Japanese Comfort Food always sounded like something you could sink your teeth into. It's from Japan, and it's comforting. What's not to love? But it was a concept I knew little about. In desperate need of an education, I made my way to Marina Del Rey to be schooled by Del Rey Kitchen co-owner Michael Yee. It was a very tasty lesson.
Yoshoku is a style of Japanese cuisine focusing on European-influenced dishes. While this particular form of fusion is quite popular along the streets of Tokyo, it has hardly proliferated on this side of the Pacific. Yee and his co-owner and chef Satoru Yokomori afford Angelenos the opportunity to explore Yoshoku as it should be: in a casual setting, with a menu highlighting an assortment of affordable, small plates.
Traditionally, the Japanese never over-indulged in sushi. Raw fish was a luxury reserved for special occasions. Everyday home-cooking involved far simpler fare, with familiar ingredients that were easy to procure. Yee and Yokomori focus on the food that their moms and grandmas used to prepare them when growing up in their native land. This, of course, is an important touchstone in comfort cuisine. No matter the ethnic origin, it invariably involves a degree of nostalgia; a familiar component that resonates with your past. Yoshoku is precisely that.
Being a gaijin, I certainly didn't grow up eating things like nankotsu — bite-sized pieces of deep-fried chicken cartilage. Yet after one taste of its slightly salty, thick-battered crust, I could certainly relate to the flavor and texture. That is, until I reached that chewy, almost bone-like center. Unpleasant at first, I soon found myself reaching for more, gnawing into its fatty, sinuous core with reckless abandon.
On a significantly softer side, Del Rey Kitchen serves up seared albacore beneath an artful arrangement of sliced garlic, cherry tomato and spicy jalapeño. The combination of flavors is at once delicate and endearing. It's also generously-portioned for the price. If the menu here is any indicator, affordability is another hallmark of proper comfort food. No dish strays beyond the $20 mark.
But the most vital aspect of any comfort food has to be heartiness. An engagement with this sort of cuisine cannot leave you wanting for more. Come hungry, leave satisfied. In this regard, Yee, Yokomori and and their Del Rey Kitchen deliver in spades. They devote a section of their menu to itameshi pasta—a Japanese spaghetti hybrid, infusing the beloved Italian tradition with the umami-rich flavors of items such as shaved bonito, nori, and ponzu butter. The spicy caviar is a standout gut-buster. It's topped with copious amounts of mentaiko—marinated pollock roe—an entire layer of dry, flaked seaweed and bathed in some unctuous “secret” butter of unknown origin.
Their self-professed signature dish, the Hamburg Steak, stands as a crowning achievement in comfort. It tastes like a sensationally umami-fied meat loaf and looks very much like an oversized cheeseburger without the bun, yet it's also somehow a traditional Japanese dish. Comprised of Wagyu beef and Kurobuta pork patty, it's bathed in an 18-hour demi-glace reduction offering a depth of flavor that immediately coats the mouth with a smoked sweetness. The garlic-roasted tomatoes and rosemary potato sides are distant afterthoughts. Color me comforted, if not barely able to move, after tackling this loaded skillet of meat.
When Yee was pressed for his list of three definitive aspects to comfort food, he summed it up: “Familiar, flavorful, and filling.” With umami still lingering in my mouth, and mostly stuffed in my belly, it was easy to understand how his cuisine qualified. I may never be able to fully describe Japanese comfort food. But thanks to Del Rey Kitchen, I'll know it when I eat it.