Monday, April 2, 2012

No Substitutions: Night of Exceeding Pallor

I am normally a 'life gives me lemons, make lemon sabayon tart happen by-finding-some-incredible-more-than-half-off-deal-and-stacking-miles/loyalty-points-on-top' kind of girl.  And I've always seen this as a positive thing.

But lately, I've been learning there are instances in which this makes me my own worst enemy.  When the Right Thing fails to show or be found, I tend to just look for the Next Best Thing.  Afterall, that's how I make a living.  I problem solve.  I creatively problem solve.  And find the best possible alternative given set constraints, or contingencies.  Whatever it takes to get the job done. I make it work.   So why not in my personal life as well?  As if I have a choice - it's in my DNA.

So it was that when the much anticipated Science and Food lecture that was to feature Rene Redzepi - executive chef and co-owner of Noma, the world's current best restaurant - that was supposed to happen tonight at UCLA - was announced to have been postponed, true to form I tried to make the best of it...

I remembered that another world renowned chef, Ferran Adria of El Bulli fame, had also spoken on science and food not too long ago, and set out to find video of the session as substitute for what tonight could've been.  As luck would have it, LA Times had just reported availability of the video at iTunes University, and it was free! Digging around, I found the app also contains videos of lectures by other culinary luminaries including Wylie Dufresne and Grant Achatz - all free to view! I saved the link to savor when I got home.  Awesome, right?  Except it's not at all the same as an in-person experience, and instead of allocating an hour or two and waiting for what I really wanted to see in the first place - now I'm going to spend every free moment NOT doing my taxes and other things that I need to do, and instead procrastinating by watching every last video on the couch.

But first I had to grab dinner:  remembering Ramen Yamadaya was to have just opened its Valley outpost yesterday (widely publicized as April 1st), I thought I could make the most of the derailed night with their fantastic 20 hour tonkotsu on the way home.  All day, I could taste it in my head, and looked forward to getting my hands on a soul-soothing bowl after work.

But as I pulled into the strip mall - I saw windows still papered over - the restaurant dark (despite banners emblazoned with "Grand Opening 4/1!!!"). Disappointed, but thinking unforeseen circumstances forced them to push the opening back - I also knew I could come back another day: the location was on my way home from work.  But I was still hungry, and instead of doing the smart thing - going home and saving money to return another day - I drove around looking for any other Japanese place that caught my eye. 
That place turned out to be Izakaya M - my Next Best Thing. And apparently, I've yet to learn that the Next Best Thing hardly if ever surprises you and turns out to be the Right Thing.  Especially when it's picked simply because it was there.
As always with the Next Best Thing, at first it seemed full of promise - I was beyond excited to see, in the Valley, dammnit, words like "sting ray", "tongue", "heart" and kobe wrapped, foie topped toro on the menu.
I wasn't about to commit $36 to the kobe-toro-foie though (much as it sounded like a trifecta) without knowing the quality of the food here, so I stuck with small plates.

I had tried BBQ Sting Ray recently, on a trip to Singapore, and LOVED its skate wing-like, flakey meat - so couldn't wait to dive into the dish of Sting Ray Fin Karaage ($7).  Normally you would see the word karaage in association with chicken - but Izakaya M was deep frying Sting Ray Fin. 

As soon as I sat down at the sushi bar I saw signs of what this meal might be - uni sitting in the glass case was half liquified, and dull in color.  But I chose to ignore the red flags - I was hopeful that its namesake hot, small plates, if not its sushi, will be where the place would excel.  I wanted this to work.

The sting ray karaage came - and some of the pieces turned out great, with a fragrant, crisp shell yielding to soft, sweet fish underneath. But other pieces were tough and spiney as you would expect from a regular fish fin.  And overall the dish would have been much better served at much hotter temperature.  I really wanted something to dip the pieces in as well - but the only thing on the plate was lemon - story of my life..I mean, the night, I guess! - so I ended up improvising (perhaps brutishly) by dipping it in soy sauce with wasabi, which didn't end up being half bad.

