Japanese pop

Special to The Times

IT'S after midnight on a Saturday night at the izakaya Honda Ya, a Japanese pub in Tustin. When the door swings open, a roar of laughter and conversation blasts out to the waiting crowd. Inside, the room pulses with electric energy.

Diners sit elbow to elbow at heavy wooden tables in front of the open kitchen or the smoky yakitori bar in the back, drinking sake or draft Kirin and sharing plate after plate of sakana, the Japanese tapas always served with drinks. From Honda's nearly 100-item menu, diners are ordering plump fried oysters, plates of grilled salmon collar, spicy tuna rolls and garlic leaves stir-fried with bacon. The dishes will often be shared throughout the evening along with a few rounds of sake.

Izakaya (ee-zah-KAH-yah) in Japan have come a long way from their origins as street-food stalls or carts, common through Japanese history, where customers would stop to drink and snack. They're often described as pubs or taverns -- but those terms barely hint at the amazing panoply of highly creative dishes most serve today.

Drinking and nibbling, often until very late at night, through a wide-ranging menu -- which may include innovative takes on sashimi, smoky charcoal-grilled fish or Lilliputian servings of such Japanese tapas as braised Berkshire pork with potatoes -- is the essence of the izakaya experience.

And these days the izakaya experience in and around Los Angeles is growing more varied by the day.

In contrast with the rough-hewn wood and country-style feel of Honda Ya, at ultra-trendy Beaux in Torrance, the set-designy room is done in edgy chain-link fence decor with an Italianate bar. There always seems to be a rush of customers around 10 p.m. ordering up Japanese-influenced Mediterranean snacks such as beef carpaccio salad or a steamy dish of Japanese-style spaghetti vongole spiked with shiso, green onion and garlic.

At Ikko, an izakaya in Costa Mesa with a kitchen headed by chef Ikko Kobayashi, the mood is more sedate and the cuisine, though still small plates, is kappo ryori, called kappo in conversation, a more refined and imaginative variation on the pub-food tradition. Each temptation that comes to the table is a delicious step in another direction: In quick succession you might try house-smoked giant clam with fresh wasabi, organic three-radish salad and yellowtail carpaccio with jalapeno ginger sauce.

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Tapping into a trend

THIS is the sort of food that blew away David Myers, chef at the West Hollywood restaurant Sona, when he visited Japan in July. So impressed is Myers with kappo's creative potential, he's teaming with sushi chef Kazunori Nozawa to open an izakaya called Sokyo in West Hollywood next year.

Sokyo will be just the latest of more than a dozen new izakaya and their fancier, chef-driven siblings, kappo restaurants, that have opened in Southern California within the last year or so -- and more are on the way. An outpost of the six-branch Suttokodokkoi chain in Japan is slated to open near West Hollywood in the spring, and an opulent multilevel izakaya, Gonpachi, opens early next year in the former Ed Debevic's space on La Cienega.

Izakaya aren't exactly new here -- the first in L.A. opened in the 1970s. But since tapas and small plates have taken off so dramatically, Angelenos of all backgrounds are suddenly hungry for this Japanese version -- in fact, the dishes are referred to as tapas in some of the recently opened izakaya. It's beginning to feel like a real phenomenon.

Because many of the owners and customers at the new spots are young and recent immigrants, they're taking cues from the ever-changing pub trends in Japan. That might mean fusion or Japanese-influenced European cuisine or edgy decor.

Today in L.A. as in Japan, izakaya can be as edgy as Geisha House in Hollywood, with its sexy, swanky lounge interior, or as homey as Azuma Izakaya's Gardena dining room fitted out with Formica-type tables and stacked sake drums. They can be chic boites suited for intimate conversation, like Izakaya Yuzu in West Hollywood; rooms with fashion-statement decor that attract a scene, such as Geisha House; or late-night yakitori and robata places offering ippinmono (little dishes) and long lists of sake and shochu, like the charming Izakaya Haru Ulala in Little Tokyo. Some sushi spots are also izakaya.

But whether it's a stylish high-end lounge or a place that replicates the funky taverns of old, the hallmark of izakaya or kappo restaurants is usually the communal table or a dining bar from which you can watch the chef working in an open kitchen.

In the past, izakaya were strictly after-work watering holes frequented primarily by salarymen who would loosen their ties, escape the day's tensions with a couple of sakes and a few tidbits from the charcoal grill, then pour out their sorrows to friends.

But here, and even in Japan now, izakaya are equal-opportunity restaurants, catering to women, couples and in some instances even families.

Sake may once have been the only drink in izakaya, but nowadays most places also serve an assortment of beer and shochu (the Asian-style vodka brewed from various grains or sweet potatoes), as well as shochu cocktails. Some places have wine lists too.

Certain neighborhoods -- the South Bay, parts of West Los Angeles, Little Tokyo and areas of Orange County, near Japanese businesses and multinational corporations -- have always had the highest concentration of izakaya.

Now, in addition to new izakaya in those neighborhoods, there are examples in other neighborhoods: There's a branch of Musha in Santa Monica, and in the Hollywood and West Hollywood area, long established Ita-Cho has been joined by Sake House Miro, and more recently Izakaya Yuzu and Geisha House.

