The most striking Japanese dish I've had lately? It's hard to say, although at the moment I am tending toward a dish of warm tofu freshly made at table: a beautifully weathered bowl, a few drops of nigari, a stream of soy milk poured from a pitcher. Don't stir, the waiter insists. Patience. Five minutes later, the tofu is ready, soft as a sigh, ready to season with planings of dried bonito, grated ginger and a syrupy drizzle of ponzu. For once, patience is rewarded.
The fresh tofu was served, oddly enough, at the new Robata Jinya, a kind of robata-ya — a meaty, Japanese grill restaurant — on what is becoming Third Street's restaurant row. Robata Jinya has plenty of dark wood, peeling exemplars of wabi-sabi and suits of samurai armor on display, but it doesn't look much like a traditional robata-ya: The cooking area is surrounded by what resembles a produce counter at Whole Foods, with piles of citrus and vegetables and fragrant greens hiding the grill itself from view. When your skewered meat is plucked from the flames, it is presented to you on a long pizza peel.
The best dishes at a robata-ya rarely include agedashi — fried bean curd stuffed with shrimp or stuffed into eggplant and served in an elegant broth or finger-sized shrimp sandwiches stacked like Jenga bricks. The usual specialties definitely don't usually extend to “bagna cauda,” an array of raw, thinly sliced beets, watermelon radish and carrots to be dipped into tiny, individually heated cauldrons of herb sauce, cheese fondue and anchovy paste.
Like most robata-ya and izakaya menus, the menu at Robata Jinya can be bewildering in its complexity, listing dozens of meats and vegetables available skewered from the grill, a number of Nobu-style sashimi preparations and a selection of rather overcomplicated sushi rolls. The one most people order is the La Brea roll, which is a Crunch Spicy Albacore roll frosted with an extra inch of spicy tuna paste. (You can eat sushi at Robata Jinya, but it is by no means a sushi bar.)
In Tokyo, where the restaurant originated, the small Jinya chain apparently is best known as an offal-intensive Japanese grill whose skewered specialties include salmon belly, simmered tendon grilled with miso and the elusive “white liver,” which I gather is foie gras. The online menu of the Yebisu branch (there are seven Tokyo restaurants) boasts of organic, free-range chicken, organs of all descriptions and fish from the Inland Sea.
In California, the first Jinya first opened in Studio City last year as a noodle specialist — its ramen was one of the Weekly's 10 best dishes of last year. And at Robata Jinya, there is also ramen — really good ramen, among the best two or three bowls anywhere in Southern California: springy noodles; soft slabs of simmered pork belly; deep, long-boiled pork broth dinged with a hint of bonito; and a spoonful of richly colored onions, cooked almost black, that give a bittersweet edge to the soup. An extra buck gets you the shio tonkotsu ramen, at least if you manage to land one of the 20 orders a day the kitchen turns out, which can be almost too rich, too porky — a chorus line of little black pigs doing a clog dance across your tongue. For once, I actually prefer the milder one, the soy sauce–based shoyu tonkotsu ramen, which is more balanced, more about the noodles than the animal wallop of the broth. Robata Jinya's version is, at any rate, the finest ramen you can get between Studio City and the strongholds of the South Bay (unless you happen to be a Santouka loyalist, a stance I respect but do not share), and is certainly reason enough to visit the restaurant.
But Robata Jinya is not a ramen parlor either, although it does anticipate the longing by putting the noodles on its omakase menu and by giving you the option of lower-priced bowls small enough to serve as just part of a larger meal. And oddly enough, although it has a huge robata menu — try the garlic prime beef or the sweet, meltingly soft pork belly — robata may not be the specialty, either. Or is it? When you're in the mood for miso-marinated beef tongue, or the delicate chicken meatballs called tsukune, or delicate grilled shiitakes, you're probably in the right restaurant. It may be the tofu that is deliciously out of place.
ROBATA JINYA | 8050 W. 3rd St., Mid-City | 323-653-8877, jinya-la.com | Open Mon.-Sat., 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5:30-11 p.m.; Sun., 11:30 a.m. to 2:45 p.m. and 5:30-10:45 p.m. | AE, MC, V | Beer, wine and sake. | Valet parking. | Robatayaki: $1.80-$12; “tapas,” $3.50-$9.80; sashimi and rolls, $3.90-$12; ramen, $8.50-$9.50, half-portions $5.80. Recommended dishes: tsukune; homemade organic tofu; agedashi; shoyu ramen.