Tuesday, June 3, 2008

The Perfect Bite

When I talk to people about restaurants or about food in general, I frequently refer to "perfect bites."

To me, a perfect bite is one that combines all of the flavors on your plate. Protein, vegetable, sauce and, sometimes, garnish. Perfect bites sometimes need to be bigger than what is considered reasonable for public places. It doesn't bother me though.

The flavor, if you're eating someplace that's worth its salt, should be exactly what the Chef had planned. Part of that is the presentation - how things are laid out on the plate. Part is how you attack it; which bites you take and how you choose them. It's a combination of all of the individual flavor profiles that he's put in front of you and I lose my mind when they all line up.

What's your perfect bite?

Haru Ulala - Izakaya

Click Here for a Quick Recap

Haru Ulala, at the east end of Little Tokyo on 2nd street, serves what the Japanese call Izakaya. Prices are moderate (about $30 per person for lots of food and plenty of beer) and the staff is very friendly. It is very authentic, and perhaps because of that, the service staff speak primarily Japanese. It can be tough to get a special request across, but if you make your self clear you've got nothing to worry about. I made a point of telling Shim, the grill cook (and very friendly, smiley man), that I wanted to eat exactly what he would have wanted to eat. He replied with a big smile and delivered unto us an exciting, challenging, strange and all-together delicious experience.

The beauty of Izakaya (to me) is that the food, all small plates consisting of between 2 and 10 bites a piece, works in tandem with your choice alcohol to create an experience that pleases the entire palate. The experience is similar to Tapas, the Spanish style of serving small plates that were originally meant to fit over the top of your glass to protect your booze.

It's interesting to compare bar culture in different parts of the world, and to put Izakaya in the same realm as Tapas is an appropriate designation. Both of these dining experiences are best shared with friends. With that in mind, I visited Haru Ulala with Reino, a friend who, with his wife, moved to Los Angeles a few years before Kat and I. Reino eats most things, but he set out a clear line of demarcation regarding things that he WOULD NOT EAT. That meant no Crispy Squid Lips for Max. (By the way, I believe squid have beaks, not lips. If someone can show me where the lips are, I'd appreciate it.)

Because the flavors of Izakaya - which frequently consists of fried, grilled or pickled dishes - it pares well with sake and beer. Tom and I got a pitcher of Kirin Ichiban Draught (for a very reasonable $12) and found that its light, crisp qualities worked as an excellent palate cleanser and a very refreshing compliment to the food. We did not order sake, but I did spy a bottle of one of my very favorites - Wakatake's Onikoroshi (Demon Slayer). Without tasting it with the food, it's best to leave that out for today. It is safe to say though, that Haru Ulala's sake selection may be limited, but it is also of high quality.

It's going to be easiest for me to list the dishes that we ate in order, because there are no proper "courses," just a sporadic flavor flow. Dishes showed up in the order that they were completed. First there was...

Fried Smelt with Vinegar: I liked this a whole bunch served cold. When we ordered it, I thought it would be hot. My guess is that the "vinegar" was a mix of rice wine vinegar and mirin; definitely zesty, tangy and with a bit of citrus from a lemon wedge, made for a nice round flavor - which did a great job of covering what could have been an overwhelmingly "fishy" experience. The texture was sort of mealy near the belly and nice and chewy and firm along the back, and in the tail and head. I don't think that I would have enjoyed it as much without the thinly sliced white onions that were part of the pickling mixture. They lent a cool, crispy texture with that familiar, sharp flavor which evened out the dish nicely.

Deep Fried Garlic: Top trimmed off, chucked in the fryer, and God-damned delicious. Sharper and firmer than when roasted, the flavor mixed well with just about all of the other dishes. Not much more to say about it. I like garlic, and this stuff was just that.

Shishito Peppers: Mush less greasy than I'm use to - but that's a welcome change. They were crispy and loaded with a flavor that was similar to an extra-piquant bell pepper. The bonito flakes on top added some nice ocean flavor, but I preferred the the peppers *lightly* dipped in soy for a bit more salt.

Beef Tongue: I was expecting to see this on the menu and looking forward to trying it. The flavor was INTENSE beefiness. I can relate it to the flavor of the last 5 steaks that I've eaten, all combined into one instant. I loved it. LOVED IT. We ordered it again, this time medium rare (after re-convincing Shim, that we were eager to eat Izakaya using exactly the same preparation as he would enjoy) and it was a far better rendition than the one that they serve to "American customers." Less chewy and far more succulent, the fat and muscle worked in great harmony and with a very pleasant (and not at all overwhelming) oiliness.

