Photo by Anne Fishbein
“It is said,” conjectures cookbook writer Shizuo Tsuji, “that it takes 20 years to acquire enough experience to make truly perfect rice.”
A block or two from Junior’s Delicatessen, squeezed into an unlikely storefront nestled up to the western flank of the Westside Pavilion, Torafuku is the first American outpost of a small Tokyo-based chain, a restaurant devoted to the Japanese cult of perfect rice — not fried rice or baked rice or pilaf or porridge or sushi rice or ochazuke or plov, but plain short-grain rice, the regular white stuff, scooped out of a kamado, a traditional oven that may outweigh a hippopotamus.
If you watch a lot of samurai movies, you’ve probably seen something like these kamados dominating the dark kitchens where swordplay sometimes breaks out: mammoth ceramic ovens supporting steaming cast-iron pots, the crackle of flames, wooden lids the size of manhole covers being lifted to reveal soup, or water for tea, or rice. Nothing on Earth provides a more even heat than these kamados, which are heavy enough to make witches’ cauldrons seem flimsy as tin cans. (The Big Green Egg, a much lighter kamado spinoff imported for use as backyard barbecues, is supposed to be able to hot-smoke a whole brisket with just a handful of hardwood briquettes.)
I still remember the best Japanese rice I ever had, at a midtown Manhattan restaurant called Sushi Yasuda, fresh from its pot, massaged by the sushi chef in a way that seemed to align every grain, distinct and yet slightly sticky, into a path running along the axis of the fillet. The sensual experience of sushi usually comes from the fish, its pristine freshness and deep marine resonances, but Yasuda’s sushi breathed from the rice on out, and the warm, pillowy softness made the beltfish and yellowtail seem almost — but not, definitely not — superfluous.
Torafuku’s rice, on the other hand, is basically . . . rice . . . warm and fluffy and with a sort of toasty quality that supposedly comes from a blast of heat at the end — excellent rice, yes, even ideal, but not the kind of stuff that snaps your head back and makes you holler as if you’ve never really tasted rice before. Iranians make pretty good rice too; also, Thai chefs, Hyderabadi chefs and Korean chefs, many of whom also cook their rice in stone.
Torafuku is proud enough of its rice to let it stand as the focus of its expensive, luxurious izakaya menu; at the center of set meals, accompanied only by miso soup and pickles; topped with fried prawns or marinated tuna; or as tou-ban-yaki, seared in a superheated clay bowl with bits of seaweed, tiny dried sardines and a lightly poached egg. If you're not paying attention, the other food — and there is lots of other food, to be eaten one course at a time, family style, with drinks — can seem almost subsidiary to the rice.
There is fresh, house-made tofu steamed like puddings in little wooden pots and served with ginger and a cool, soy-laced broth that has been boiled down almost to a jelly, and there are simmered winter vegetables, yams and lotus root and such, sprinkled with sesame seeds. Yuba, the soft skin that forms on top of cooking tofu, is cooled, formed into orbs the consistency of picnic potato salad and frosted with orange roe from fresh California sea urchins — the marriage of the two smooth textures, the two slightly bitter sweetnesses, is superb.
There is a daily list of seasonal specialties, which might include a whole wood-grilled eel, grilled king-crab legs, or a sashimi of Spanish mackerel, sliced into transparent petals, garnished with a little mound of fragrant, freshly grated wasabi instead of the usual reconstituted stuff, an extravagance that can almost approach the cost of the fish. Trifurcated sacs of black-cod roe in ponzu sauce are as beautiful as mysterious flowers, as rich as raw egg yolks.
Most people, it must be said, have some rice, some grilled free-range chicken thighs or salmon, maybe an order of sashimi or a few pieces of sushi. At Torafuku, you can eat esoterically or not, as you prefer. And then there’s saba nuka: mackerel sliced, fried, and cured for a few days, which transforms the bony fillets into firm, chewy wafers with a sweet, high fish-funkiness similar to that of the best Swedish herring. Extraordinary.
If you show up at lunchtime, Torafuku can seem like a different restaurant altogether, a place devoted to $8 and $9 lunch specials of artisanally raised kurobuta pork tonkatsu, chicken thighs or grilled fish served with miso soup, a few grams of marinated seafood and that rice — the first couple of times I stopped in, I was under the impression that the restaurant was a civilized fast-food place with fairly extraordinary food. And even better rice.
But at night, at considerably greater expense, Torafuku is one of the most interesting Japanese restaurants in town, almost Matsuhisa-like in its elegant simplicity.
Torafuku, 10914 Pico Blvd., West Los Angeles, (310) 470-0014. Lunch Mon.–Sat., dinner nightly. Set dinners $38; bento lunches $8.50–$12; à la carte meals vary. Beer, wine and sake. Takeout. Valet parking. AE, MC, V. Recommended dishes: house-made tofu; marinated Spanish mackerel with daikon; kuraboto pork tonkatsu; tou-ban-yaki rice with dried anchovies.