I recently criticized restaurant writers for the Los Angeles Times for mainly reviewing obscure, hole-in-the-wall eateries and ignoring the many wonderful main-stream restaurants opening in our fair city. I now have egg-on-my-face since their brilliant critic Jonathan Gold on Saturday wrote a rave review of the restaurant I am also praising herein. I had been waiting for my final reviewing meal there Tuesday evening before filing this on Huffington, although I did indicate in my recent "Jaywalking in L.A" post that an immediate visit was called for to Hinoki & the Bird (10 W. Century Drive, Century City, (310) 552-1200).
The new restaurant is in the bottom of the magnificent Century tower off Avenue of the Stars, said to be the priciest condo tower west of the Mississippi. (It's famous for being the future home of Candy Spelling, who has purchased the penthouse apartment for $35 million and is preparing it for her occupancy. My friend, Chef Nobu Matsuhisa, also has acquired an apartment in this building.) Enter the private driveway off Avenue of the Stars just south of the Century Plaza Hotel and take the right fork down to the restaurant's valet stand, where the attendants will show you the entrance to the restaurant. You will admire the buzzing scene from atop and then descend to the main room. In reviewing restaurants for 50+ years, I have often been asked if I would like to own a restaurant, and I disparage the thought saying I hate the idea of dining in the same place every night (except, perhaps, for a small authentic Chinese eatery, since I could eat that food every day... but I already almost have that in Hop Woo, my secret place on Olympic and Sepulveda)... but if I ever left my lovely abode in Beverly Hills, I would certainly enjoy living here so I could dine every night at Hinoki & the Bird.
I take pride in the fact that I wrote the first local review of David Myers' cooking a decade ago when he took over the kitchen at L'Ermitage Hotel. I said then that "It's as good as it gets," and went back in six months for a follow-up review. (Incidentally, the new chef at Livello Restaurant in L'Ermitage Hotel, Ben Dayag, is of the same supreme caliber, and I predict he will be a star in short order.)
David Myers went on to open the extraordinary Sona on LaCienega in 2002, which reigned supreme until construction around it caused its closure. He opened the popular Melrose Avenue brasserie, Comme Ca, and a unique pizza place, Ortica, in the exciting South Coast Plaza in 2009. In late 2010 Myers opened his second location of Comme Ca at the Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas. We have often discussed his fascination with Japanese-Asian cooking, and he even has a small chain of cafes in Japanese department stores. But Hinoki & the Bird may be the culmination of his long-time dream to open a sophisticated, casually elegant restaurant serving food which he (and I) could eat every night.
"I had this dream, and the people at Related who were building this amazing Century Tower building made it true, but it was when I began working with the young Japanese woman chef, Kuniko Yagi, that I knew we could pull it off successfully," he told me Tuesday.
Executive Chef Kuniko Yagi was a contender on the 10th season of the Top Chef Seattle cooking show and has been cooking in David's kitchens for several years. She came to California from Tokyo in 2003 and began working in Nobu's noodle shop, Ubon, where she met a regular, David, who was so impressed by her zeal and enthusiasm for food that he offered her a job in Sona's kitchen in 2004 when she was 26.
"She began working in prep and then worked her way up the ladder until she became sous chef there; in 2007 I named her chef de cuisine," David told me. When Sona closed in mid-May of 2010, she traveled back to Japan to stage in several top kitchens there for additional experience. A stint in New York, then a trip to Paris and Milan before her return here to work as David's executive chef at Comme Ca, where they collaborated on the planning for Hinoki & the Bird.
"We had a list of about 500 dishes to winnow down to the few on the final menu. Soon we will be offering daily specials," he added, with lunch coming in a month. Kuniko told me that yesterday, she looked up from the kitchen and saw Nobu-san inspecting the restaurant. "I was shaking," she laughed.
I asked where the restaurant's name came from and David explained that hinoki is a fragrant cypress tree used in Japan for the tops of sushi bars and in bathtubs. The black cod dish in the restaurant benefits from the burning of thin sheets of this wood. The décor by Milo Garcia/MAI Studio is a departure from what we usually see in new places here, with its indoor dining room of wood, steel, glass... and the far end leading to an enclosed patio which is peaceful and my preference for quieter dining. The open kitchen with its charcoal burning grill is always intriguing. (Binchotan is the special charcoal from Japan used here, with its intense heat and little smoke.) The remarkable 14-drink cocktail menu was crafted by New Yorker Sam Ross, who came here to create the Comme Ca cocktail menu before fashioning the truly unique drinks menu here. The Bird Cup ($14, muddled citrus, cucumber, mint and ginger) is his take on a Pimm's Cup (my choice) and I love the various versions of Negronis. An amazing wine list with boutique wines from all over the world at a wide range of prices; no Laetitia or Justin yet, my two domestic favorites, but I am working on that.
There is so much to sample on the menu that I still remain astonished by my desire for it all. Beef Tartare ($15) with pickled jalapenos and parmigiano is an Asian version of this favorite, with its blending of a quail egg, the cheese, the pepper, with toasted bread on the side. The "Fun Bites" portion of the menu has several sure winners... think of the Salt & Pepper Marinated Calamari ($13) with tomato jam... or Crispy Marinated Chicken ($14), with a lemon aioli, perhaps the best chicken morsels on the planet. Scallops ($16), Marinated Tuna ($16), Oyster from the raw bar ($18), all are enticing choices. I have a passion for Fried Oysters ($12), here served with a black garlic aioli, perhaps the best I have ever had. Among my favorites... no question, the Singapore-inspired Chile Crab Toast ($15). The women at the table last evening preferred the Pumpkin Toast ($12), with miso jam and goat cheese.