Grilled Shitake Mushrooms: It's easy to underestimate mushrooms. They can be bland and boring, or in some cases their flavor can be completely obfuscated by the rest of a recipe. This was not at all the case at Haru Ulala. The mushroom caps were large, maybe 3.5 inches in diameter. They were prepared simply, spending a few minutes over the coals without any sauce or other preparatory steps. Their texture was similar to raw halibut - chewy, but delicate. The flavor was surprisingly potent. Earthy and sweet, the natural flavor of the mushroom was amplified by the simple yet expert preparation. When you eat these, please focus on breathing out of your nose. There are myriad flavors hidden in mushrooms that only become apparent when sensed through the schnoz.

Squid in Butter with Enoki Mushrooms: Squid is a funny thing. In many ways it is a unique ingredient with a unique flavor. At the same time, it has the tendency to take on the flavors imparted to it by other ingredients. This was the case with this dish. The butter was thick, not unappetizingly so, but the smooth texture and flavor rang out loud and clear. The enoki mushrooms had a pleasant crunch and a light but hearty flavor. The taste of the squid was pleasant, but it's texture was the real high point of the plate. Soft and tender, the squid (when taken as a "perfect bite" with the mushrooms) was very much like a scallop, but with a slightly firmer chew. There was a variant of this dish that came with scallops instead of squid - I'll be sure to try it next time and report back.

Grilled Asparagus: You know what? There isn't much to report here. Grilled to perfection, the asparagus were fresh and flavorful. The sauce they were served with was a Japanese mayonnaise. It was an excellent compliment to the familiar flavor of my favorite green sticks.

Nasu No Miso Dengaku (Eggplant with Miso): This is an excellent example of a mind shattering plate. It's not that the eggplant or miso were truly unique flavors - it's that the way the food played around in my mouth that truly delivered. It can only be compared to a Chery Cordial - the chocolate bonbons filled with a cherry in syrup. A thin Japanese-style eggplant was cooked with a thick glaze of miso and cut down the middle and then into 6 bite-sized pieces, presented (and I think cooked) skin side down. The first bite (taken skin side down) was immediately soft and sweet - like custard - with a crunch in the skin and an intense miso flavor which stopped just short of overwhelming the eggplant. Both flavors were apparent and worked seamlessly together. The second bite was taken skin-up and was less balanced. The miso was the primary flavor, but the texture of the skin of the eggplant provided a great squish and crunch that made my teeth happy.

Braised Black Pork (Pork Belly): Originally, I didn't know what gave this dish it's name and I felt silly for not asking. An anonymous commenter let me know that a specific type of Japanese-bred pig called "Kurobuta," (which is Japanese for Black Pig) gives this dish it's name. Regardless of the dish's name or origin, it is very clear that this belly sat in a good, hot liquid for a long, long time. The meat was sweet and the fat was soft to the point where it's texture was almost that of butter with a slight jelly-like feel. I don't know what made up the broth that this cooked in and it's driving me nuts. My best guess is that it was part citrus - maybe orange juice - part soy sauce, and part magic. The flavors reminded me of a chicken dish that my mother use to make, but with a much more subtle tang. The meat was very soft, easily pulled apart with chopsticks, and had a terrific mouth-feel. I haven't had too much experience with pork belly, so my opinion may not be one based on repetition - but I do know what tastes good (to me).

Short Ribs: Very, very tasty. Similar in flavor to typical (and delicious) carry-out-style Chinese ribs, though far smaller (and in some cases boneless). Great mouth feel thanks in part to a light, yet somehow unctuous glaze. They were almost jerky-like, but not nearly as tough. If I was going to be put to death-by-food, these short ribs would be a nice piece of meat to go out on.

Reino and I ate for $64.00, plus tip. It was worth every penny we paid.

Quick recap:
  • An authentic experience to be sure!
  • Beverages are key, beer is pretty cheap and sake selection is limited, but of high quality
  • Friendly staff, but a language barrier can get in the way.
  • Lots of flavors - wide variety.
  • Texture is king here. Explore and enjoy.

Top Dishes:
  • Pork Belly
  • Short Ribs
  • Nasu No Miso Dengaku (Eggplant w/ Miso)
  • Grilled Shitake Mushroom

Recommendation: Run, do not walk, to Haru Ulala. It's a simple, inexpensive exploration of Japanese-style pub food. Try to challenge yourself with a few strange sounding specials and be surprised by how much you like them! Bring friends so you can try as many dishes as possible and be friendly to the employees, there can be a language barrier here, and nice guys always eat best.