Monday, September 05, 2005

Kikuchi
French-Japanese Restaurant
Prix-Fixe $40 per person
Definitely a night out restaurant

THE REVIEW
Stealing the show in three acts
It may not be a scene, but Kikuchi, with its understated drama, will wow food lovers with a well-crafted prix fixe trio of courses.
By S. Irene Virbila
Times Staff Writer

August 10, 2005

At night, as cars race north and then screech to a stop behind the line idling up to the entrance of Koi or the Spanish Kitchen, La Cienega north of Melrose is more obstacle course than thoroughfare. Pay attention: Valets will suddenly spurt across, headed for cars they've stashed around the neighborhood in rented lots and alleys. You might as well forget about finding a parking space on the street: It doesn't exist.

But in the midst of all the boulevard's flash and chaos is an improbable find. Tucked in the corner of a strip mall, a tiny restaurant called Kikuchi features graceful French-Japanese cooking and a $40 prix fixe menu.

While the cool crowd at Koi down the street wrestles quite ordinary sushi with their chopsticks, it's hard not to feel smug as you oh so delicately pluck up morsels of poached Japanese scallops and crab from a salad offered as part of the three-course prix fixe menu, or as you savor a bite of Kikuchi's seared La Belle Farms foie gras. Presented on a pedestal of cooked daikon, it is rich all right and literally melts in the mouth. Pairing it with the radish is a brilliant stroke. Without the usual sweet accompaniment, the taste of the foie gras comes through unobstructed. The effect is curiously light.

Kikuchi actually debuted some six years ago under the name Bistro 21, which is still on the sign in front of the strip mall. Last year, however, chef-owner Koichiro Kikuchi and his wife, Akiyo, remodeled the awkward space. Smoked glass windows in silvery frames, Dupioni silk panels and walls set at angles to break up the boxiness give the room a more contemporary look. It's not chic Sona by a long shot, but it's much nicer and just a bit more comfortable than it was. At the same time, the couple changed the name to Kikuchi and gave up the a la carte menu for a prix fixe only format.

Chef's dream

Fifteen years ago, L.A. had a Franco-Japanese moment. In unlikely spots all over the city, you could find reasonably priced cafés and restaurants manned by Japanese chefs who had a love affair with France. Remember Café Katsu and Café Blanc and then Nouveau Café Blanc, to name two? And though 2117 is still around, many of the others have disappeared. I still get letters from readers wondering what happened to this or that chef or that little restaurant they used to go and get marvelous steak au poivre for $10 or something equally ridiculous.

Kikuchi is very much of that genre.

The chef works with a limited palette of ingredients that reflect the seasons and the best of what's available at the fish and vegetable markets. Because of Kikuchi's small menu and limited number of seats — just 17 in the cramped space — he can be flexible. Sometimes you'll come in and he'll decide he wants to add an extra course, or another dish. It's very different cooking for 20 instead of 100 or 300. It's what many chefs dream of being able to do, only Kikuchi — who had cooked at Chaya Brasserie and La Bohème — is really doing it.

On a recent evening, one of my guests brought a beautiful bottle of Grüner Veltliner from Austria. A few minutes after the Japanese waiter opened the wine and poured it all round, he reappeared. Dipping his head almost as if hesitant to intrude on the conversation, he told us the chef would like to make something to go with the wine before we ordered our first courses. Soon an etched glass goblet rimmed with salt and filled with a clear viscous liquid arrived. It's tomato water made from Japanese tomatoes, he told us. Low in acid, the tomatoes have a wonderfully sweet flavor and the water, thickened slightly with agar agar, is a lovely way to begin the meal. And the chef hit a home run in terms of coming up with something that showed off the wine.

But that wasn't all. He sent out a fragile savory custard with a piece of delicate Japanese white fish from Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo. He'd gotten hold of some summer truffles too, and shaved the lightly scented truffle over the loose, warm custard to bring out all its perfume. Delicious.

Selection of favorites

Most evenings there are half a dozen first courses to choose from, including that poached scallops and crab salad in soy ginger vinaigrette. The scallops are so lightly poached, you're not entirely sure if they're raw — or cooked. The taste of the crab is very pronounced and sweet. Wild escargots from Burgundy are nothing like the snails so many French restaurateurs seem content enough to serve — you know the ones I mean, with the texture of rubber erasers. These are tender and plump, napped in a turmeric-tinged curry cream sauce.

