Photo by Anne Fishbein
Japanese restaurants have always been noted for their tendency to specialize, one in grilled chicken and one in fried pork cutlets, one in ramen and one in udon, one in eel and another in herring. A friend once visited a specialty turtle restaurant in Tokyo whose courses included a glass of the raw, pink turtle blood, glowing like rosé wine.
But even in Honda Plaza, a Little Tokyo strip mall full of these sorts of dedicated cafés, Kani Mura comes off as a little obsessive, a restaurant devoted to all things crab, from steamed crab to crab cakes, soft-shell crabs to crabs sautéed in the kind of Continental garlic-butter sauce you may never have experienced outside the context of a red-leather booth.
The main event at Kani Mura is the kani-nabe, a sort of crab stew you cook ingredient by ingredient in a hot pot at the middle of the table, a clay cauldron set over a device emblazoned with the brand name Joycook, which sounds like something out of a William Burroughs novel but is more or less a standard- issue hot plate.
After a cursory green salad and a small bowl of vinegared squid, the waiter brings out a platter of cooked and split king-crab legs, a stack of napa cabbage, scallions, cubed tofu and a mess of tiny, pale enoki mushrooms that transform themselves into a mass of writhing worms when they hit the boiling broth — the rudimentary shabu-shabu kit, with crab in place of the beef.
Part of the magic of shabu-shabu, the essential Japanese method of hot-pot cooking, is observing the transformative effect of the process, watching thin, bloody slices of beef frost into paleness and pull taut as they cook. Short of waving raw haunches of venison through a bonfire, there may be no cooking method more primal, more urgent, than plunging chunks of animal into a seething earthen pot — Levi-Strauss, I believe, once identified it as the starting point of civilization.
Kani-nabe may be tasty, but there is nothing primal about it. Cool ingredients become hot. Green things wilt. The broth, a simple tincture of water and kombu seaweed, darkens and becomes infused with the punchy aroma of boiled crab shells. Glass noodles soften, slither and collapse into themselves. The broth is whisked away to the kitchen at the end of the meal, thickened with cooked rice, and returned to the table as a loose, fragrant porridge into which the waiter beats a single raw egg.
It is pleasant to be confronted with the condition known as Too Much Crab, to pry cylinders of snowy meat from their expertly incised shells with long, narrow spoons, to season them with the rather tart ponzu sauce, to experience the calm of shellfish-fueled satori.
The owner, a Korean native who developed his passion for crab while a student at Tokyo’s Waseda University, floats over to the table and smiles like a Raphael Madonna. He knows he’s got you.
Kani Mura may not be the ultimate repository of all things crab. There is nothing like the superb crab sushi at the West Los Angeles restaurant Sushi Tenn; no variety of crab parts like the parade of chicken parts at Kokekokko across the street; no tiny green dabs of crab brains presented in otherwise empty bowls.
But if the kani-nabe is not enough (after a cleaned crab shell filled with chile-hot seaweed salad and a creamy potato salad that will remind you of elementary-school potlucks and church picnics), you can supplement it with a plate of sautéed Dungeness crab dressed with a spicy-sweet sauce that bears certain resemblances to what Koreans use on raw crabs, a bean paste–infused pile of crustacean parts that resists any attempts at daintiness, a 10-napkin, stained-shirt extravaganza.
Kani Mura, 456 E. Second St., Little Tokyo, (213) 617-1008. Open Mon.–Sat. 5:30–10:30 p.m. AE, MC and V. Beer and wine. Lot parking $2.50. Dinner for two, food only, $35–$50.