In the Torrance-Gardena area, a bastion of Japanese corporations, you'll find not only the stylish Beaux, but an array of izakaya, from funky to fancy, some so intent on attracting diners new to the scene that they write an explanation of izakaya-style dining on their menus: "a good way to get acquainted with Japanese food," Teppan Kazamidori's menu tells us.

One of the newest entries in Torrance, Yuzu, is always packed with local Japanese businesspeople. The daily choice sashimi can be brilliant; it's served with freshly grated wasabi. Specialist cooks, each concentrating on a different technique, prepare an adventurous list of washoku, which means "harmony of food," but today refers to a revived appreciation for traditional Japanese flavors and seasonal ingredients such as crossbred wild-domestic duck and lean lamb with wasabi salt.

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Distinctive choices

AT Musha in Torrance, the theme is a playful take on the raucous debauchery of old-time taverns. Musha's "Tokyo Cuisine" blends izakaya tradition with the global perspective of hip Japanese youth. Octopus omelet with rice noodles comes cut into wedges like a Spanish tortilla. Delicate Vietnamese spring rolls or duck breast cooked at the table over a tiny brazier make perfect sake partners.

A few miles south at Kan Izakaya Yuzen, an airy open kitchen and sleek lines give the modern dining room a quiet dignity. There's whimsy in dishes such as ground chicken with a light miso glaze in lettuce wraps. And Kan's flown-in-from-Japan sashimi, always exquisitely fresh, is a perfect foil for any of its aromatic sake selections.

Orange County is home to a collection of fine traditional kappo restaurants. Food is the star at an izakaya serving kappo cuisine; ambience will usually be plain. Some kappo chefs produce highly individualistic dishes, always offered, as at more casual izakaya, with a long list of regionally produced sake, a variety of shochu, beer and, nowadays, often many wine choices.

Gaijin, or non-Japanese people, may be offered a dinner menu that lists teriyaki salmon and tempura -- as I was at Osaka Kappo in Tustin. Hold out for the kappo menu, watch what others are eating and ask for suggestions. You'll be rewarded with such meticulously wrought creations as chef Itsuki's tenkoro soba, an arrangement of light green, al dente noodles topped with a cloud-like fluff of tempura shrimp.

Kappo Suzumaru in Tustin makes selecting much easier with colored photographs illustrating its kappo. Here too it's best to ignore the touristy dinners in favor of more adventurous kappo dishes. Steamed seafood soup served in an iron teapot or the slightly chewy tofu sheets, yuba, with shiitake mushroom sauce will conjure up a Japanese garden teahouse.

Sitting at the communal table at Kappo Honda in Fountain Valley, you can browse a lengthy list of premium sakes by the glass and try octopus sashimi in sweet miso sauce or creamy-centered Japanese pumpkin croquettes from the well-translated 100-plus items on the list.

At all these places, one of the younger bilingual servers can help explain the specials on any of the ancillary lists written in Japanese.

Back in downtown L.A., a blossoming artist's district along with many new condos and several recently opened or refurbished izakaya, are infusing new life into Little Tokyo.

On 2nd Street, Izakaya Haru Ulala caters to a good-looking downtown loft crowd. Neighborhood fashionistas lounge for hours (until 3 a.m. on weekends) nibbling, schmoozing, browsing the many menus (a board and at least two different written ones) and ordering up rounds of grilled seafood, oysters, minced shrimp-stuffed shiitake mushrooms, soba salad and drinks.

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Tradition tweaked

THE latest retro pubs in West L.A. -- SaSaYa, which opened in May, and WakaSan, opened in January -- mimic old-fashioned Japanese izakaya with decor evoking rural sake breweries, birthplaces of izakaya.

At WakaSan, a $25 prix fixe, daily-changing 10-course omakase, or tasting menu of home-style dishes, is the only offering. Diners reserve a table and then spend most of the evening pouring one another's drinks in the time-honored manner as they slowly work their way through salads, grills, steamed and fried items.

SaSaYa has wonderful seasonal offerings such as, currently, a warming yosanabe or Japanese-style bouillabaisse, as well as tapas like dried stingray fin with seven-spiced-chile-pepper-spiked mayonnaise or steamed green onions in sweet miso sauce. The welcoming staff loves to advise on sake varieties and offer flights to the curious.

Zip Fusion, a chic new place on Olympic, is an izakaya with typically innovative L.A. style. Owner Jason Ha says that watching the TV show "Cheers" to learn English inspired him to create an ambience "where everybody knows your name."

Zip's sakana, such as baked baby calamari stuffed with spicy tuna, arrive in portions designed to encourage sharing. And the top-selling "alba-cado," a gorgeous appetizer that layers seared tuna and avocado, is constructed as a pull-apart sphere.

Zip fulfills the intent of any good izakaya: to cultivate a relaxing setting that encourages warm communication.

"Izakaya food is conversation food," says one devotee. A note on the menu at Costa Mesa's Oki Doki expresses the ethos this way: "We are designed not merely for dining, but for enjoying the company of others."

It's an idea that's turning a once-hidden subculture into the dining trend of the day.

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