Last time I ate there, the chef was serving rosy little rock shrimp with Japanese eggplant in a tart yuzu broth as an appetizer. Fish soup Provençal was on the menu too. Made from sea bass, halibut, sea bream — whatever is freshest — and their bones, it's a ruddy deep-flavored purée with a scribble of rouille (spicy homemade mayonnaise) in the center and the occasional soft, caramelized onion. I did keep wishing for the rafts of toast that are traditionally served with the rouille. But then I realized, since the only bread served at Kikuchi is the chef's own dainty dinner rolls, he can't make toast.

Main courses are more limited, sometimes to just two or three items. That's fine with me if every one of them is good. There's usually just one fish, which may be wild sockeye salmon or a pristine piece of Japanese white bass, pan sautéed to crisp the skin and served in citrus and Spanish olive oil on a pedestal of carrot, Japanese eggplant and a starchy white sweet potato. This is a fish with some flavor.

But my recent favorite was the wild Japanese sea bream he served as part of the chef's menu. It looked beautiful on the plate, too, with the collar and a decorative flutter of fin beneath a chunk of fillet in a burgundy stain of wine reduction. (Actually, it was a Meritage or Bordeaux-style blend from California.)

Roasted Niman Ranch pork loin is firm and a tad dry, but delicious nevertheless in a summer truffle sauce. If you want to splurge, go for the Kobe-style beef rib steak. There's a $40 supplement, which is a bit high. But when the chef comes out with a ham-sized piece wrapped in a white linen napkin, you can see the quality right there in the marbling.

And this is one chef who knows how to cook it, so it simply melts in the mouth, flooding the palate with sweet beef flavor. And if you ever happen to see pan-roasted Niman Ranch lamb chops on the menu, don't hesitate. These were some of the best chops I've had in ages. The chef doesn't use the oven, which is why they took so long to cook them. But they're perfect double chops, rosy at the center.

Parisian in spirit

Not everybody is going to get this restaurant; it's more for people who love food than for foodies. There is no scene to speak of. Nothing to entertain or appall. Just the experience of dining in a small personal restaurant, savoring food that's fresh and has been cooked with care by someone dedicated to the craft.

The other diners are always interesting: One night recently there was a large table of Brits and assorted Europeans in the film business, another night a group of women celebrating a friend's birthday.

It's one of the handful of restaurants I know — other than hotel dining rooms, which are always quiet — where you can go if you actually want to have a conversation with your guests. In that sense, dining at Kikuchi is sheer bliss

On the restaurant's website (home.aol.com/lakikuchi), the chef states his creed as that wonderful line from Escoffier, "La bonne cuisine est la base du véritable bonheur" — which means, more or less, that good cuisine is the basis of happiness and good humor. The odd thing is that this little restaurant is somehow closer in spirit to the kinds of restaurants you'd find on a back street in Paris or somewhere in the countryside than many of the French-owned bistros in town.

Kikuchi started cooking at 17 at the Miyako hotel in Tokyo, then later worked at French restaurants in Japan and Europe before coming to Los Angeles.

Today, with the help of the occasional part-time waiter or waitress, the couple run the restaurant entirely by themselves, Mr. Kikuchi in the kitchen, Mrs. Kikuchi running the front of the house. And just like in France, you can't make reservations casually and forget to cancel. They've saved that table for you and may have turned away another party that night.

His hair tucked under a stylish beret, the chef has the wiry grace of a professional cyclist. Through the cutout into the kitchen, you can glimpse his head bent over the stove or the chopping board. Sometimes his arm will dart up, as he sprinkles salt over a dish from on high, like a flamenco dancer flashing castanets.

Everything about the restaurant is very personal, from the soundtrack of cool jazz to the collection of china in interesting shapes and patterns. Well, except for the wine list, which reads as if it's been put together by a distributor interested in unloading off-vintages and overstock. There are better choices around for almost every category. It wouldn't take much, just someone to rework the list to reflect the delicacy of Kikuchi's cooking.

Not every idea pans out. I'm thinking of the ice cream flecked with a tweed of grayish-brown truffle. Chefs keep playing with the concept, but I've never had one that really worked. In this effort, a dose of truffle oil didn't help the truffle soar over the sugar. It's eclectic and experimental all right, but no.

Lavender brûlée is dreamy, though, and an individual cheese soufflé with a little 25-year-old aceto balsamico dribbled over the top is terrific.

The question is, do you want fashion and scene, or do you want good French cooking and heartfelt hospitality? You decide. Remembering the trio — chef, wife, waiter — standing in the doorway of Kikuchi to see us safely to our car one night, I already know which one I'd pick.

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