Totoraku (aka The Pico Teriyaki House) - Interrupt

>> Sunday, April 8, 2012

Date of Dining: 3/31/2012
Price: $150 per person
Location: Shhhh! It's a secret!

The Quick Bit:
+ The best place to enjoy the best flavors of beef in all of its forms
+ Momotaro tomatoes
+ Amazing amuse platter
+ Great friendly service
Δ Gaining admission can be challenging

Recently, I found that I had the opportunity to select one sub-$200 restaurant to enjoy for a trip to Los Angeles. While I did consider some other trendier options, the difficulty of getting reservations steered me towards Totoraku. Having now enjoyed Totoraku, I believe I made the correct restaurant selection.
For those unfamiliar with Totoraku, it is not your fault. You see, Totoraku is supposed to be a "secret" restaurant - to gain admission, one must be invited or know a regular who have "invitation privileges." To obtain invitation privileges, one must become friends with Chef/Owner Kaz Oyama and receive a business card from him. Once the card is obtained, reservations are made through calling Chef Kaz directly on his cell phone (not by leaving a message on the publicly listed answering service). 
The reason for the secrecy is not that the restaurant is violating any laws, it is simply that Chef Kaz is aware that not everyone will be receptive of his cuisine. He simply wants assurance that his cuisine will be enjoyed and appreciated by all the enter the doors. What is so special about the cuisine? One may be told that Totoraku is a glorified yakiniku place, but in addition to yakiniku, Totoraku specializes in serving raw beef. 
Another aspect of Totoraku is that Chef Kaz is a connoisseur of fine wine - there is no faster way to being granted invitation privileges than bringing some nice wines and sharing with the entire staff. While I normally don't talk too much about wine, I feel obligated to share our table's wine list.
2007 Domaine des Croix 1er Cru
2005 Kosta Browne  Koplen Vineyard Pinot Noir
2004 Chateau Pontet-Canet Grand Cru
2001 Sanford La Rinconada Vineyard Pinot Noir
2001 Luis Canas Amaren Reserva
Amuse Platter:
Once we were seated an amuse platter was brought out for our enjoyment. Clockwise from top left:
  • ankimo - monkfish liver
  • homemade tofu
  • kohlrabi, bacon, hollandaise
  • momotaro tomatoes with mozzarella
  • mango, white truffle, proscuitto
  • abalone, lima beans
  • lobster, raddichio, caviar
  • crab deviled eggs
  • (center) sockeye salmon with avocado
The amuse platter is always an interesting part of the Totoraku experience as it changes with each experience. Yet, every person that has talked about the amuse platter has been extremely impressed with the flavors, plating, and range of dishes. Each item is impeccably prepared and definitely works as an amuse for the rest of the meal.
Highlights for this iteration of the plate include the homemade tofu and the mango. The tofu has such a delicate yet rich texture; it was creamy in both mouth feel and consistency, but definitely remained as tofu. The mango was just a good contrast of sweet with cured saltiness while having a touch of truffle to take the flavors to the next level.

Raw Courses:
top sirloin carpaccio - special sea salt, carrot, lettuce
We started the raw beef courses with the top sirloin carpaccio. The carpaccio was a way to showcase the pure flavors of beef without much fat. The slightly sweet vegetables brought out an almost similar sweet quality in the beef. The crunchiness of the carrot also provided a great textural contrast to the chewiness of the beef. Overall, it was a nice way to start out the beef adventure.
smoked ribeye cap - garlic, ginger, spicy sauce
The next raw course was a sliced smoked ribeye cap, which was the favorite raw course of all the ladies at the table. While ribeye is not traditionally considered lean, this was yet another showcase of lean beef protein. The meat was smoked ever so slightly on the edges, which added some complexity to the flavor. The plate was accompanied with garlic, ginger, and hot sauce which we were asked to mix into our own soy sauce plates and dip the meat. The smokiness of the rib eye was really complemented by the flavor of the soy.
beef throat
Along with the smoked rib eye, we were served beef throat. This was my favorite raw course of the evening. In order to produce the amount of throat in the photo, about one and a half cows were slaughtered. To contrast the less fatty flavor of the smoked rib eye, the beef throat is almost purely about the luxurious, buttery, fatty mouth feel of beef. One key component I found with the throat was that the temperature of the beef was important. The throat retained a chewier texture without becoming too chewy if it had been heated too much. 
beef tartare - cucumber, pear, apple, quail egg
tartare after mixing
The final raw course was the beef tartare. This was the culmination of the raw courses as it showcased a fattier mouth feel with the creaminess of the yolk integrated into the entire dish. The pear added a nice element of sweetness to the dish while the tartness of the apple added some acid as well as additional contrasting sweetness. The cucumber rounded out the textures. 

