Don't Call It a Comeback

Photo by Anne Fishbein

In Culver City’s arts district, fitted into an old commercial laundry in the Helms Bakery complex, not far from Sony, Beacon café is possibly the most visible new restaurant in town, as brightly lit at night as the diner in Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks, surmounted by a glowing blue tower that soars high as a movie palace, flanked by outdoor dining areas crowded with studio guys drinking wine.

Beacon marks the triumphant return to form of Kazuto Matsusaka, who was chef for almost a decade at Wolfgang Puck’s Chinois in the ’80s, and may have been the best-known Japanese-born cook in America before the dominance of Nobu Matsuhisa. His pan-Asian cooking at Santa Monica’s Zenzero was spectacular, sparkling with the big flavors and the elegance that until then had eluded most creators of so-called fusion cuisine, and his whole fried New Zealand snapper, duck-fried rice and minced chicken in radicchio cups were benchmarks of the Pacific Rim style. His subsequent stint as the chef at La Bohème, a bizarrely decorated West Hollywood restaurant also frequented by the Japanese, was unremarkable, although he was briefly the toast of Paris for his chefly take on Asian-French cooking at Buddha Bar, a celebrity-owned restaurant just off the Champs Élysée, which may have been yesterday’s green-anise crème brûlée to us, but was unprecedented in the conservative world of French cooking. He was fairly invisible as the chef at West Hollywood’s Barfly, and almost completely so as the chef of Above, a restaurant in New York’s Times Square Hilton where his distinctive cooking never quite got the attention it deserved.

It was a phenomenon peculiar to Los Angeles, I think, that got its start at Chinois — Japanese guys cooking Europeanized Chinese food for Americans: small, exquisite portions, high-style lacquered chopsticks, and black beans on everything. Beacon is a new kind of hybrid — Matsusaka has moved his cooking back toward Japan, but toward a kind of Japanese cuisine inflected by the clean lines, big flavors and relaxed cross-cultural inclusiveness of the best California cooking.

So where one of Matsusaka’s signatures at Chinois and elsewhere was a sweet, thickly sauced take on the classical Chinese dish of minced squab spooned into a sort of lettuce-leaf taco, the version at Beacon involves kushikatsu-style fried oysters and a remoulade fragrant with yuzu peel. There are allusions to at least three cultures in the dish — Japanese, Chinese and southern American — but it comes across as its own thing, food that is clearly Matsusaka’s own. Grilled chicken skewers are far more powerfully flavored with the herb shiso and the tiny Japanese apricot called ume than anything you would find at a traditional yakitori bar, but the dish is if anything more screamingly Japanese than the original, like yakitori whose volume has been jacked up to 11.

You would probably never find anything like Matsusaka’s salad of perfectly ripe avocado dressed with toasted sesame seeds and minced scallions in Tokyo, but the salad follows classical principles, and it is luscious. As far as I know, Matsusaka is the first to spike a crab sushi roll with the kind of loose gelée French chefs use to garnish their rabbit terrines. The “pizza” topped with wasabi-flavored mayonnaise, slices of raw ahi tuna and bits of sweet pickled ginger tastes less like a pizza than like a folk dish that the Japanese hadn’t got around to inventing quite yet — either that or an inspired homage to the smoked salmon and crème fraîche of Puck’s famous “Jewish’’ pizza at Spago. The hanger steak with wasabi is so successful, the searing tang of the horseradish doing something wonderful to the tart, carbonized flavor of grilled meat, that you might wonder why nobody had thought of the combination until now.

Some of the dishes are more orthodox. Steamed edamame are steamed edamame, delicious in their fuzzy pods, and miso soup is basically miso soup. You might not encounter anything exactly like Beacon’s kakuni udon in most Japanese noodle shops, but the garnishes of bamboo shoots, greens and slippery braised pork belly are not uncommon. The tonkatsu, breaded, fried pork cutlet, may be absolutely standard in its preparation here, but it is a good one, a tonkatsu you would be happy to encounter in any Japanese lunch counter in California. Too many chefs in the United States, including many famous ones, prepare Asian dishes without any real understanding of the cuisines they think they’re working in, but Matsusaka’s knowledge of Japanese cooking seems to be flawless, and his versions of miso-marinated cod, vegetable nabemono and grilled shishito peppers are all fine — the only duff dishes I tasted over four visits were an underseasoned version of pad Thai and a misguidedly bland papaya salad garnishing a slab of sweet grilled chicken.

Unless you count the trio of crème brûlées at Chinois, dessert is usually an afterthought at fusion restaurants, but Rochelle Huppin Fleck’s and Lorraine Tajiri’s sweets at Beacon are sensational, especially the Rice Krispies sundae and a green-tea cheesecake with a buzzy, bitter edge.

Beacon, 3280 Helms Ave., Culver City, (310) 838-7500. Lunch Mon.–Sun. 11:30 a.m.–2:30 p.m.; dinner Mon.–Sun. 5:30–9:30 p.m. Beer and wine. Lot parking. Lunch for two, food only, $18–$35. Dinner for two, food only, $26–$46. AE, MC, V.


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