Katsuya by Starck: Chic Sushi Spot Fits SoBe Like Wasabi on Fish
Master sushi chef Katsuya Uechi's first restaurant made a splash in Studio City, California, in 1997. Nine years later, when he teamed up with Parisian design powerhouse Philippe Starck, it was a match made in heaven — or at least in Brentwood, the tony L.A. hood where they opened up shop.
See also: Slide show: "Closer Look: Katsuya by Starck."
California is now home to six Katsuya by Starck enterprises, all operating under the umbrella of the L.A.-based SBE Restaurant Group. (Among its numerous properties are the Bazaar by José Andrés and the recently purchased Raleigh Hotel on Collins Avenue.) The first two Katsuya spots beyond the Golden State opened this year: one in Houston and the other at the SLS Hotel South Beach.
To get to SoBe's Katsuya by Starck, which debuted in June, you must first cross the SLS lobby, proceed past a couple of bars, breeze by the Bazaar, and head outdoors onto the Bazaar's patio. The restaurant is on the left.
As soon as you enter, sushi chefs and service workers shout, "Irrashaimase!" ("Welcome to our home!"). We unfortunately were seated at the beginning of dinner rush; after six or seven such squawks, the greeting grew grating.
The 147-seat dining room is as simple and elegant as a plate of sashimi. The circular space soars with a lofty ceiling and wraparound windows covered in sheer white curtains. Walls, tables, and chairs are white, and the lighting is low and prone to glowing in red hues occasionally. A big black flag with Japanese lettering hangs over a sushi bar. In Katsuya's Kanji, the white letters translate to "success."
It's all quite pretty and refined, but loud house music transforms the tastefulness into the tiresome, too-cool-for-school SoBe ambiance. For more of that, upstairs is the sultry Dragon Room Lounge, with giant images of geisha eyes and glossy red lips posted on the walls. Then again, this sleek, chic sushi chain has long been the epitome of hip in L.A., so Katsuya is really just being itself.
Sea urchin, toro, jumbo clams, and kanpachi are a few of two dozen à la carte sushi and sashimi offerings. Diners may likewise opt for a "chef's selection" of sushi ($30) or sashimi ($35). A platter of the latter brought two to three pieces each of a half-dozen fish: velvety dark bigeye tuna, small squares of salmon, thin fillets of yellowtail and halibut, slices of hokki clam, and ocean-fresh half-moons of scallop interspersed with lemon. All were pristinely fresh and simply presented with a few nests of shredded daikon, shiso leaves, and white pickled ginger; a small bottle of soy sauce is placed on the table. Fresh wasabi is available for a $5 surcharge; regular wasabi isn't offered in its place if you don't pony up.
Some two dozen rolls range from classic (spicy tuna, California, salmon skin, yellowtail) to specialty (baked shrimp roll, rock shrimp tempura roll, sunset roll of freshwater eel). Soy paper can substitute for nori ($1 extra), and avocado may be added for $2.
A hand roll of baked snow crab tossed with the chef's dynamite sauce and wrapped with rice in soy paper is listed under "Katsuya signatures." So is crispy rice with spicy tuna. In case we hadn't noticed it categorized as such on the menu, our waiter reminded us of its "not-to-miss" status. I could have missed it, frankly. Four petite rectangles of rice, the exteriors crisped in butter and the insides creamy, each comes capped with a purée of spicy tuna with a jalapeño ring on top. The flavors and textures are enticing, but it's prepared with more aplomb at Katsuya's Bal Harbour competitor, Makoto.
Other alluring seafood plates are a ceviche of assorted sashimi; halibut wrapped with avocado and crab; scallops atop slices of kiwi; and seared albacore bathed in luscious garlic-soy-lemon butter.
The description of vegetable tempura promises onion, green bean, zucchini, eggplant, yam, carrots, asparagus, and shiitake mushroom. The last two were missing, but the vegetables present were encased in crisp, frizzy coats. Only the eggplant was mishandled — undercooked, which with this particular vegetable translates to the texture and taste of wet cardboard.
