First Bite: Aburiya Toranoko, or Lazy Ox's Cardenas Branches Out
F. Friesema Jonagold apples
The fetish object of the week? My money's on the uni goma tofu at the new Aburiya Toranoko in Little Tokyo, which is to say a smallish cube of firm, blackish tofu made from ground, toasted sesame seeds, served in a shallow puddle of soy and topped with a lobe of sea urchin roe. When the consistency is right, and the uni is at its freshest, the interplay of squishiness, of sweetness, of the tiny spark of salt from the bit of caviar tweezered on as a garnish, is pretty extraordinary, a nutty, toasty fugue of similar flavors.
The restaurant, next door to Lazy Ox Canteen and owned by the same guy, Michael Cardenas, is an attempt to bridge the elbows-on-the-table informality of a Japanese izakaya with the high-decibel sheen of a high-end gastropub. And it pretty much works: long communal tables and chandeliers, graffiti murals and slick paintings, a fairly hip, inexpensive wine list and a fetishistic list of oddball beers and sakes that are probably better suited to the small-plates cuisine.
An aburiya is a restaurant specializing in grilled food, and you will probably be nudged toward an order or three of the sumiyaki dishes, skewers of fluffy chicken meatballs, shiitake mushroom or chicken with Tokyo green onions cooked over special bincho charcoal.
Chef Hisaharu Kawabe comes from a long stay in the Nobu empire, and there are all the sashimi plates and fancy sushi rolls you'd expect. But the heart of the restaurant is Kawabe's take on the classic izakaya repertoire: the beef tongue with miso and the melting Kurobuta pork belly braised with daikon; the tart jellyfish salad with crab and the salad of McGrath greens with crisply fried whitebait; the "French fries" made from slippery mountain yam and the plate of infant turnips and radishes planted root-down in what seems like half an acre of snow. Are there organic, crafted cocktails made from obscure Japanese fruits? One would expect no less.