The word "izakaya" gets thrown around a lot, and it's possible that it means different things to different people, especially outside of Japan. To me, izakaya is a place you go to eat and drink — but primarily to drink. The food, no matter how delicious, is a fringe benefit but not the main point of the experience.
In that sense, many places in America that call themselves izakayas seem to be somewhat backward, similarly to the way we've commandeered tapas, which in Spain are mainly served as bar snacks to fortify you for more wine. I don't know why there's such a hard line in America between bars and restaurants, a bar being a place you might hang out all night, a restaurant being a place you sit and order and pay and leave. It's too bad, because the middle ground — common in Japan, Europe, Australia and just about everywhere else — is pretty great.
One of the few places in America to fully channel the Japanese izakaya experience is (or was — I haven't been back in years) Decibel in New York City. Subterranean and run by a group of punk-rock Japanese kids, it offers almost 100 sakes and a small food menu. It was my favorite place to drink for a while in the early 2000s, is where I learned about sake, and is also the only place I've ever been drunk enough to actually clamber up onto a table. It's a story someone else will have to tell you because I have zero recollection of the event.
What does Decibel have to do with Los Angeles? We'll get to that.
Tsubaki, the new izakaya in Echo Park, falls victim to the American conundrum of order-eat-leave but for reasons having to do with space rather than spirit. The tiny storefront on Allison Avenue has had several businesses pass through in recent years, most notably Cortez, which was a pioneer of the breezy style of eating (plant-heavy, beautifully composed small plates that were perhaps a tad too expensive) that seems to dominate L.A. these days. It's not clear why restaurants have been unable to survive here long-term, but size is almost certainly a factor. It's only size that keeps Tsubaki from being a drinks-first izakaya, because if people used this place even remotely like a bar, the economics of the enterprise would fail spectacularly. So you make a reservation, you order from the menu, you eat a meal, and then you leave.
It is the drinks, however, that make Tsubaki so exciting. The food is good (more on that in a minute), but I could fall headlong into this sake list and stay there for far longer than is appropriate, given the setup. The list is thanks to sommelier Courtney Kaplan, who co-owns the restaurant with chef Charles Namba. Kaplan spent time working on the sommelier team at Bestia and also at the fantastic Hollywood wine shop Domaine LA. At some point prior to that, she lived in New York City and worked at Decibel. She may or may not have had to deal with me climbing onto a table; like I said, I don't remember. (If she did, I apologize ... in fact, either way, I apologize.)
While Tsubaki has none of Decibel's grungy aesthetic, it does provide a similar opportunity for sake education, especially given Kaplan's clear, conversational tasting notes and her delight in talking to customers about what's on the list. The seasonal section is especially fun, showcasing special sakes that are particular to the time of year. The current springtime offerings are bright and zippy and fresh, and go exceedingly well with Namba's cooking.
Namba is Japanese-American but has spent the majority of his career cooking mostly in high-end French kitchens, including the much-missed Chanterelle in New York City, and Bouchon here in Los Angeles. His menu at Tsubaki brings in elements from his European-style training — there's a foie gras terrine that's marinated in sake but is classically, deliciously French in every other way — but mainly, this is a menu more inspired by Namba's heritage than his fine-dining career.
Much of the food is a simple celebration of the ingredients at hand. Hiramasa sashimi is cut into fat slabs of silky fish and presented naked, with a touch of wasabi on the side. Chicken meatballs seem as if they've been created to distill the idea of chicken-y-ness, their juicy poultry essence ramped up by the addition of a runny egg yolk that you use as a rich dipping sauce.
A couple of dishes might serve as an entire meal, such as a hearty bowl of curry soba noodles, or a simmered New York strip steak with mushrooms, but almost everything is best suited to sharing and nibbling. When Namba's creativity shows up, it does so in the details, like the honeyed vinegar that comes alongside the karaage, which hints at a Southern twist, or the moromi miso that comes nestled in endive leaves on a dish of quail. The little birds are cooked perfectly, with crisp skin and a lovely rosy center, but the dish's thrill is in those fermented soybeans that practically explode with umami.
The tiny space presents one problem (aside from making this less a bar and more a restaurant), which is that it is skull-numbingly loud when seated to capacity. It's the kind of noise that makes you have to scream at your dinner partner to be heard, which, in turn, adds to the noise; the kind of loud that makes relaxing a little difficult. As it stands, the restaurant is adorable in its cozy hospitality, which feels personal, in part because of its tiny size. But I'd love it if I could approach this food and these drinks a little more leisurely in terms of time and space and violence to my eardrums.
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But those are often the kinds of concessions that need to be made at a restaurant this personal. Kaplan and Namba have a vision that is wholly their own, that is ambitious in ways no set of investors might understand. There's a lot of love in this little box of a restaurant, a lot of knowledge, a lot of generosity. It may not channel the function exactly, but Tsubaki does channel the spirit of a Japanese izakaya beautifully.
TSUBAKI | 1356 Allison Ave., Echo Park | (213) 900-4900 | tsubakila.com | Sun. & Tues.-Thurs., 5:30-10 p.m.; Fri. & Sat., 5:30-11 p.m. | Plates, $8-26 | Beer, wine and sake | Valet parking