Sunday, May 15, 2011

Gonpachi Beverly Hills - Sublime but for the Sushi

Stillness, tranquility.  Simplicity.  Authenticity.  Endless pursuit of perfection.  All that you could easily identify with Japanese tradition, can be found surprisingly on a high traffic stretch of restaurant row La Cienega.  At least with the beautifully and meticulously crafted space at Gonpachi, if not necessarily everything that ends up on your plate.

From the minute you set foot inside the entrance, you will feel transported to some reclusive hybrid spa / zen temple in Japan.

'Designer' and I were amazed as we pretty much 'stumbled' on this find - 'Designer' had seen a Travelzoo deal for the place a while ago, and had decided it was worth a shot.  The gift cert stayed in her stash until this Saturday - we happened to be in the area for LACMA's Muse ArtWalk, and she had pulled two deals from local restaurants for our post event meal.  It was only when we realized last minute her other deal was not available for use Saturdays, that we ended up with Gonpachi.

It turned out to be the highlight of our week, at least in terms of the space.

Despite (or because of?) its location on famed Restaurant Row in Beverly Hills, alongside luminiaries as The Bazaar by Jose Andres and Matsuhisa, we weren't expecting any sort of authentic
Japanese experience, but perhaps a scenester-ish LA interpretation of Japanese cuisine.  So we were excited to discover that the place is owned by a famous restauranteur in Japan, who was very concerned with creating an authentic Japanese experience - even importing a lot of the building materials from Japan. The setting is gorgeous - with natural, flowing spaces constructed of wood and stone, three wings surrounding a lush, serene central garden.  We passed through a bar that opens out to the koi pond before entering the main dining room, and toured private rooms on the second floor that includes a traditional tatami room with shoji doors.  Third wing is a more sleek, modern looking sushi bar that is enclosed but also ultimately leads out to the garden.

On arriving to the airy dining room with vaulted ceilings, we settled into a high-backed wooden booth, which affords privacy while providing a fantastic view of the garden via huge sunlit windows.  We were there early, around 6:30pm, so perhaps the place gets into a different vibe later into the night, but while we were there it was zen-like.

Starved, but wanting to sample a hopefully representative variety of menu items, we decided quickly on the 5-course tasting menu called "Gonpachi Experience" ($45 per person).  The names of the courses were somewhat cryptic, but as we both like surprises - and thus the idea of omakase - that was part of the charm of the menu.

The first course was the artfully plated Chef's omakase of five daily zensai.  We loved everything in this course - which tasted as great as it looked - fresh and flavorful.  From right to left was: seaweed salad, tuna sashimi wrapped around avocado, mushroom cap stuffed with crab, a fried shrimp dumpling that looked sea urchin inspired - topped with a light sauce that reminded me of nuoc cham (Vietnamese dipping sauce) and sprinkled with nori, and finally pickled radish with sesame.

Up next was the Chef's omakase of sashimi and nigiri sushi.  Given the craftsmanship of the space, the careful attention to detail from the overall design to sculpted iron door handles, to the stoneware-style bottle and glasses used to serve sake, and the mention of fish sourced locally and from Tokyo's famed Tsukiji market - we had high expectations for this dish. 

What we ended up getting was a mix of standard types of fish / seafood.  A shrimp roll that tasted dry and tough (it took a combination of gnashing and yanking to bite through the piece - and it was unfortunate that we could tell by the looks of it before we even bit in, that it would not taste fresh at all), and bluefin tuna that was completely tasteless. The albacore tuna sashimi was flaccid.  Even the salmon sashimi, which is one of my favorite fish and hard to go wrong with - was not very compelling:  the knifework simply wasn't there, the pieces were cut too thick, and the texture what I would describe as 'al dente' - not ideal for sashimi - and oily.  The yellowtail was probably the only decent tasting piece of fish on the plate - and I couldn't call it good.  It's possible this was an anomaly specific to the prix fixe courses, and the a la carte rolls / sashimi are perfect - but as the spirit and intention of omakase is for the chef to introduce the diner to the freshest fare available for the day - this was disappointing for us.  We really wanted to love the fish so that we could recommend the place as one of the best mid-tier Japanese dining experiences in LA to friends - but based on what we were served this Saturday night, we could not.  Hopefully it was a fluke and the next time we venture out to Gonpachi, the quality will be there.  Kind of important for a Japanese restaurant with half its menu based on sashimi & nigiri, for them to get the fish right!

Next up was the Seasonal sumiyaki selection and salad - consisting of three skewers, first of perfectly grilled, lightly salted chicken and spring onion sections, a chicken and duck sausage-like skewer that was perfectly grilled and seasoned, tender, juicy inside with an intoxicatingly fragrant char on the outside (though Designer had to send hers back at first since the meat looked a bit undercooked, second time around it was perfect), and a stack of shishito peppers.  Chicken has disappointed me too many times as a bland, tasteless meat, that I would only spend minimal amounts of money on in fried, fast food form (or from LudoTruck) - and I've long decided that it's my least favorite meat.  However, these skewers surprised me with flushes of flavor, tender and juicy without being fatty.  Looking down into the open kitchen, you can tell the care the chefs put into the quality of each skewer - they are cooked one by one, with sous chefs fanning them by hand over the robata grill with paper / bamboo fans.  Would order these again on my next visit.  The shishito peppers were a bit too spicy for my taste - I prefer the ones at Sushi Katsu-ya, but others might enjoy them here as well.

Our last savory course was a Soba tasting - Gonpachi prides itself on their hand-pounded buckwheat soba noodles, threshed and milled on the premises fresh.  So we were looking forward to the course, albeit it being served hot vs. the cold noodles we were more accustomed to.

Perhaps it was the buckwheat, or the preparation (hot), but this one was not a favorite of our meal.  We wanted more layers of complex flavor in the broth, and the noodles to be more smooth and pliable.
For the finish, we had a Traditional dessert of ice cream with pumpkin (?) sauce topped by berries and red bean paste.  Interesting, but I wanted a bit more personality from the sauce - for me it just sort of didn't reallly add anything to the dish more than the vibrant burst of color.  The consistency of the sauce could also have been thicker - as it was, it just didn't come together with the ice cream and toppings cohesively.

Feeling stuffed, we took a quick stroll around the other wings of the restaurant, checking out the museum-style displays of artwork, vintage samurai armor, sake barrels and teaware upstairs,  and took in the beautiful central garden one last time before heading out.

All-in-all, it was a very filling meal with two out of five courses being great, in an amazing setting - for $45 (plus a bottle of sake for $10, which for us made the total bill under $20 extra per person after we applied the Travelzoo gift cert - $35 for $70 off our bill). 

And, I'm happy to report that Gonpachi according to their site also offers daily, Happy hour specials: 5pm-7pm & 10-close: half-price sakana (appetizers and house specialties) and 2-f o r-1 select draft beers, house sake & wines, well cocktails and sakegria - at the bar.  Will definitely be back to check out their Happy Hour.

Valet parking: $3 only!

On a 7 point scale:
Flavor - 5.5 bites
Presentation - 6 bites
Originality - 5.5 bites
Ambience - 6.5 stars
Service - 6 stars
Overall experience - 6 bites
Price - $$$ (3 bite marks regular menu)
Probability of return visit - 100% 

Gonpachi Beverly Hills
134 N. La Cienega Blvd., Beverly Hills, CA 90211
Ph: 310.659.8887

Look for reservations:

Gonpachi on Urbanspoon

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