More than two dozen robata grill items, a somewhat new addition to the Katsuya formula, bring short skewers threaded with the vegetable, poultry, beef, or seafood of your choice grilled over hot binchotan coals. Excepting foie gras ($15) and seafood such as half a lobster ($25), the skewers are $4 or $5 per pair. We tried chicken and an enoki/bacon combo, whose myriad mushrooms came wrapped in bacon and seared on the grill.
This is a menu busy with boxed-in signatures and specialties. One such rectangle holds a trio of Kobe offerings: foie-gras-topped filet pooled in a plum wine reduction ($30), a ten-ounce rib eye with truffle butter and maitake mushrooms ($40), and tobanyaki ($32) — the last lavishing steaming-hot seared tenderloin cubes and enoki, shiitake, and hon-shimeji mushrooms on a sizzle platter. The flavor of the meat, mushrooms, and sake soy sauce would have been terrific if not for an overpoweringly salty soy impact.
Two other problems: The cubes of meat are cut too small, so there are no large, luscious bites involved. And it came cooked between medium-rare and medium. That's not a great way to sample Kobe, which is why we had ordered it rare.
Other meat mains are surprisingly prosaic: chicken teriyaki, panko-crusted chicken stir-fry, and grilled lamb chops with ginger-scallion pesto. Moderate pricing for the trio — $16 to $28 — is equally unexpected. The bill at Katsuya can certainly add up to a pricey night out, but individual dishes are less expensive than one might imagine.
Plus there are deals. A Japanese prix fixe of miso soup, salad, rice, kobachi, and a choice of steak, chicken, or salmon teriyaki — along with mochi ice cream or fruit — is just $25. That's quite a bargain for a joint this classy. Chef Katsuya's five-course tasting menu of signature dishes is $75, which is also a nice price.
Miso-marinated black cod is a Katsuya specialty, but because it's also a Nobu/Zuma/Makoto specialty, we moved on to striped bass Szechuan-style (yes, another signature). Three fillet strips are breaded and stir-fried in a stimulating Szechuan sauce flecked with red chili peppers and coriander seeds. A dinner companion lamented the lack of rice to sop up the sauce.
The list of evocative specialty drinks is a garden of elderflower, watermelon, serrano chilies, pressed rosemary, cucumber, and peach purée — nowadays, all part and parcel of the standard mixologist toolkit. And that's a good thing.
A somewhat extensive sake list, meanwhile, includes all manner of traditional and nontraditional offerings, including quite a few labels not found elsewhere.
Red wines are heavy on Cabernet-Bordeaux blends from California — from the low end, a Louis Martini from Sonoma ($10 per glass, $38 a bottle), up to Opus One from Napa ($390). Chardonnays are mostly from Napa too, including popular labels such as Cakebread ($23/$90) and Far Niente ($125). But you can also pluck an Italian Masi Pinot Grigio for $42 or a Whitehaven Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand for $46. Markups are substantial.
High-rollers, take note: The menu advertises that guests should "not hesitate to ask staff or management about off-menu treasures."
The dessert recital was short and sweet: Flourless chocolate cake was one (yawn), but we chose cubes of barely baked Fuji apple and buttons of almond cookie served in a light, tasty pastry bowl. A scoop of vanilla ice cream and drizzles of caramel and tarragon syrup enhanced the treat, but $12 is a lot for what is essentially a middling apple pie à la mode.
A soft square of something custard-like also came plated with the apple dessert. Our waiter looked at it in a puzzled manner and then recalled it was an almond cookie. Except it clearly wasn't that at all.
The waiter was personable and involved in making sure our meal was going smoothly, and a vast staff works the room effectively. Service is solid in this regard. But our server, along with a couple of others who chipped in, was stumped when it came to identifying fish on the sashimi platter and the type of soy sauce used. A menu tutorial is sorely needed.
Katsuya's raw fish dishes are superb. The rest of the dining experience is like a plate of wasabi, pickled ginger, and soy — enhancing but not entrancing without the sushi.
See also: Slide show: "Closer Look: Katsuya by Starck."
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