Is there a restaurant more of 2017 than Kato? Could such a thing exist? Because from the moment you find your way to the tiny place, hidden at the back of a mini-mall, it feels as if you have wandered into a living Instagram photo, where the walls are pale, the food is bright and the people in the background all look as if they have been accepted to UCLA Law. Jonathan Yao, the San Gabriel Valley-raised young chef, seems to have stumbled into Kato after short stages at Alma and Coi, but GQ still named it one of the best new restaurants of the year.
The restaurant has a mandatory tasting menu. You are never far from sesame seeds or fresh herbs. The occasional dish may be inflected with butter or cream, but you will probably never detect it. Some chefs would call this style of cooking "modern kaiseki," but Yao tends not to cleave to any sort of classical form. The restaurant is named for the Green Hornet sidekick played by Bruce Lee in the '60s TV series, although I was kind of hoping that it was named for the Los Angeles viola virtuoso Roland Kato.
Are there tiny blossoms on everything? Pretty much. Do Yao's sauces tend to lean a little too often toward flavored mayonnaise? Perhaps. Do his dishes veer between French and various Asian flavors in a way that seems more like '80s fusion at places like Chaya Brasserie than they do to the abstracted modernist cuisine at places like Manresa and Coi? Indeed, but in a way that seems very much of the time.
So when soft-shell crabs were in season, Yao fried them crisp as tempura, tucked them into lettuce leaves like Korean ssam, and buried them in leaves of fresh Vietnamese herbs. The army-green smear of roasted chile sauce on the side tasted a lot like Northern Thai nam prik. The white blossoms sprinkled over the top smelled like cilantro. You picked up the bundle and ate it like a taco. You probably took a picture of it first.
You probably took a picture of the dramatically splayed octopus tentacle too, one week cooked with soy, oil and rice wine in the manner of Taiwanese three-cup chicken, the next curled around a sauce made with fermented black beans. A composed salad of cucumber, cubed hamachi and an inky charred-scallion oil tends to make it onto most of the menus (and Instagram feeds).
Duck breast was roasted in the French manner and served with a sauce that turned out to be made with puréed kelp instead of the demiglace you might have expected. Two weeks later, the duck appeared shredded and simmered in sweet soy sauce as a pre-dinner snack — a server explained that it was a traditional Taiwanese birthday dish, prepared in that manner to celebrate Kato's first birthday. Roasted quail stuffed with sticky rice? Another celebratory dish.
Sea urchin may appear atop a summery round of fried shrimp toast or buried in a kind of shepherd's pie that includes potato chips and cured egg yolk underneath its mashed potato crust.
On the current menu, there are cold noodles in a clear broth — I first thought I was eating Yao's version of the Korean cold-noodle dish dong chimi guk su, in a broth made with sweet, tangy radish-pickling brine, until I was told there was tomato water and the Japanese-style fish stock dashi involved, and I figured out that the radish notes probably came from the floating marigold petals.
Kato isn't cheap, but at the end of the night the cost of the $55 (or even $80) tasting menu will probably end up being about what you would have spent on dinner and drinks at a small-plates dive or gastropub.
Kato isn't licensed to serve alcohol, but the various house-made cold teas and bubbly things have enough acidity to carry you through a meal. (The strawberry soda is pretty close to what you can make with a bit of Harry's Berries juice and a slug of club soda; very refreshing.) The cooking isn't necessarily dietetic (fried-chicken sandwiches and pork belly rice, once available as supplements to the tasting menu, seem to have disappeared) but the dishes are clean, direct, small and tend to focus on vegetables and seafood.
Even after multiple dessert courses, which tend to involve things like buttermilk flan with tart hibiscus granite; fluffy, cold swirls of guava with lime; or green-tea custard dusted with citrusy, white osmanthus blossoms, you leave feeling as energized as you might after a sushi meal.
A tasting menu-only restaurant in a Sawtelle mini-mall.
11925 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles, (424) 535-3041, katorestaurant.com.
Tasting menus $55 and $80.
Dinner Tues.-Sat., 5:30 to 10 p.m. Credit cards accepted. No alcohol. Lot parking.
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