This is amusing and absolutely true. My Huffington readers may recall that I recently wrote an article about the venerable Lawry's Prime Rib Restaurant offering a new entrée - ribeye steak - after twenty+ years of no changes to their menu. Then I had dinner with the Executive Chef of the Lawry's chain, Ryan Wilson, a fourth generation member of the family which owns the restaurant. He had spent the previous year-and-half perfecting the new steak entrees for this menu. His lovely new wife Nikki sat beside me at the dinner, and in the course of the meal they asked me if I had ever heard of the mysterious Japanese steak house in town. "We have been trying to find a way to get in, but no luck," they said. I laughed and told them their luck had just changed for the better. They were getting in.
Nicole and Ryan Wilson at dinner.Yes, photos are encouraged.
I've been to a great many exclusive restaurants in my long life. Some, like Patrick Terrail's original Ma Maison, boasted an unlisted phone number which everyone-in-the-know seemed to have. Some have been hard reservations to garner because of limited seating capacity and great demand, like The French Laundry. Others, so expensive they exclude all but the very wealthy, like Urasawa on Rodeo Drive. But there is one which had also eluded me for several years... until some years ago. Rumored about by every obsessive food-lover, it's always described as 'that secret Japanese steak house on Pico.' I first heard about it from a chef at Matsuhisa, who told me that Nobu had his daughter's birthday dinner there. When I asked more about it, he curiously clammed up... only saying that "no one can go unless the chef knows you or you are recommended by a customer." I wrote about the Pico eatery in the Jaywalking column of my newsletter, asking for help getting in from my readers, to no avail. Whenever I called their number, (310) 838-9881, a Japanese voice message was the only response, and no one ever called back. I had a Japanese-speaking friend call and she finally reached someone, who politely explained that you could only come if a current customer referred you. Finally my friends Ivy and Leo Chu made me an offer I couldn't resist: "You can come with us next week, but no writing about it! The chef doesn't want any publicity, or to have the public clamoring for entry." Agreed. After that first visit, I befriended the chef... and became one of the select few who have entry.
The fist course is an amuse bouche of small appetizers.
In recent months, however, the cat was out of the bag and stories abounded on the Internet about the dining experience here. It even has its own Yelp page. Last week TV Chef Anthony Bourdain dined here with Chef Ludo, as was reported in the press, and raved about the experience. And writer David Hochman broke the ban with an extensive article entitled The Zen Master of Beef in a recent Los Angeles Magazine in which he even interviewed the chef. So the chef has now indicated that perhaps I could write "just a few words" about it.
The waitress wields her chopsticks on the grill.
The beef tartare is unusual and delicious.
But a few words would not do justice to this extraordinary experience...I'm not sure any amount of words can do it justice. Just remember that this story is for your reading pleasure only....using my name will not get you in, and will probably get me banned. What's the attraction? Why so desirable? Certainly it's not the atmosphere, which frankly is surreally non-existent. It's a deceiving storefront at 10610 Pico Boulevard, across from a McDonald's, with the name Teriyaki House above the grate, the word 'deli' on the awning with an incorrect phone number. It looks closed and gated, although there is an "A" health rating in the window...but if you knock on the door and mention the name of your host, the charming Japanese woman (Shizumi, wife of the chef) opens the door, holds the curtain aside, and you enter... to a narrow, dingy interior with empty wine bottles (many of famed reserve vintages) lining the shelves, with several tables of various sizes divided by Japanese tatami screens to give an illusion of privacy. Not fancy at all. Nondescript. The kitchen runs along the right side of the room, open, but a high barrier prevents you from looking in. I have seen both Caucasian and Asiatic diners here, some suspiciously familiar entertainment types. I don't believe that they have a wine-and-beer license, so you bring your own, no corkage. I always bring a bottle of champagne, a very good Red, a six pack of Japanese beer, all of which goes well with the food. (And a glass of great wine sent to the chef is always gratefully accepted.)
Beef tongue on the grill One of my favorite courses.
Oh, that food. Did I explain that the real name of this restaurant is TOTORAKU, and that it is Yakiniku cuisine? No menu, of course. No help except the wife, a waitress, and the 29-year old son, Kinichi, of 55-year-old chef/owner Kaz Oyama, a golfing and wine enthusiast. Hochman tells the story of how Kaz had been a sushi chef in a Sawtelle restaurant when a lawyer/diner conned him into a scheme to open his own restaurant, only to abscond with his money. Then, in the winter of 1999, Kaz was driving along Pico when he saw an old man put a 'for lease' sign up on a storefront taco place. Oyama pooled resources with a few friends and signed the lease, put up a bright yellow sign with palm trees that said Teriyaki House Pico, and opened up. "Very quickly we realized there were no customers for teriyaki. We closed in a month." Kaz reinvented everything but the décor. He decided to pay homage to the secret restaurants his parents took him to as a child in Japan... no signs, no reservations, entry just by invitation, very special food. Now Toto-raku, as he renamed it, serves a kaiseki or multiple course meal of beef, a third of it raw, the rest cooked yakiniku style, a Korean way of grilling meat at the table that is popular in Japan. A reservation at Kaz's restaurant, Totoraku (the word means 'lucky dad' in archaic Japanese) is the toughest one to get in the city. There is no set menu, and the basic price is $140. a person, though it can quickly add up with extras. This difficulty is certainly part of its attraction. No website, Twitter, Facebook, Open Table. No email, no walk-ins. ("Sorry, we are full tonight," even if the place is empty.) Actually, the place is full almost every night. The only way to get in is to call the private number on the card which Kaz gives to favored customers and their select friends... and to get a card at the end of your meal from the smiling, black-haired energetic Kaz is the ultimate sign of acceptance. (However a few select readers may join me as my personal guest at a dinner in late August I am hosting for my brother, who has just relocated to L.A. from France. Details at the end of this story.) Last night Kaz and I talked about cars... Kaz bought his dream car three years ago... a Nissan GT-R sports car. He's a happy camper.