I remember David once telling me of his Japanese concept: kappo... emphasize and capture the moment when an ingredient is at its freshest, purist state. The menu section entitled "Inspiration" features that dish I mentioned with the paper-thin hinoki-burned wood... a Hinoki-scented Black Cod ($26), the flaky meltingly soft fish covered with a thin sheet of smoldering wood to give it a smoky essence, served with a sweet potato and pistachio. Oh my, such a fabulous flavor and taste, quickly becoming one of my favorites. On Tuesday evening, dining with Rob Minkoff, the Academy-Award winning director of The Lion King and his beautiful wife, Crystal (a new mother and a passionate consumer of all Asian food), as well as my lovely ex, we all sampled the signature Lobster Roll ($19), the chunks of lobster mixed with lemon grass, green curry and Thai basil, then set into a charcoal-colored roll. (The deep color coming from charcoal powder.) No one in New England ever saw a version of their dish this unusual and delicious. Pork Belly ($28), of course, but different than any other in town... think caramel-braised Kurobuta pork, with radish and mustard greens. Mussels ($19) are immersed in a spicy coconut-curry broth with bits of chorizo sausages and raw cauliflower shaved on top.
My love of duck is well-known to my readers and to David, so to try that was a 'must.' Drunken Duck Breast ($24) came with persimmons to cut the richness of the meat. Frankly, it was the one dish I have had at this restaurant which did not enchant me... both Crystal and I commented on the fact that it was too well-done for our rare tastes. Friends at the next table had the Grilled Maine Lobster ($38) and offered me a taste. I prefer my lobster steamed or boiled, and thought the accompanying sauce was a bit too spicy... but the whole crustacean, split in half and grilled, is still a somewhat awesome dish. Much more to my taste is the Wagyu Strip Loin ($42), a hefty chunk of great beef which would do credit to any steakhouse in the world. My ex raved about the next dish, a brilliant version of a fish not often seen hereabouts... a Sambal Skate Wing ($23), the bone-in skate being a flat fish which should not be overcooked, here done in exemplary fashion with a touch of heat from the sambal spice. It didn't need the very pungent fish sauce at its side.
Yes, it's true... my favorite meat is still lamb, as David remembered from our meals together at Sona... so one night he insisted I sample the delicious Braised Lamb ($24), served with tiny roasted potatoes. Ms. Minkoff spotted the Kale Salad ($12) on the menu and wanted to try it, and I am glad she did. Such an interesting preparation for a salad -- the veggie of the month, kale, prepared three ways... braised, fried and raw... drizzled with a rich vinaigrette and nubbins of cheese. Side dishes here are not an afterthought... they are an integral part of any meal. Grilled Winter Mushrooms ($12) with sea salt and lime juice... chilled Haricot Vert ($9), the beans topped with sesame seeds... and my favorite, Braised Shiitakes ($11). A Roasted Yam ($9) has chili and pepper, and the Organic Grilled Rice (white or brown, $5) is a special rice variety of pure sweetness. Knowing David and his background in fine pastry (he actually has opened bakeries), I was not surprised to find that the desserts prepared by Ramon Perez are not an afterthought but an integral part of any meal. My friends all love the Mochi rice cream, while I have enjoyed the Miso Ice Cream ($4) with butterscotch and the Black Sesame Ice Cream ($4). My favorite, though, was the Matcha Donuts ($9).
One of Myers components for success is service. From the moment you walk in, you know that all here want to cater to your every need without becoming... what is the word?... obsequious. "The diner should never have to ask for anything," he once told me. An impossible dream, but he seems to have accomplished it. "We have assembled a youthful, passionate, well-trained staff." I asked our terrific wait person, Daniel, if David had taken his staff surfing, which he is prone to do, "Not yet," he replied. (The young man had been a butcher in Tucson before arriving here and becoming a skilled waiter.) The manager, Patrick Hotchkiss, has eyes in the back of his head to observe every table, not just mine. The wait staff knows the details of every dish on the menu. Love good service! Tip well for it.
My readers know that I judge a restaurant like the three sides of a triangle... food, ambiance and service, hopefully in equal measures. And how rare it is to find an eatery which measures up to these standards. Yet we have such a treasure in Hinoki & the Bird sitting at the base of this luxurious gated tower, which will probably be closest that any of us every gets to visit it. By now, as word has gotten out, many of the cities' top food people have checked in and called me with glowing reports, of which this shall be another. A remarkable restaurant meal is a living, breathing thing... live theatre every night. There is a beginning, middle and end... with codas and crescendos, and ultimately the impression the diner takes home. Once in a great while, if we experience a transcendental dining experience, so much the better. We all have a better-than-even chance of it happening here, so be thankful to David Myers and Kuniko Yagi for small tasty pleasures to enrich our lives. And if you see Candy Spelling at the next table, be sure to smile and tell her how much you loved her late husband Aarons's TV shows.
Hinoki & the Bird is only open for dinner now, with lunch coming shortly... hours are Tuesday to Saturday 5:30 to 10:00 p.m. There is a full bar.
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