“In the tradition of generosity, the sake will overflow into the saucer,” says a server at Tsubaki, the new Japanese izakaya-style restaurant (small bites intended to pair with alcohol) in Echo Park. She carefully pours the clear, fermented rice wine into a small glass until it spills over the sides like a fountain and wells up in the pretty ceramic dish below. This particular pour is called Yuho and, according to the menu, was made by a female master brewer.
The server’s words are a reflection of co-owner Courtney Kaplan’s beverage program. Everything about her list of local craft sake, shochu, French-centric wines and barley spirit cocktails seems carefully thought out. Kaplan worked previously at Bestia and in New York at EN Japanese Brasserie, where she met partner and chef Charles Namba.
Namba also worked at Chanterelle in New York and here in L.A. at Bouchon. Occasionally, there are hints of Namba’s French-cooking background. There is foie gras — though at Tsubaki, it is sake-marinated. The creamy slab of duck liver mousse is sprinkled with vinegary pickled crabapples and garnished with frisée. It sits on a plate painted with dots of thick, aged soy sauce with a side of lightly toasted triangles of milk bread for smearing. Chawanmushi, a steamed egg custard with Dungeness crab, mitsuba leaves and wasabi, is served warm. It arrives in a lidded, teacup-sized dish. (Chawanmushi literally means “steamed in a teacup.”) The server places mini wooden spoons on the table before lifting the lid. Ebi Harumaki, Caledonian blue prawns, come head-on with yuzu kosho tartar sauce and a lemon slice.
The menu is surprisingly extensive for such a tiny place. (The location previously housed the upscale yakitori joint Kush, and before that Cortez.) Lighter cold appetizers, such as a salad of charred broccolini and green beans tossed in a creamy sesame dressing and topped with crispy shallots, balance heavier fare such as buttermilk fried chicken and pork gyoza. Dessert is a playful surprise: green tea soft-serve ice cream.
Despite the high-end pedigree of its owners and the exquisiteness with which the food is prepared, the prices stay in line with both the neighborhood and with the meaning of izakaya. Dishes range from $7 to $23 and everything is intended to be shared and enjoyed with alcohol. And, in the tradition of generosity, they even offer sake on tap for $8.
1356 Allison Ave., Echo Park. (213) 900-4900, tsubakila.com.