I can't think of a more unexpectedly great meal this year than what I recently experienced at Kato, a minuscule restaurant in West L.A. that serves only tasting menus.
What makes Kato — named after the Green Hornet's masked sidekick, once played by a young Bruce Lee — so improbable? Put it this way: If this restaurant were a superhero, its power would be invisibility. Shoehorned between two Mexican restaurants in a two-story mini mall, Kato's blank storefront is no more than 10 feet wide. A scrawl of pale pink cursive on the glass front door is the sole signifier you've arrived.
The location alone isn't what casts Kato as an underdog though. After all, in Los Angeles we are well aware of the diamond-in-a-strip-mall trope. Baroo, the quirky temple to fermentation recently named one of Bon Appetit's 10 Best New Restaurants in America, sits unmarked next to an East Hollywood 7-Eleven. And three of the city's most beloved chefs — Ludo Lefebvre, Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo — run their mini-empire of restaurants (Trois Mec, Petit Trois, Trois Familia) exclusively out of modest mini malls.
Consider this, too: The extent of Kato chef-owner Jonathan Yao's experience amounts to two stages (the industry-speak equivalent of an internship); one at the former downtown location of Alma and the other at San Francisco's Coi. They're both acclaimed establishments, to be sure, but a couple of kitchen stints hardly amounts to a robust résumé, even for a young chef. Yet Yao, a native of the San Gabriel Valley suburb of Walnut, exhibits an almost preternatural knack for weaving together subtle Taiwanese and Japanese flavors in ways that are at once elegant and unpretentious.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about Kato is that it pulls off something few restaurants are able to make viable — the chef's choice tasting menu. Part of Kato's appeal has to do with what economists refer to as a “low barrier to entry.” A five-course dinner here will cost you $49 before tax and tip (actually, it's more like eight courses, once you include two snacks and a dessert).
Diners generally view tasting menus as a premium experience, and for the most part they're correct — dinner at Providence runs $180 for seven courses, n/naka offers 13 courses for $185, and Le Comptoir charges $89 for seven. And we're one of the cheaper big cities when it comes to tasting menus. In San Francisco, $200-plus menus have become standard at any remotely ambitious restaurant.
Of course, these places operate in the highest echelon of fine dining, offering the metaphorical first-class seats. Kato, by contrast, is more akin to the low-cost carrier, the Spirit Airlines — its tasting menu experience is whittled down into pure form and function.
On one evening, the first bite tastes like a shotgun blast of umami — a buttery cube of toast dabbed with egg yolk and a rich miso-sunflower spread, capped with a furl of uni and salty, micro-shaved country ham. Next comes a flat green disc made from albacore and mashed avocado, almost like a mellowed-out seafood pate, which is crusted with spicy breadcrumbs and perky little leaves of rau ram, a pungent Vietnamese herb.
Then there's a dish that's become sort of a signature at Kato (meaning, the one most likely to be shared on Instagram): pickled cucumbers and luscious smoked hamachi arranged into a neat pile, splattered with a dark, charred-scallion sauce and dotted with tiny flowers. The burnt, smoky sensation registers a notch or two above perceptible, just enough to tantalize but not overwhelm.
A deep ceramic bowl lands, holding delicate somen noodles floating in a clear broth made from dashi stock and tomato water. Slurping the saline yet refreshing liquid invites a closer look into the bowl, revealing tiny, deep-fried baby shrimp. They look a lot like Sea Monkeys bobbing in the broth.
The parade of plates continues, each precious enough to consume in a few bites, while Yao builds excitement and shows off his cleverness in subtle ways. A beautifully poached cod filet is lacquered with a vibrant green sauce speckled with bursts of orange. The green component, a warm relish made from ginger and scallion, is not unlike the garnish that comes alongside Hainanese chicken; the orange is a blend of fermented mandarin skin and lip-numbing Sichuan peppercorns — pretty heady stuff. After the cod, a wide saucer of rice porridge arrives — pure comfort, thickened with dried scallops and shredded crab — followed by a few slabs of fatty Wagyu beef, grilled over Japanese charcoal and paired with a silky, smoked eggplant puree.
At this point I'm mostly full, but it's hard to turn down Kato's one supplement, an $8 bowl of lu rou fan, a hearty Taiwanese stew made from braised pork belly. The meltingly soft meat is scooped over rice, along with an oozing, soft-boiled egg that piles richness on richness. A few wedges of pickled radish probably would turn this into the best pork belly rice bowl in town, but who can complain?
Dessert, a firm buttermilk pudding gilded with rose-flavored shaved ice and mar de bois strawberries, is thankfully as light and ethereal as it sounds.
Kato's tasting menu is a borderline steal. It's probably worth twice the price. More importantly, though, it's a reminder that, even when done simply, the dramatic unfolding of a tasting menu can be captivating and unabashed fun, a sensory pleasure-fest on par with immersing your brain in a Stranger Things binge or streaming the new Frank Ocean album in full. As much as we covet the power of choice, entrusting yourself to a chef with a story to tell — letting someone else dictate what you put into your mouth, more or less — is still the most exciting way to eat. In this case, it probably helps when the check stings a little less, too.
So how is Yao able to #MakeTastingMenusFunAgain? I can imagine one way — by cutting back on certain amenities often associated with traditional restaurants. Besides the sparse square footage of the space, the most visually obvious clue at Kato is its decor. With bare, whitewashed walls and a cement floor, the dining room takes minimalism to its inevitable conclusion. The result is somewhere between an Apple Store and an indie art gallery robbed of its paintings. Wooden stools with thin cushions serve as seating. Service, at times, can be described as endearingly amateur. Staff is minimal. And perhaps the biggest omission for some diners: There is no alcohol just yet. Until Kato is able to pour beer and wine — which Yao hopes will happen by the end of the year — you'll have to make do with pairings of house-made strawberry soda, Taiwanese apple cider, yuzu lemonade or floral jasmine tea, which is far from the worst thing in the world.
That said, I sincerely hope Kato is able to obtain its alcohol license soon, not merely because this type of cooking would pair beautifully with wine but also because it's hard to imagine a restaurant of this size surviving without the additional revenue. Profit margins, even at very popular restaurants, are notoriously thin. The truth is, I have no idea whether Kato, in its current incarnation, is sustainable as a small business. I do know we're blessed to live in a city where that type of autonomous experiment is even possible.
Perhaps it prompts a larger discussion: Amid a tide of rising food, labor and rent costs, what is our highest priority when judging the value of a restaurant? What are we willing to overlook?
So consider this caveat: If you're someone who ruffles at certain austerities — blank walls, uncomfortable furniture, no sommelier — this place might not be your cup of tea. But just as some air travelers are willing to skip leg room and a complimentary beverage in exchange for a cheaper flight, Kato could well be a harbinger of what to expect from the next generation of independent restaurants. If that means eschewing certain luxuries in favor of the exquisite and extremely personal cooking that Yao is pulling off, I'd imagine that the future might not be so bleak after all.
KATO | Three stars | 11925 Santa Monica Blvd., Sawtelle | (424) 535-3041 | katorestaurant.com | Mon.-Thu., 5:30-10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 5:30-11 p.m. | No alcohol | Lot parking