The last time I went to Izayoi, a sleekly modern izakaya on the edge of Little Tokyo, my party was seated in a front dining room not quite wide enough for a stout man to stand in sideways. The particularly delicious morsels of grilled yellowtail collar, stewed radish and sticks of plum-flavored mountain yam tended not to make it all the way to the far end of the table, which was fashioned from a long plank that a self-respecting pirate would have found too narrow to walk. It’s a good thing I ordered extra sardine burgers. There might have been a mutiny halfway through the meal.
Izayoi’s mastermind is chef Junichi Shiode, the whiz who used to run Sushi Ryo, on Santa Monica at Highland, a fairly spectacular if traditional place that was empty most nights, possibly because Shiode’s traditional dishes were more austere than what used to be served at Ita-Cho when it was in that location, and possibly because the seediness radiating from the adult-video store next door was ultimately too much for some customers to handle. Sushi Ryo was one of those rare secret addresses in Los Angeles, beloved by chefs (Fred Eric, Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger were regulars) for a cuisine that many customers didn’t even know it served: classic Japanese izakaya dishes prepared with the touch of an accomplished sushi chef. It was possible to dine superbly on sushi and sashimi without knowing that the other food even existed.
There is a rhythm to an izakaya meal that is unlike any other. Glasses of cold sake and big bottles of beer appear at regular intervals, then bits of raw fish and grilled meat and savory custard are served individually or all at once. It’s a waltz-time snack-sip-chat, snack-sip-chat dynamic that can go on for the length of a Mahler symphony . . . animal-vegetable-mineral, warm-hot-cold, sweet-salt-funk . . . until, before you know it, the restaurant is empty, the lights have been turned high, and the waitress is suggesting that you might want to start finding your way home. It is cruel, the end of the evening at an izakaya. At the end of a night at Izayoi, you can always walk around the corner to Haru Ulala, a loud, bare-bones izakaya with late hours and Kirin sloshing like water, but the fried croquettes and tumblers of sake are never quite the same.
Izakaya menus are typically long and hard to follow, with a host of different sections unfamiliar to anyone not versed in the style, and a list of daily specials often as long as the menu proper that seem randomly thrown onto the page. Here is the secret: Order lots of stuff.
Dinners at Izayoi proceed with glorious chaos, arrangements of gooey octopus sashimi popping up after ramekins of roughly chopped Spanish mackerel, bowls of room-temperature egg custard topped with sea-urchin gonads preceding chilly bowls of house-made tofu slicked with sweet miso paste, yakiniku skewers of grilled tongue coming simultaneously with a plate of braised tongue in brown sauce that could have been served at any tapas bar in Spain, but always — almost always — a bowl of ochazuke, brothy rice, at the end.
One night there were slices of marinated squid liver, which came as a surprise to everyone at the table — I have cleaned a lot of squid in my life, but I never knew that squids even had livers, much less livers the color, texture and very particular flavor of raw calves’ liver. This must have been a very large squid.
I liked the cream cheese flavored with bonito, even when I found out the flavoring was actually fermented bonito intestines. There are also dried and grilled skate fins cut into little salty curls. A glass of chilled Otokoyama sake might be the proper accompaniment for dried skate fin. Then again, Otokoyama is the proper accompaniment for just about everything.
Shiode has a particular deftness with sardines, which are bound to appear at any time (providing you order them, of course), grilled plain, chopped and stuffed into shiso leaves, which are then deep-fried, or mixed with green onions, patted into a scallop shell and broiled into a sizzling patty of deliciousness — the infamous “sardine burger,” which is as close to a mandatory order as you will ever find on a hundred-item menu. Hell — have some more sardine burgers for dessert.
Izayoi, 132 S. Central Ave., dwntwn., (213) 613-9554. Lunch Mon.–Fri., dinner Mon.–Sat. Beer, sake and wine. Parking in Office Depot lot on Second St. at Central Ave. AE, MC, V. Inexpensive lunch specials. Dinner for two, food only, $25–$45 and up. Recommended dishes: “sardine burger,” ox-tongue stew, house-made tofu with uni.