Izakayas are Japanese gastropubs: gourmet bar-snack items are intended as small bites to accompany beer, sake or soju.  I wasn't drinking tonight, but was excited about the robata grill, as well as skewers listed at around $3-$4 a pair.   And of course went straight for the offal!  Starting with Cow Tongue ($4).  If you sit at the bar, you can look into the open kitchen and watch the chefs cook your meats on the robata.  But unlike the now shuttered Gonpachi, this isn't high-end izakaya, and the chefs do not meticulously fawn over individual skewers and hand-fan them to perfection. So the tongue wasn't the best I've ever had, but it's also not bad either, you get two skewers for $4, it's fairly well seasoned, juicy and tender with that unmistakable texture that is simultaneously chewy and slightly crunchy.  Everything's relative, right?  So I would say this was the best of the skewers I had this meal.
Next up: Chicken heart ($3 for 2 skewers) and Duck ($4 for 2 skewers).  Again these were 'good enough' - but didn't make me forget how to breathe. They won't keep me up at night, yearning for the next encounter.  It tasted like they used the same sweet sauce on both - so they ended up tasting about the same, with obviously different textures.  I started 'making the best of it' again, appreciating that we can get interesting pieces of offal in the Valley at all. 
And for the token veggie: under the Chef's Special section: Maitake Mushroom Flower ($7) - I love mushrooms, but have not seen maitake served as its own dish at a Japanese restaurant before.  Intrigued by the description - "sweet maitake mushroom lightly marinated in Archie's secret sauce and lightly seared" - I had already formed a visual of breath-taking presentation and earthy, meaty flavors in my mind - but what arrived fell a little flat, so to speak. I was hoping for more of a 'floral' inspired arrangement that made use of the unique structure of the mushroom (also known as hen of the woods).  And was expecting delicately crisped edges from the sear, to lend a smokey char to bring out the earthy flavors of the mushroom all the more.  But what came out was a soft - pile - that wasn't at all structured with no evidence of searing.
The last item caught my eye due to price rather than preparation - Lobster Tail was listed for 'just' $10.  I knew it wouldn't be giant - but didn't expect it to literally be a bite and a half, either.  While its saving grace was that it wasn't overcooked - the meat itself didn't have much flavor.  Definitely not a fine dining caliber meat or execution.  And the super dry, pallid and old looking shell didn't make it any more appetizing. Definitely not at all worth the price and not something I would order again.


It's too bad about Izakaya M, because they have all the right (exciting) types of ingredients for success - if only they could just 'apply themselves' to try to execute at a higher level, improving quality all around, they could be full house every night (at least with local foodies!)

But all in all, a lackluster night of 'replacements' that didn't satisfy like the real objects of my desire would have.  Instead of trying to 'fix' things and finding other ways to fill the voids, it would have been better for me to just stay the course and keep my eyes on the prize - even if it meant no instant gratification.

In the end, substitutes won't make up for the real thing - and you end up just feeling more empty than before - worse, because you've wasted your time and energy on things that don't really meet your needs. I wouldn't be myself if I didn't always look for a solution - but maybe sometimes I can just be a little more strategic - because sometimes, maybe the solution is to keep seeking the Right Thing and not to settle for the Next Best Thing.  So, no more substitutions.

In the meantime - I am still glad to have found an option - in case I ever have an 'emergency' craving for offal and can't get out of the Valley - for a place to get my fill.  As long as I go knowing what I'm getting out of it, right?

On a 7 point scale:
Flavor - 4 bites
Presentation - 5 bites
Originality - 5 bites
Ambience - 4 stars
Service - 5 stars
Overall experience - 4.5 bites
Price - $ (1 bite mark)
Probability of return visit - 70%

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Izakaya M
13573 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks, CA 91423
Ph: 818.981.0078

Parking: Meters free after 8pm (but of course, double check signs and meter before parking)

Website: izakayam.com
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Izakaya M on Urbanspoon

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