Kinjiro (Los Angeles, July 2016)

Kinjiro: Uni, Scallop, Blue Crab with Ponzu Jelly
Kinjiro has received so much praise from foodies  and professionals alike that part of me wondered if it could indeed be as good as people said it was. But just a few courses into our dinner this past Tuesday I was all Lili von Shtupp: “Oh it’s twue, it’s twue! It’s twue, it’s twue!” Yes, people, Kinjiro more than lived up to the hype. It was one of the very best meals we’ve had this year and it is now at the top of my list of restaurants I will recommend to friends who ask me where to eat in L.A. In fact, I am inclined to say that if you are passing through Los Angeles and only have time for one dinner, this is where you should go. But if you’re not from L.A, or even if you are but don’t follow the food scene very closely, you may be wondering what Kinjiro is. Read on. 

Kinjiro is currently one of the hottest izakayas in Los Angeles. It opened in late 2014 in Little Tokyo and is located right next to the ever-popular Sushi Gen in the Honda Plaza. Izakayas, in case you don’t know, are basically bars with good food. You drink and eat small plates of food that go particularly well with drinks and which are easily shared. They’re typically informal both in atmosphere and in service: you order food as you go and things are brought out as they’re ready. Kinjiro retains the informality even though there’s no separate bar here: you sit at tables as at a regular restaurant. The menu is diverse but manageable and the staff are only to happy to explain and guide you through the sake selection and the food. The food itself is pretty fancy as izakaya food goes and runs the gamut from cold to warm to hot, from pickled to simmered to deep fried, from cucumber to crustacean to cow, and from bone marrow to short rib to tongue. There’s something here for everyone, except maybe the strict vegetarian.

Now I should say before I go any further that I am no great expert on the izakaya genre and that Kinjiro is the only izakaya of its kind that I’ve ever eaten at. So please keep that in mind as you register my enthusiasm. That enthusiasm is great, however. It was all I could do to not go back immediately the next day to try all the many things we couldn’t get to. Which is not to say that we didn’t get to very much. There were four of us and we were told as we sat down that they usually recommend eight or so dishes for four people to share: we unwillingly stopped at 13…What did we eat? Well, I’m going to annoy those who really hate clicking on slideshows and put the description of the food in the captions to the pictures below. Please take a look and scroll down for some more comments.

I hope you have a sense from the slideshow of why I am as enthused about this meal as I am—and it’s not just me: the other three loved it too. The closing riceballs were the one B grade in a meal that otherwise was entirely in the A-/A range. It’s hard for me to say what I liked best. Of the twelve things we ate there are seven that I thought were just outstanding (some in very different ways): the uni-scallop-blue crab, the oysters in ponzu, the chilled smelt, the tongue, the marrow bone, the agedashi tofu and the uni risotto—and the carpaccio and cod were just below (others in the group had the cod and carpaccio near the top of their lists).

And it’s a pretty good “value” in its own way: all this food, two small bottles of sake, one large bottle of sake and a number of un-photographed Sapporos plus tax came to $320 for four people. This means you could drink less and eat far less excessively and still leave fully sated for quite a bit less than the $95/head or so we arrived at after tip. I also don’t want to give the impression that this is a restaurant you should go to only in a group of four or more. While it’s true you can try more with four people (more than four and the sharing becomes more complicated) I would be extremely happy just eating various combinations of three things if I were by myself: start with the oysters or the smelt, move on to the tongue and end decadently with the agedashi tofu or the uni risotto for example. Or just get three orders of the uni-scallop-blue crab-ponzu jelly, a small bottle of sake and call it a night.

I also want to reiterate again just how pleasant an experience it is. And most of the credit for this must go to the proprietor Jun Isogai, who both manages the room and waits tables. The feel of the place seems like an extension of his personality, which is affable, welcoming and genuine. Apart from a solo diner who was a friend of the house (and rocking it hardcore: by himself with a bottle of champagne) we were the last people in the restaurant, and we spent quite a bit of time chatting with Jun about Japanese food in the US, hospitality and sushi restaurants in town—he seems to know all the chefs at the big places and shared a lot of his insights into the idiosyncrasies of different establishments (I won’t repeat them in public). I’m not sure when we’ll back in L.A next but I know we’re coming back here. And our friends, I’m pretty sure, will be back well before then.

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