1929 Westwood Blvd.,
West LA, 90025
Omakase only for $35 per person
I'm not entirely sure why the sign says Japanese charcoal cuisine. Out of the twelve courses, only one dish may have been grilled. Still, the podium outside announced that they only serve omakase prix-fixe style dinner with multiple izakaya dishes. The explosive popularity of izakayas may be following the small plates trend paved by Spanish tapas. I like to think that izakayas are no so popular simply because they serve good food in a manner conducive to shared company. Who doesn't like to have drinks with a good group of friends and share all types of delicious food?
As far as I know, izakayas are not generally served omakase. I think that having a set menu limits some of the fun of the izakaya experience. Choice and spontaneity make up a large part of the fun. It is nice though, to be served things I wouldn't usually order by myself. But given the choice, I wouldn't have ordered such an expensive meal either. Walking into Wakasan, I realized quickly that my friend Ed and I were the only non-Japanese patrons--usually a good sign. While I was pleasantly satisfied with the dishes I received, I was disappointed to see another table get an order of live shrimp that I never got. The waiter explained that it was an extra item that I'd have to pay more for, but I never saw any sort of menu to order from anyway. I wonder if not being Japanese had something to do with it. I've had omakase at sushi restaurants before and noticed that I receive better food when I'm with my Japanese girlfriend. While it makes sense that the chef will serve you based on your preferences, I don't like to be judged just because of race. I can eat with the best of them, but they may never give me a shot if I'm not Japanese. Perhaps next time in an omakase context, I will need to show them my familiarity with the cuisine and hope for the best.
These three dishes came out first. The bottom one on the right is some sort of seaweed salad which didn't appeal to me. It tastes bland and wet, not much more than that. I forgot what the center dish was, but the texture had a chewy consistency, probably some sort of pressed tofu product. The left bowl is pickled daikon and carrot and octopus salad. Vietnamese fans will probably recognize the pickles, an item I will explore in more detail in an upcoming blog entry. Of the three, I liked this one the most. The sweet and sour pickles paired well with the octopus. From my experience at Sasaya, I think that marinated octopus is truly delightful on top of a salad. Just a little rice vinegar, sugar and wasabi can go a long way.
The grilled salmon came with a wedge of lemon that I eagerly drizzled over the fish. Picking up a piece with my chopsticks, I expected an intense citrus flavor followed by the familiar taste of salmon, but instead the overwhelming flavor was sake. I'm not sure what they did with the fish, whether a marinade or a quick glaze, but it was delicious and different. The sashimi plate consisted of three small cuts of tuna, another white fish I couldn't identify, and squid wrapped in shiso. As taken from my Sawtelle Kitchen post, "Shiso is the herb perilla most commonly known by its Japanese name." The flavor is that of a less obtrusive mint. It actually paired nicely with the oil of the raw squid, and in these little pieces, the chewiness of the squid is not overwhelming.
Ah the crab course. The delicately sweet meat of the snow crab is prepared simply as it should be. The flavor of the crab can speak for itself. While I definitely enjoyed this, the simplicity did not really impress me.
The dumplings served in a light broth was my favorite item of the night. They come with two quail eggs which are always a joy to eat. Quail eggs have a much more elastic texture than chicken eggs and the flavors are more complex in my opinion, but it was the dumpling that captured my attention. Though they look like wet gyoza or Chinese dumplings, the dumpling skin was thin more like a wonton. The filling, presumably pork, was seasoned to perfection and generously filled the wrapper. The soup also was flavorful, but light.
The chicken karaage, small pieces of deep fried dark meat, was also very well done. As a fan of fried chicken, I liked the juicy interior and the crisp exterior. Eaten with a dollop of what I assume is Japanese Kewpie mayonnaise and a squeeze of lemon, the chicken gave weight to an otherwise ethereal meal. Still, it was good to limit the chicken to three pieces. Any more, and it would have been too heavy.
Although it looks like a richly opaque soup, this is actually an egg custard. The texture was that of silken tofu. While I didn't care much for the custard, when I reached the bottom, I found surprises of fish cake, shiitake mushrooms, ginko, shrimp and chicken. Those little prizes made me feel like a kid opening up a cereal box and finding the prize or an archaeologist finding little treasures.
The inari sushi came with a bowl of what I assume are shirataki noodles. The inari is a sweet tofu pouch of rice, my favorite as a kid. I still enjoy them as a snack. The noodles, from what I learned on Wikipedia are apparently very low in calories and carbohydrates. While I don't know anything about that, I know it was a light way to fill up the rest of the way. At this point, I was quite full, not so much because of the quantity of food, but because the spacing gave me time to feel it. Each dish came out probably between 5-10 minutes of each other.
My last course of the night was a green ice cream that I didn't photograph because it didn't look especially different than all the other green tea ice creams I've come across before. However, after tasting it, I wish I had taken a photo. The flavor was more complex than green tea. There may have been a green tea base, but the flavor was fruitier than just tea.
After those twelve courses, I felt full and satisfied. I was glad for the diversity of dishes. There wasn't any dish I particularly hated, but I would feel sorry for the picky eater who can't enjoy the food here. When putting your trust in the chef, as omakase roughly means in Japanese, you have to be open to a wide variety. Knowing that I was getting an omakase meal, I knew it would be expensive; but now that I know Wakasan only serves omakase, I wouldn't be inclined to go back anytime soon. It is more of a special occasion restaurant.
If I am not mistaken, that black stuff in the center dish of the first photo is hijiki, which is a sea-vegetable, but not seaweed.
a closer photo of hijiki courtesy of wikipedia
Also, I believe the egg custard dishes are called "chawan-mushi."
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