American cooking is a thing of brute force: Even at its best it relies on big, bold flavors to seduce us. Traditionally, whole senses go ignored in Western restaurants — who knows what you might smell, other than the sizzle of the grill? Who cares what you might hear, other than the din of noisy diners, the drone of soft jazz? Even on the plate, flavor trumps all — visual surprise and thought-provoking textures are rarely considered.
This is not the case in the East, and especially not in Japan, where attention is given to all the senses. There, the room's tempo, its calmness, the way it smells, the way it makes you feel often are given almost as much thought as the food itself. Pure experience is valued, and this extends to the food, where visuals and textures are deeply important.
It would be easy to view Hinoki and the Bird, David Myers' new Century City restaurant, as another flash-in-the-pan L.A. hot spot, a vaguely Japanese-inspired, California small-plates restaurant that caters to the cocktail crowd. But that would be missing a lot of the point. Because while Hinoki is a perfectly good spot to quaff cocktails and wolf down (delicious, impossibly crispy) fried chicken bits, when you stop to notice its subtleties, it's hard not to end up slightly awed by what Myers and Co. have achieved.
Myers, the chef who brought L.A. the once Michelin-starred and now shuttered Sona and who currently runs brasserie Comme Ça, has a long-standing fascination with Japan. Both he and his executive chef, Kuniko Yagi, a native of Japan, traveled extensively in Asia to prepare for Hinoki and the Bird's opening. There's no doubt that what they've come up with is a California restaurant, through and through. But there are elements borrowed from the Japanese traditions of kaiseki, omakase and izakaya — highly stylized, ritualized dining meets choose-your-own-adventure tasting menu meets casual pub food. It's a Western restaurant with Eastern sensibilities, and an Eastern attention to detail.
From the moment you step in through the large, heavy door (after the triumph of locating the restaurant, which is under a luxury condo tower on a road off of Avenue of the Stars that no GPS can find), your experience has been engineered, every visual and smell considered. You arrive on a platform that looks out over the brooding dining room, with seating tucked between the bar and a glowing, open kitchen. It's as if every guest is presented to the room upon entering. You're greeted by hostesses in oversized chambray shirts, high heels and nothing else, their pants-less outfits picked specifically to make them stand out but not too much.
You'll detect a sweet, smoky wood in the air — that's the hinoki, the Japanese cedar with which Myers has become somewhat obsessed, and the scent permeates the restaurant. It's used everywhere: in the bathrooms, which smell like a cedar chest; and on the walls; and in the decor of the fantastic patio, where you'll most likely end up sitting, which feels like a stylish, rustic Japanese log cabin's serene garden.
In swoops your server, calm and friendly and ready to help with the long menu, broken up into five categories: raw bar, fun bites, simply grilled, inspiration, and vegetables and grains. They'll ask if you want a cocktail, and believe me, you do. Overseen by Sam Ross of New York's Milk & Honey, the drinks here follow the seasonal, fruit-driven approach favored by high-end Japanese bars. There's also a Negroni bar, with a handful of variations, all of them rife with personality. It's an approach that makes for a cocktail experience refreshingly different from what you'll get elsewhere.
Hinoki already has a signature dish, and that is the hinoki-scented black cod, on which a thin sheet of cedar rests after being set on fire and then quickly extinguished. The smoke wafts over the fish, imbuing both it and the air around it with its sweet, woody scent. The cod itself is a miracle of tactile eating, changing from a solid to pure essence of fat and sweet brine, even as you cut into it.
There are so many things here I'd classify as must-try dishes, enough that you'll have to return a few times in order to eat them all: the mussels in green curry, covered with shaved cauliflower so its vegetal tang permeates the whole dish and punctuated with crumbled sausage and fistfuls of cilantro, dill and basil; the light citrus tang of the lobster roll, the roll made black as soot with charcoal, the freshness of the lobster set against its sweet grit; the simple pleasure of the roasted yam, as sweet and decadent as dessert.
Texture is king on this menu. The chefs' attention to the sense of touch is clear in the melting softness of that black cod, in the silken beef tartare, in the wetness of the chili crab toast matched with the snap of cucumber underneath. It's in the particular consistency of pumpkin, both smooth and rough, on the pumpkin toast with miso jam and goat cheese. It's easy, given the surroundings, to gobble down these dishes without much thought for their subtleties. But if you slow down and really consider this food, there's a distinct carefulness and intent.
It's harder to ignore this intent on the dessert menu, where dishes like black sesame creme served with the nutty crunch of black sesame praline and kalamansi (a citrus native to the Philippines) make you intensely aware of the cerebral nature of the food. Matcha donuts with kogi milk are like zeppole with a barnyard-y, vegetal coating, and the soft gummy consistency of the mochi is downright wondrous.
Hinoki is a restaurant that works on a multitude of levels, some of them incredibly subtle. Some maybe too subtle. Perhaps it's my utterly Western need for passion and flair, perhaps it's Hinoki's highly stylized personality, but I found myself a little disconnected at times — the restaurant failed to touch me on an emotional level.
Yet it's hard to argue with an experience this beautifully calibrated; you barely notice how well you're being pampered.
This isn't fine dining in the traditional sense — the room feels bustling, like you're in just the spot everyone wants to be, and casual in the best way. But get up to use the restroom and notice how seamlessly doors are opened for you, how easily you float through this restaurant on a wave of quiet hospitality. Timing — the precision of how and when food arrives, the speed with which your needs are met — is impeccable. And the food, with its extreme attention to appearance and touch and taste, is remarkable.
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It takes an extreme level of dedication to create an experience this flawless. You won't just taste it; you'll also see it, feel it and breathe it in.
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HINOKI AND THE BIRD | FOUR STARS | 10 Century Drive, Century City | (310) 552-1200 | hinokiandthebird.com | Tues.-Sat., 5:30-10 p.m. | Entree-size plates, $24-$38 | Full bar | Valet parking, $8.50