Atwater Village has no shortage of great things to eat. There's the brash Italian of All'Aqua, the lived-in elegance of Canelé, various taverns and bars both old and new, legendary breakfast burritos, and the small wonder that is Dune, which serves the city's best falafel on just-cooked pita. Despite all this bounty, Atwater didn't seem to have a nexus, a place that felt like the neighborhood's living room. In the daytime, that spot perhaps is best embodied by Proof, the excellent coffee shop and bakery. But in the evening, the restaurants and drinking holes of Atwater feel kind of singular, tucked-away pockets of culture that — while often lovely — don't exemplify the third space Atwater deserves. I love Tam O'Shanter's Scottish/American classic vibe as much as anyone, but it speaks to the old (and best) Atwater Village more directly than to its newer, more gentrified truth.
Ozu East Kitchen, the sparse Asian eatery in the spot that used to be Atwater Village Farm, speaks to that truth. Its openness and dining-hall vibe contribute to the sense that, if Atwater were a high school, this could be its cafeteria. In fact, Ozu might be a model for the modern neighborhood restaurant, one with a low bar of entry (prices are reasonable), quick customer turnover (making those reasonable prices economically viable) and a menu that will satisfy food nerds and comfort seekers alike. You order at the counter and take a number to your table, where you sit on geometrically boxy stools or benches and wait for your food and drinks to arrive. You never have to wait long. The staff is friendly and efficient, the kitchen works quickly to get food out, and the room is full by mid-evening.
I would not have guessed that midrange, pan-Asian food served in a setting that's basically fast-casual would be what Atwater needs, but apparently it is.
Ozu is owned and operated by Paul Yi, a Korean-American movie producer who runs a number of Asian film festivals. Yi has no professional kitchen experience, just a passion for cooking he says he picked up on a trip to Thailand (though most of Ozu's offerings are Japanese-ish). He's brought on chef de cuisine Joshua Han, who has worked at Saint Martha and Trois Mec, to help him run the kitchen.
The offerings from that kitchen come listed under three categories: snacks, smalls and bowls, plus bento boxes at lunch. There are also a few set dinner options, which combine a snack, a bowl and a house beer or wine for around $20.
If Ozu were just a little less bright, a little more moody, it might make for a great drinking den, given the limited but well-chosen list of draft beers, which all come by the pitcher. The snacks and smalls sections of the menu offer dishes to go with that beer (or with one of the three sakes), and those dishes would be right at home on an izakaya menu. The chicken karaage made from jidori chicken thighs is cut into bite-sized pieces for maximum crispness and comes with a ramekin of mayo lightly kissed with yuzu. There's also a crispy rice cake topped with a sunny-side egg and chili vinaigrette, as well as various pickled and charred and blistered snacks. The edamame with miso butter and crushed wasabi peas creates a mashup of three kinds of umami that goes particularly well with beer.
But Yi doesn't stick strictly to Japan when looking for inspiration, and some of Ozu's best dishes arise from that flexibility. There's a porcine version of a Taiwanese beef roll, the dense, crispy, oily scallion pancake wrapped around juicy braised pork shoulder, proving once again that good barbecue is an international language with nebulous borders. It's kind of stupidly decadent and unbalanced and delicious. “Avocado toast” is actually a smash of guacamole that's had its lime replaced with yuzu, served atop a crisped rice cake and accompanied by something they're calling “smoked kochugang.” Japan meets California meets Korea, and they all get along beautifully.
But most people are not here to drink and snack — rather, they've come to slurp ramen (or, in some cases, udon). The ramen at Ozu is decidedly lighter than the fat-laden tonkotsu broth we've all become addicted to. There are three varieties — pork, chicken and miso — and despite the lack of fat (Yi strains most of the fat from his broth after milking it for as much flavor as possible), I loved the pork version best. The broth retains all its roasty pork flavor, and along with the springy noodles that are only barely thicker than other favorites around town, Ozu's ramen has a pared-back simplicity that's immensely satisfying.
Less simple and more fun is the shrimp and kimchi udon bowl, which may or may not be inspired by itameshi, the Japanese-Italian mashup that's all the rage in Japan. It certainly has many of the same pleasures as that style of cooking. It's creamy and lightly spicy and studded with small cubes of Spam for emphasis.
Yi has even put together an affordable and smart wine list, which ranges from Napa cabs to Hungarian Furmint to Premier Cru Champagne. It's a short list befitting the straightforward menu and the sleek space, and I fear it will go underappreciated. But how nice to find a casual restaurant serving wine for the cheapskate wine snobs among us, as well as for everyone else.
Ozu Kitchen East is hardly remarkable, but the prototypical neighborhood eatery doesn't need to be. If I were a food company looking to take over the world, one of the many in the industry aiming to be the next Chipotle, I'd pay attention to this unassuming spot. It has taken the needs and the tastes of the urban creative class and boiled them down into a formula that makes sense: tasty Asian food, good beer, good wine, stylish but simple atmosphere, service that feels genuinely invested. Who among us wouldn't want a place nearby to grab a bowl of ramen, a plate of karaage chicken and a pitcher of beer? Ozu feels like the future, and it's a fun, tasty and convenient future at that.
OZU EAST KITCHEN | 2 stars | 3224 Glendale Blvd., Atwater Village | (323) 284-8773 | ozueastkitchen.com | Lunch: Tue.-Sun., noon-3 p.m.; dinner: Tue.-Thu. & Sun., 5-9 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 5-10 p.m. | Beer and wine | Street parking