My first exposure to the Katsuya experience was at the Katsuya by Starck Glendale location, at the Americana. I had heard rave reviews about the Katsuya chain, and as I happened to have visitors who wanted to go to dinner on a weeknight (so I needed to stay close to work in the Valley) - we decided to check out the Katsuya at The Americana at Brand in Glendale.
The restaurant stood out in the Valley like a beacon - with that combination that's so hard to find, in the 'burbs, of incredible interior design and great ambience, with amazing food. Though it is a technically a chain, it definitely didn't feel like one. Centrally located just off the featured water fountain at the outdoor shopping/dining/housing complex known as The Americana at Brand (The Grove of the Valley, but with condos directly attached to the complex) - Katsuya Glendale has two floors of sleek interiors that seemed to be a highly modernized take on Japanese pagodas, and an outdoor terrace that overlooks the promenade (great for people watching). We were seated at a booth with floor to ceiling panels, appropriately private and great for a small group to hold conversation - but yet allowing enjoyment of the chic ambience of the restaurant.
The food was equally impressive - creative dishes are served alongside more traditional rolls, with the creative ones exercising enough restraint to remain refined and not 'gimmicky' (there aren't any showy pieces that indicated a chef throwing things together purely to display creativity - the ingredients were truly thoughtfully matched, and everything tasted amazing). My favorites were: Crispy Rice with Spicy Tuna, Kobe Filet with Foie Gras, and Almond Crusted Scallops.
On the next chance I got, we ventured down to the Hollywood location. This location is supposed to be more of a hotspot at night, but not being much into the Hollywood scene, we decided to go on a Saturday afternoon for lunch. I arrived a bit earlier than my party and decided to wait at the bar - turns out this was a fortuitous choice, as the bartender proceeded to convince me to try a drink (despite it being just past noon!) called the 'Burning Mandarin' - glancing at the menu, this drink did not sound like something anyone would like at all - Mandarin vodka with lemon, orange and cranberry juice and crushed chili. It was too early in the day to drink as it is, much less to try a drink with chili in it! But, the bartender (from Minnesota!?) had an irresistible charm and promised that I would like it - he promised not to charge me for the drink if I didn't. If you've read my previous posts, you know that I'm pretty adventurous with food - so I decided to apply this philosophy to drinks as well, on this day. The Burning Mandarin turned out to be my favorite drink of all time - it's very sophisticated with layers of flavor that are slowly revealed - the chili perfectly offsets the sweet/tartness of the citrus juices and everything is held together by the vodka - which is also in perfect proportion to everything else in the drink. I would drive any distance to get to Katsuya, just for this drink. When my party and the food arrived, everyone was also very impressed with the quality and presentation of the dishes - as the menu is pretty much the same as that in Glendale, I won't go into detail here.
The third location I've visited is at L.A. Live - also with interior design by Starck. This one is part of a primarily dining complex attached to the Nokia Theater in downtown LA. The name of the complex is very appropriate - as it's really breathed new life into a previously rundown area that locals really have no interest in visiting, except to go straight to Staples Center across the street for sports games (but usually hopping straight into your car to go home, after locking the doors of course, in case any of the more aggressive transients in the area decide to approach your car at a stoplight). This glitzy new complex houses multiple fun and moderately priced restaurant / bar chains including Yard House, Trader Vic's, The Farm of Beverly Hills, and Wolfgang Puck Bar & Grill, and provides perfect places to hang out before or after a concert / sporting event at either the Nokia Theater or Staples Center. We actually went just before a concert, and had of course a few of my favorite Burning Mandarins and Watermelon Mojitos. This location has just one floor, but has the signature streamlined, modern, chic interior design, and patio seating - great again for people watching, especially since you will see some interesting characters depending on the concert you're going to!
So, I have a pretty unusual philosophy about my restaurant choices - once I've determined that I really like a place, I won't usually go back very often, as in my mind, I've already discovered that I like it - so I know that I can always go back to it for special occasions, or if I have visitors etc. There are so many other restaurants that I haven't experienced yet, and my true love is to experience things for the first time - so I keep places that are know are good on my 'favorites' list, that I can always count on, and then go out to try new places until I find one that unseats a previous favorite from its throne and moves it down the list. That is how I like build my 'collection' or personal database.
