Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo neighborhood has often been considered the cradle of real Japanese cooking in America — birthplace of the California roll, base to century-old confectionery shops, the nurturer of sushi restaurants during decades when the eating of raw fish was considered odder than gnawing on roasted bear. Connoisseurs may send you to Torrance now, and well-heeled Japanese tourists tend to stay in Beverly Hills these days, but Little Tokyo is still home to an enormous variety of Japanese cuisine: shabu shabu parlors and ramen shops, kushikatsu joints and elegant kaiseki rooms; izakayas, snack shops and yakitori counters; pork specialists and chicken specialists; coffee shops and hostess bars. Legend has it that the developer of the old New Otani hotel built the place with profits eked out from a lifetime of selling the bean-filled hockey pucks called imagawayaki. You can still buy hot, freshly made imagawayaki at Mitsuru Café in the Japanese Village Plaza mall.
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No fear of frying: Thousand Cranes’ light and lovely tempura lobster, jumbo shrimp, king crab and asparagus.
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Fry master Hiroyuki Shiono
These days the New Otani, under new owners, is called the Kyoto Grand Hotel, but it is still home to the most serious tempura bar in Little Tokyo, the best place — probably the only place — north of Torrance to eat a full-course tempura meal, presented with the sensuous care of kaiseki, a multicourse feast prepared with a lightness and aesthetic purity you might not associate with deep-fried vegetables.
Around from the Japanese garden atop the hotel, into the restaurant, past the salaryman-choked sushi bar and back in the deepest recess of the dining room, the Tempura Bar at Thousand Cranes looks less like a shrine of Japanese cuisine than a room-service sushi bar, a tiny, generic-looking counter with 12 chairs, a refrigerated glass case and a stiff-backed chef, stuck into a far corner of the vast complex like an afterthought. A small metal cabinet conceals chef Hiroyuki Shiono’s wire baskets and cooking apparatus; except for a faint whiff of clean oil, a slight crackling, a bare hint of the sea, you would never guess that you were sitting mere inches from a hidden cauldron of oil.
At the Tempura Bar, there is an element of the artisan in everything Mr. Shiono does. He notches shiitake mushroom caps so that they resemble big designer buttons, then plunges them in oil just long enough for them to take on the appearance of patinaed brass. He carves thick asparagus spears into beveled batons and snatches them from the bubbling pot the moment they assume the emerald translucency of jade. When he fries a big oyster, the shellfish takes on the aspect of a crisp-edged custard, still trembling at the center and barely cooked through, concentrating its oceanic essence. Fried Dover sole is latticed with crunch, yet the fish is steamier, more delicate than a Frenchman could hope to achieve with sautéing sole meunière, barely needing even a touch of the coarse Okinawan sea salt you are instructed to dip it in as a garnish. There is art even in the way Shiono surreptitiously lays down slips of paper on the service counter every couple of dishes, so that you never need to be bothered by the sight of a grease stain.
Except for the list of wine and cold sake, you won’t see a menu at the Tempura Bar: You are in the hands of Shiono for as long as it takes to nibble a dozen courses, morsel after morsel swished through gauzy batter and plunged into a pot of boiling rice oil, fished out at the exact moment the food is at its steamiest and the batter has hardened into a lacy scrim. It’s you and the fry daddy, you and the seething oil, and the bowl of tempura sauce lightened with grated daikon, and maybe a small plate of sashimi. You will start with a handful of tiny Japanese smelt, unbattered, served still sizzling from the pot of hot oil.
There are prawns, huge as bananas, that come out of the oil as straight as rulers, crackle-crusted and spurting sweet juice when you violate them with your teeth. You may taste big sea scallops tamed to a luxurious softness by the oil, Japanese pumpkin and gleaming shishito peppers. Lotus root turns into the densest, sweetest substance on Earth in the hands of Shiono, and okra pods lose the gooeyness of their centers. You are glad that the restaurant exits into the still of the Japanese garden, because the shock of the downtown streets might be too much after this meal.
Service is attentive and unrushed — even the tiny sake cups are refilled before you manage to finish them — but there is discord even in this paradise. The same song, six minutes of artificially sweetened aural molasses, repeats over and over until you start looking for speaker wires to yank out of the wall. I mentioned it to the waiter, who responded: “If it bothers you, how do you think we feel?” I wanted to squeeze his shoulder in solidarity and lend him a Bix Beiderbecke CD.
Tempura Bar at Thousand Cranes in the Kyoto Grand Hotel, 120 S. Los Angeles St., Little Tokyo. (213) 253-1200. Open Tues.-Sat., 5-10 p.m. Full bar. Hotel parking (and cheaper lot across the street). All major credit cards accepted. Omakase tempura dinner, food only, $65 prix fixe.