Saturday, November 8, 2008

The Beef Secret's Out: Totoraku

It may not be so secret anymore, but it surely was not my own doing. Once the reviews started appearing on Yelp, among other places, it was just a matter of time before the Teriyaki House on Pico was known by its true identity--Totoraku, the Secret Beef restaurant.

This dinner had been a long planned event. I had heard rumors of Secret Beef since I started blogging months ago. However, it wasn't until I met Ryan that I had my foot in that beefy door. The novelty about Totoraku was simply its exclusivity. You can't walk in without a reservation. I heard they used to go as far as locking their doors during business hours. Moreover, you can only get the elusive reservation by calling the direct line to the chef. He only grants reservations to people he knows, and he'll only know you if you've been there before. The key is to get in through a connection, then impress chef Kaz Oyama with the wine you're sure to bring. On that note, make sure to pour him a glass of your finest.

Well luckily, I know enough of the LA food community now to find a way into Totoraku. Through Ryan and Kevin, we got an early November reservation for twelve carnivorous bloggers and friends. Caroline from Caroline on Crack, Ore from Potential Gold and Fiona from Gourmet Pigs rounded out the bloggers. It was good company, made even better by the copiously flowing bottles of libations. Although I was able to distinguish between the wines, I still wish that I could better appreciate wine. But I'll never get there if I don't practice, and practice last night I did.

The dinner started with a dazzling tray of bite-sized appetizers: melon and prosciutto, lobster salad with jellyfish, asparagus with walnuts, king crab gelatin, Japanese tomatoes, steamed abalone with gold flakes, sockeye salmon, caviar topped quail eggs, and persimmon tofu salad. Considering this was served before most of the wine, I had the clearest impressions of these flavors. As is always the case, I don't think the gold added any flavor to the abalone, but it always does wonders for your self esteem. I had an odd experience with the crab gelatin; imagine little blocks of jello with pieces of crab suspended inside. The cantaloupe and prosciutto stood out as a winning combination. I've been experimenting with savory fruit combinations like apples and cheese, and melon and cured meat were no exception. In fact, Ore brought his smuggled culatello, aged 22 months and full of flavor. There's much tradition and technique involved in the curing of this contraband, but I can't speak on it with much authority. All I can say is that the culatello had an excellent finish, much smoother than the prosciutto served by the Chef Oyama.



The first beef course was a beef sashimi prepared very simply. Ribeye sashimi surrounded a small bowl of special beef throat sashimi. Most notable was the texture of the sashimi, similar to a tartare but with a slight crunch of resistance. Throat sashimi is so rare in fact that a Google search of "beef throat" lists Totoraku several times in the first page of results. See what I mean about it no longer being a secret?

Beef throat and ribeye sashimi

Next came the actual steak tartare, tossed in a Korean/Japanese style. Kevin and I both came to the conclusion that it reminded us of Chinese jellyfish both in texture and flavor. Slightly sweet and incredibly chewy, this was probably as refreshing as beef gets.

Steak tartare

At this point, our table was inundated by raw plates of meat as our yakiniku grill was set up. Beef tongue served with a squeeze of lemon juice and grilled rare was the most memorable item of the night. I've had tongue before, but all too often it is too chewy and thus only good in small quantities. The tongue I had at Totoraku was both luxuriantly fatty and tender. We also had a filet mignon, which was a pass for me. Nice piece of meat, but I never think that filets offer enough flavor for me. We had both the inside and outside ribeye(also known as cap steak. The inside was lackluster in flavor, but the outside could only be described as "genuine beef". It saddens me that there isn't more great cap steak like this or the one at Josie.

Beef tongue

At this point, I was having a hard time keeping track of all the beef dishes and all the wine pairings we matched them with. Whereas the first set of beef plates were simply prepared with some coarsely ground pepper and large crystal sea salt, the last two were marinated. Boneless Korean short ribs and skirt steak rounded off our cow. Though both were delicious, they didn't set themselves apart from any other Korean barbecue. I think that's my issue with much of Korean food, the flavors are very bold, but lack complexity. The only difference between so many Korean restaurants is the quality of the beef--something in which Totoraku excelled.

I had been looking forward to the soup since I read Ryan's entry on his earlier visit. I had expected a hearty big bowl of Alaska king crab with miso and kimchee flavors intermingled. Instead, the soup was so pathetic, I'd rather not write anything more on it. Dessert was a refreshing plate of pistachio, white chocolate raspberry, espresso ice creams, and blueberry and lychee sorbets. The dinner started strong, but died off towards the end. The food just was not hitting on as many levels as I had hoped for the price and the exclusivity. However, my interest in the food had also shifted as more bottles were opened and I enjoyed my friends more and more.

Ultimately, I had a great night, but more because of the people than the beef. Better still, Masi Oka from Heroes was there on a date. It was an interesting experience, but not one I'd like to have again for $180. For the ingredients alone, I didn't see the price needing to be so high. If I'm paying that kind of money, I don't expect hole-in-the-wall style dining. However, I understand that the chef needs to keep his prices that high to maintain his business model. So though it was expensive, I am honored now to be a card carrying member of Secret Beef. Too bad soon it'll just be known as that pricey barbecue on Pico.

Phone number is secret
10610 W Pico Blvd,
Rancho Park, 90064


Food, she thought. said...

*turns green*

Anonymous said...


i just saved me $180!

thanks for the email Aaron!