After the raw courses, a yakiniku grill was placed in front of the table:
binchotan charcoal
The yakiniku grill we received contained some binchotan charcoal that were already preheated to extremely high temperatures. Please note that I was elected as the table's grill master, so there aren't as many photos as I would have liked.
beef tongue
The beef tongue highlighted both the fattiness of the beef as well as the texture. When cooked medium rare, the tongue exhibited a bit of crunchiness. Additionally, the marbled fat inside the tongue really permeated the flavor of the tongue.
filet mignon - shiitake, shishito, bell pepers, onions
Following the tongue, we received filet mignon along with a large selection of raw vegetables and vegetables for grilling.
momotaro tomatoes
With the filet a vegetables came the bowl of momtaro tomatoes, which was easily the favorite fruit selection of the table. 
The filet mignon was the consensus favorite of the entire table for the yakiniku portion of the meal. The filet was marinated to have a sweet flavor when grilled. Coupled with the tenderness of the filet and the amount of fat marbled in filet and it was an easy choice as the overall favorite.
outside rib eye
The outside rib eye highlighted an even fattier portion of the beef. This was mainly to contrast with the inside rib eye, which was brought out afterwards. Personally, I'm a fan of outside ribeye on the regular steak, so I am also a fan when they are contrasted in the yakiniku preparation as well.
inside rib eye
The inside rib eye had a similar sweet flavor that resembled the filet, but it contained much less fat. It was easily the least fatty cooked portion of the meal. The less fatty portions do a good job of highlighting the pure flavor of the beef without the fat flavor.
short rib - gal bi
Next, we were served some short rib (or gal bi), which was my favorite cooked protein. The short rib had the most fat content and hence the most luxurious mouth feel and fat flavor of beef to it. The meat was cooked to be extremely tender yet retain some chewiness.
skirt steak
The final cooked course was the skirt steak. I felt this was a contrast to the short rib as it was also a very fatty cut, except where the short rib exhibited fat marbling, the skirt steak exhibits more of a connective tissue fattiness. As a result the skirt steak also had the luxurious fatty mouth feel, but was chewier. 
egg drop soup
The final portion of the meal was an egg drop soup containing beef, beef stock, shiitake mushrooms, wakame, and perhaps other ingredients. The soup was a nice way to close out the meal as it brought a warm liquid feeling to the stomach.

espresso, pistachio, white chocolate ice cream, lychee, blueberry sorbet 
The meal finished with a selection of ice creams and sorbets. My favorites were the lychee and blueberry sorbets. 

One makes the pilgrimage to Totoraku to pray at the altar to beef and experience all the flavors that beef has to offer. I am extremely privileged to have been able to make the journey and look forward to going back again in the future. Just like any pilgrimage, the adventure of Totoraku is not for the faint of heart - one must realize what they are getting into before making the commitment. However, those that make the journey an accept what it entails seem to all be mesmerized by the experience. 
As Totoraku is perhaps a one of a kind experience outside of Japan, it has great food and great friendly service, I award Totoraku the Terrabyte award. 


Michelle Tran April 10, 2012 at 6:46 PM  

Oh man! Everything looks so goooodd! And the exclusiveness of it all makes it even more appealing.

James April 11, 2012 at 12:48 PM  

@Michelle - It definitely was a very enjoyable experience for me and I thought it was worth the cost. I think if you read some other opinions, they may not think it is worth the cost.
I think what makes the experience potentially more exclusive (as you put it) is trying to get into restaurant. I've heard cases where people actually "pay" their way in. Once one gets in, then there is the added cost of the "good wine." Despite all this, I highly recommend the restaurant if you ever have the opportunity.

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