Seven tasty meats [restaurant review]
The Japanese’s relatively young tradition of eating beef is gloriously celebrated at Yamaya
You wouldn’t know it from the number of Japanese steakhouses that have been popping up around town, but the Japanese are relatively new at eating beef. The overwhelmingly Buddhist country banned most cattle consumption in the year 675 and only legalized it in 1868. When it was announced in 1872 that the Emperor himself had eaten beef and lamb, resistance to the practice fell. Still, most of the population ate beef only rarely until the 1960s.
The style of Japanese barbecue most celebrated now is yakiniku, a variant on the grill-your-own Korean barbecue style. There are differences that fit the culture, with sauces that are less pungent so the focus is on the natural flavor of quality beef.
A restaurant in Torrance offers a particularly authentic version of this cuisine. Yamaya Japanese Wagyu & Grill is the first American outpost of a Japanese restaurant chain that features the Japanese wagyu breed of cattle raised in Oregon by traditional methods. They’re fed a natural diet and allowed to live longer than commodity cattle. The more mature animal has a richer flavor.
The restaurant in the eastern corner of the mall at Crenshaw and Pacific Coast Hwy. has a demure frontage and a neat and modern but slightly anonymous interior. The only unusual element is the industrial-size exhaust fans that hang above every table to vent the smell of cooking beef. They work well and are surprisingly quiet, so it’s not like having dinner under a running aircraft engine.
The menu offers the expected variety of grilled beef but also some noodle soup, shabu-shabu, and sukiyaki entrees that are portioned for two people. While these looked intriguing, my companion and I wanted to try as many different items as possible, so we ordered a seven-item combination yakiniku dinner and a bowl of bibimbap stone pot rice for main courses.
This was preceded by appetizers, and the three I most wanted to try went a bit beyond my companion’s comfort zone. He doesn’t usually like raw fish or meats, but gamely decided to try mentaiko (spicy salted caviar), top sirloin tartare, and salmon marinated in Japanese rice vinegar with onions.
The salmon was the most conventional item, lightly pickled fish with a little sweetness and a little vinegar tartness. In typical Japanese fashion they had left the good ingredients to speak for themselves, the flavor of the fish delicately enhanced.
The other two items had more art and less nature in the combinations. Mentaiko is made from the eggs of the Alaskan cod fish, called Pollock, which are salt-cured and blended with chili peppers. The flavors are strong but balanced, the texture a bit weird and slightly pasty, and it is often used as a flavoring in noodle dishes and soups but sometimes eaten alone. This was the first time I had tried it by itself, and while it was interesting I like it better with spaghetti.
The beef tartare was a cylinder of shredded top quality raw beef perfumed with sesame oil and topped with a raw egg yolk. Small portions of toasted garlic, shredded scallion, and pine nuts accompanied it, and added little bursts of flavor and texture. The meat itself was rich and full of flavor, and the condiments made it an experience that was simultaneously primal and civilized. If you are at all open minded about flavor and enjoy the taste of beef, try this – you may be surprised.
The manager, a pleasant fellow named Mr. Koyanagi, had helped suggest our menu selections and also asked about our beverage preferences. They have many premium sakes and shochus here but the wine selection is limited, with only one red wine by the glass. We had tried some shochus with our starters, but preferred wines with the main course. Mr. Koyanagi mentioned that he had some bottles that didn’t appear on the list, and offered a Beaujolais that worked nicely with the meaty flavors to come.
While we nibbled our starters a server fired up the grill in the middle of our table, which had gas for heat along with charcoal for flavor. When the first items were demolished he brought the beef, an array of seven different cuts of meat, attractively presented. A few slices of zucchini, onion, and pepper were provided too, but this dinner was all about the beef. Five types were presented unseasoned, one had a sprinkling of sesame seeds and salt, and one was marinated with soy sauce, sesame, and chopped scallions. We were encouraged to grill each type rare and take it off before it became tough.
What followed was a thoughtful carnivore’s dream meal, an exploration of the flavors and textures of beef. I don’t have room in this article to rhapsodize about all seven, but suffice it to say that we were engrossed in analyzing each type. Was the buttery richness of the short rib more enjoyable than the more fully flavored top sirloin cap? How did that compare with the ribeye or the chewier tongue or chuck flap tail? Did the flatiron steak’s marinade and scallions make it the best palate cleanser between unadorned cuts, or did the marinated flank steak wrapped around a rice ball do that better? It was a challenge to put our thoughts into words as we savored each piece.
When we had devoured the beef we had the bibimbap to finish things. Like yakiniku style cooking, this dish of rice heated in a stone bowl has a Korean influence, but with the accent on natural flavors rather than high seasonings. Beef, vegetable, and seafood bibimbaps are offered, and since we knew we would be in beef overload we decided on vegetable. The rice had been quietly sizzling and developing a tasty crust as we ate the beef, and when we mixed everything together there were crusty bits where the rice and sauce had cooked next to the bowl. The crisped rice with root vegetables, bean sprouts, and spinach was a fine finish to the meal.
Mr. Koyanagi surprised us with a dessert, steaming cups of dashi soup with citrusy yuzu added. We’re used to desserts being sweet instead of umami-laden and scented with seaweed and bonito, but it was strangely compelling.
Dinner for two with a bottle of wine and two shochus ran $140, remarkably reasonable for a meal of this caliber. Yakiniku is the style of dining for people who really want to savor good beef. Yamaya’s preparations of quality meat hit the balance of simplicity and sophistication. The Japanese came to eating beef late, but they’ve made up for the lost time.
Yamaya is at 2529 Pacific Coast Hwy., Torrance. Open 11:30 a.m. – 2 p.m. and 5:30 – 9:30 p.m. Tue-Sun. Parking lot, wheelchairs OK, beer, wine, shochu, and sake served. Menu hakatayamaya.com. (310) 257-1800. Pen
by Richard Foss