Marinated boneless short ribs before they are grilled.
There is no more fun experience than taking friends here, so Thursday evening I brought Ryan and Nikki there for dinner... and here is the story of that experience. Once our group was settled in, the attractive waitress brought out a platter of what I can only describe as amuse bouche: cantaloupe with prosciutto,a small cup of jellyfish with cucumber, grilled abalone, octopus, caprese antipasto - a piece of Japanese tomato and cube of buffalo mozzarella; a shrimp with a dollop of caviar; and a Japanese vegetable gelatin. My advice to my friends - knowing what was coming, go easy on these, although they are delicious. Actually, she'll then whisk the platter away and replace it with a plate of beef 'carpaccio' flecked with special salt ... along with a big bowl of incredibly tasty Japanese Momotaro tomatoes (from a small Japanese farm in Orange county) in a light vinaigrette (Nikki said they tasted like an intense ketchup), along with a bowl of ruffage: cucumbers, celery, cabbage and carrot slices... so much for vegetables. The chef's wife then places in front of us a square ceramic Japanese hibachi topped with a metal grill and filled with glowing coals of hardwood charcoal imported from Japan. Then the beef extravaganza begins. First a plate of raw sliced filet, cut into narrow slices about an inch in thickness. Not particularly marbled. The chef at the table, Ryan, placed them all atop the grill and we wielded our chopsticks to assure the proper degree of doneness. (I like everything rare). We had dishes of soy sauce, lemon juice and ponzu sauce in front of each place. Before we could catch our breath, the next platter of raw beef emerged... something unique, a plate of beef which could be eaten raw (doubtful) or grilled... it was (and she made a sweeping gesture) from the throat of the cow. Springy, and I tasted it raw to get the full flavor, better grilled. Then two different styles of boneless short rib, one plain and one marinated. This meat was extremely marbled, lines of white running through the thin slices. They cooked fast and tasted rich. Steak tartare followed, in the Korean-style, with raw quail's egg, cucumber, daikon radish and pine nuts. Delicious, and unlike any tartare you have ever experienced.Then a completely different texture of sliced beef...what the waitress described as 'inside of ribeye,' a new taste. Next was the 'outside of ribeye,' a different texture and flavor, dressed with what seemed to be a subtle sauce... enhancing the beef without disguising it. The flavors of each cut were distinct and come out through the level of marbling and, indeed, the way it is cut. My favorite was next, beef tongue, slices of light pink meat of which I ate some raw and then grilled. Salt, scallions, a side of lemon juice for dipping. (On a previous occasion I had liver, but unlike any liver I have ever eaten. Crimson slices sitting in a thick, salty sesame oil sauce topped with green onions, so good that I was not too abashed to eat a slice raw and loved it, somewhat like a raw oyster, slippery, chewy.) Smoke slowly rose and hung over the table, redolent of the odor of seared beef. Just when it seemed that I couldn't handle another slice of beef, the waitress brought out skirt steak, and we were off...Nikki grilling it for a few seconds (the charcoal was now really hot). Less fatty than the short rib, a wonderful and intriguing taste of deep, earthy beef. It seems that the chef deliberately alternated the cuts between 'fatty' and 'lean' ones. But we were not done with this meal, not by a long shot. There is a soup to finish the dinner...and out came a bowl of broth. This was the famous Korean rice soup, and they asked if we liked spicy (we all did). Bamboo, bean sprouts, egg, shiitake, spinach..a perfect palate-cleanser to wash the beef coursing through our veins. Incidentally, no one knows where Kaz sources his exquisite beef, although I do know it is not Kobe beef from Japan, which is too marbled.
Chef Kaz came out of the kitchen to greet my guests.
The chef's wife then took our ice cream orders: I had white chocolate and espresso ice cream and lychee ice, a refreshing conclusion to a truly astonishing dinner. Cost? The basic meal starts at $140. a person, but can quickly escalate if more courses are ordered, and, if you go for the King crab seafood soup instead of the regular egg drop version it is extra. Worth it? Are you kidding? I only wish I could arrange for all of my friends to experience it. But it wouldn't travel, could not be replicated, and is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. (A few readers can join me at a dinner here in late-August for my brother Stan if they purchase a full-page ad in the September issue of my Jay Weston's Restaurant Newsletter - at very reasonable cost. Just call Jay at 310-278-2900 for details.)
Kaz bidding us goodbye at the end of the dinner.
When the smiling chef, Kaz Oyama, came out to much applause, he shyly handed Ryan his card, which contains a private number and allows him to personally call Kaz for a reservation. I'm only glad that I breached the curtain on Pico and have the memory of sharing this wonderful beef extravaganza with my friends.