Photos by Anne Fishbein
Tucked into the same complex as a shabu-shabu parlor, a pricey sushi bar and the local outlet of the boba chain Lollicup, Orris is the newest citizen of Sawtelle’s Japanese-restaurant row, with a long sushi-bar-like counter, an airplane aisle lined with wooden tables, and an open kitchen that runs nearly the length of the restaurant. This particular configuration is probably familiar to former customers of Lyon, C’est Fan Fan and the original Ishi’s Grill, among the progenitors of the local style of mix-and-match fusion cooking, but Orris is decidedly fancier than its predecessors, frosted with marble, inlaid with blond wood, furnished with artisanal Japanese plates and teacups and sleek sake flagons that signal a certain seriousness of purpose.
Orris is sometimes described as an Asian “tapas bar,’’ a place to drift into for a glass of Viognier and a snack in the manner of Providores, the great pan-cultural tapas bar in West London. Orris is something else, closer to a Mediterranean take on a new-wave izakaya, or Japanese pub, than to anything you might ever come across in Spain — sweet shisito peppers deep-fried and sprinkled with shaved Parmesan cheese and crunchy bits of fried prosciutto; smoked scallops garnished with fat salmon eggs; Dungeness crab salad in a sweetish ginger dressing. This is food to wash down with sake, not with a glass of sherry. I like Otakayama, an easygoing sake that the menu describes as tasting like delicious water.
The chef-owner, Hideo Yamashiro, has for 17 years been the proprietor of Shiro in South Pasadena, an obscurely located Franco-Japanese restaurant that has been near the top of the local Zagat ratings for more than a decade, and Los Angeles, of course, is where this culinary movement — known variously as fusion cuisine, Pacific Rim cuisine and That Stuff They Used To Do at City Restaurant — started in the late ’70s. The small-plate craze is nothing new in Los Angeles either — I remember writing about it in the mid-’80s, except it was called grazing instead of tapas then, and the basic model was influenced more by actual tapas then than it was by Japanese bar food.
You will still find a few of the classics of local Franco-Japanese cooking on the menu, from a sort of floppy, shrimp-stuffed wonton-skin ravioli in shiitake mushroom cream that was a Los Angeles restaurant cliché when most of Orris’ customers still slept in Garanimals, to a creamily underrealized potato gratin that I could swear was served with two out of three Los Angeles scallop dishes back in 1983.
A lot of Yamashiro’s food is pretty similar to the stuff he’s been serving at Shiro all along, the sweetbreads sautéed with Japanese mushrooms, the beet salad with Basque cheese and the smoked salmon on potato pancakes you might have passed right over in your rush to get to his famous sizzling catfish — and who could have blamed you? Yamashiro has been cooking in Los Angeles restaurants since the earliest days of the Asian crossover thing, most notably at Chinois and Café Jacoulet before he began his long run at Shiro, and there is barely a culinary trend in the last 25 years that has escaped his gimlet eye. His innovations tend to be gentle: a caesar salad made from grilled hearts of romaine lettuce, for example, or a salad of house-smoked chicken with walnuts and sesame.
So while he uses the tataki technique, which involves searing the outside of a raw fillet just long enough to brown the rim and firm up the raw flesh inside, on the usual lozenges of ahi tuna (which he sauces with a soy-infused onion jam), he does the same with raw lamb “carpaccio,’’ crusting the edges of the meat, slicing it thinly, and infusing it with garlic and rosemary — the dish is gamy and delicious even before it is strewn with chopped arugula and bits of strong sheep cheese. Even the seafood spring rolls, which appear on three fusion menus out of four these days, seem to have a tataki twist — the brief immersion in oil crisps the wrapper, but the big chunks of scallops and shrimp inside are firmed up though barely warmed, and bits of grated yuzu zest in the sauce give the dish a clean, focused sharpness I have never tasted in a fusion spring roll.
Orris doesn’t serve the sizzling catfish, but the fried seafood is awfully good, especially the tempura shrimp dusted with housemade curry powder and served with a moist little mound of Okinawan sea salt.
Yamashiro isn’t quite pushing boundaries here in the way Kazuto Matsusaka is at Beacon or Andre Guerrero is at Max — much less the way the renowned Japanese-Australian chef Tetsuya is in Sydney or Le Petite Chaya alum Tadashi Ono is in New York — but his cooking has never been livelier. Orris itself is not quite a destination restaurant, although the cooking may be worthy of one, and the individual dishes, inexpensive as they may seem at basically $8 to $10 a pop, add up fast. But its location, convenient to the Nuart and the manga-intensive shopping strip anchored by the Giant Robot complex, couldn’t be better, and the small wine list is swell. Welcome to the neighborhood.
Orris, 2006 Sawtelle Blvd., West Los Angeles, (310) 268-2212. Lunch Mon.–Fri. 11:45 a.m.–2 p.m.; dinner Mon.–Thurs. 6–10 p.m., Fri.–Sat. 5:30–10:30 p.m. AE, D, MC, V. Beer, wine and sake. Lot parking. Small plates $6.50–$14. Recommended dishes: seafood spring rolls, curried shrimp tempura, lamb carpaccio with garlic and rosemary.