BUT with Katsuya, I've repeated visits an inordinate amount of times, just because I really like it that much. I've varied the locations so that I can have my new experiences that way. Until recently I had collected just the three SBE-owned and operated / Starck designed locations above - but had heard that actually the location closest to my work, and the first Katsuya to open for business, 'Sushi Katsu-ya' in Studio City, is actually the best of the chain and usually impossible to get a table at. I was a little skeptical of that, knowing that the restaurant is located in a strip mall off of Ventura - how sophisticated / epic can it be? I was too busy noting all the things that supported my theory that this is actually an inferior location - the decor is typical and uninspired - lots of light-colored wood counters, tables and chairs, and the place was small (there were maybe 12 spots in the parking lot, and you can see straight across the restaurant from end to end, from the tiny 'lobby') - that I was a little blown away when the food arrived and it was good.
At my co-worker's behest, I tried the Sauteed Shishito Peppers for the first time...and it was amazing, perfect amount of crunch and salty flavor, served at the perfect temperature (piping hot, but not enough to burn your mouth!). I pushed the edamame aside so I could have room to finish the pepper dish. What I found I also liked about this place is that they had a boatload of specials. We had the Crispy Soft Shell Crab, which was perfectly fried and seasoned, Scallop Sashimi with Foie Gras (the creamy, yet firm texture of the foie was to die for). It goes without saying that I had to have the signature Crispy Rice w/ Spicy Tuna (which did not have the nice clean 'lines' of the SBE locations in terms of presentation, but actually might have tasted a little better as the rice was still warm). My only complaints were that the quality of food was not consistent - we had another salmon dish which didn't taste fresh and was somewhat bland - and that they didn't serve cocktails at this location - the drinks menu was lackluster with just a few selections of house wines, beer, sake, ume wine and soda, iced tea and water. However, I was happy with the bill, which came out to only $45 per person (for two) including tip, and I left stuffed.
So how does the original measure up to its SBE counterparts? Perhaps I'm a food snob, but to me a great dining experience has to be impressive in all elements - not only does the food have to be amazing, but the ambience of the venue is a big factor in the overall experience as well. So while Sushi Katsu-ya Studio City is a great place for happy hour dining (note dining only, the selection of alcohol is disappointing!) for those already in the Valley - I would not make an extra effort / trip to visit this location. To me, the SBE locations win hands-down. And out of the three that I've visited, I would say actually that the Glendale location is my personal favorite - perhaps because it does not have any competition of equal caliber in the Valley, but mainly because it has all the elements that make Katsuya great AND it's easy to find parking (large structure in Americana complex) AND there's lots to keep you entertained before/after your meal, with a large promenade full of shops like Anthropologie and BCBG, a huge multi-story Barnes and Noble, and a movie theater just steps away - you can even snack on a Papa Beard cream puff before/after the movie - all in all, a nice day/night out.
Update Dec 2010:
Pictured at left is what I got on that particular day - all very fresh tasting with great smooth texture, served at the right temperature - couldn't ask for a better deal for quality sashimi in the Valley for a work lunch. Love it! (Katsuya by Starck still wins in terms of dining experience, but love Sushi Katsu-ya nonetheless for lunch and personally for its proximity and accessibility)
[Deal alert Nov 2011: Katsuya offers happy hour Mon-Fri 5-7pm with selected nigiri sushi, tuna on crispy rice roll, and hand rolls (my fav is the baked crab hand roll) at $5 each, and selected drinks for $7 each. Check with each location for details. The Glendale location even validates valet parking for 3 hours!
Sign up for free membership in SBE preferred, and what you spend on your meal can translate to points that ultimately can be redeemed for gift certs to spend on all things SBE from hotel stays to meals etc.]
On a 7 point scale:
["SBE" = all Katsuya by Starck locations / "SK" = Sushi Katsu-ya Studio City]
Flavor - SBE 6 bites / SK 5 bites
Presentation - SBE 6 bites / SK 3 bites
Originality - SBE 5 bites / SK 4 bites
Ambience - SBE 6 stars / SK 2.5 stars
Service - SBE 4 stars / SK 4 stars
Overall experience - SBE 6.5 bites / SK 4 bites
Price - SBE $$$ (3 bite marks) / SK $$ (2 bite marks)
Probability of return visit - SBE 100% / SK 90%
Katsuya by Starck Hollywood
6300 Hollywood Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90028
Katsuya by Starck Glendale
The Americana at Brand
702 Americana Way
Glendale, CA 91210
Katsuya by Starck L.A. Live
800 W Olympic Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90015
Sushi Katsu-ya Studio City
11680 Ventura Blvd
Studio City, CA 91604