11613 Santa Monica Boulevard (at Barry Avenue)
Los Angeles, CA 90025
It’s brand spanking new, and I have to admit, the first time we walked by Sasaya, we stopped briefly to look at their menu posted on the front window, but it wasn’t interesting enough to make us abandon our plans to go to Terried Sake House for the first time. Good thing, too. I got to meet some screaming smelt caught in a death curl at Terried Sake House.
But I am always curious about new restaurants, and though this one’s menu didn’t stand out, something else about it did. As we walked by, I had caught but a sliver of it behind a tall and wide white banner stretched across the front window. Dark, with a flash of sake bottles, and for some reason, something whispered “authentic.” Authentic what, I have no idea, but authentic is what I got. And sake. ;)
It was evening prime time when we went there, but apparently, Sasaya is still too new to have any sort of curious crowd at all. There was a lone gray haired man sitting at the bar – the owner perhaps? I could sit at any of the dozen or so small tables in the rather small dining room. Toward the front, there’s communal seating around a large table, the center blocked off with high shelving – good thing, so you don’t have to gaze across the table into a stranger’s eyes. These shelves are where I had caught the glimpse of all those sake bottles.
Our server is a young lady. I might even go so far as to call her a kid, a little bit of Asian pop rocker, but subtle. Whether she is Japanese I can’t say because she had no accent. She drops off a couple of plastic coated menus as well as a sheet of specials painted, it seems, with heavy calligraphic strokes – Japanese and English.
Sasaya’s menu is not unusual – mostly very Japanese (i.e. not Americanized) small plates meant to share in a group. But as I sip hot tea alternating with Asahi (I have absolutely no explanation for why I was doing that) I do notice that for similar things, the prices are a bit higher than neighboring Terried Sake House. It makes a bit of sense, as Sasaya appears to have spent a bit more on their interior decor. Where Terried has bright fluorescent lights that expose a charming, but stark, decor done by garage sale, Sasaya is lit by tiny votives on each table that reveal subtle Japanese elements here and there. One is not necessarily better than the other. They’re just very different.
The name of the ground chicken dish we ordered first had escaped me, but I've just found out it is soboro ankake. At the very bottom of a deep ceramic bowl, a hard boiled quail egg was perched atop a mess off ground chicken, shiitake mushrooms, and green beans. I passed off the quail egg to Figi, since my first time with them was still fairly recent and I haven’t gotten used to such tiny eggs not being candy coated malted ball centers available only at Easter. I’ll get there eventually. I tried a mushroom, which was fine, but then couldn’t figure out how to eat the soupy ground chicken with chopsticks. I had to ask for a spoon. That was a mistake. The chicken and the sweet and heavily soy-flavored sauce was way too salty to be scooped up with a spoon. Perhaps it was meant to be eaten with steamed rice.
Shishito peppers are an ATF (all-time favorite). They came out with an afro of wispy shaved bonito flakes (katsuobushi) that fluttered eerily from the steam. Sasaya must have been trying to cover something up with the bonito, but they didn’t fool me. The shishito were burnt, not charred like a roasted bell pepper, but cooked too long in a too hot sauté pan. *sigh* My favorite sweet tender peppers were burnt to a wretched, bitter crisp. They tasted like shishit.
Thank goodness for the saba shioyaki, which was deliciously oily, salty and flaky. I asked what the electric neon red garnish was. It’s pickled gobo, but you don’t really eat it, they told us. You can eat the upper tender part if you want, but the bottom is fibrous and if you want to, I suppose you can just chew on it. Chew on it? Like tobacco? It already irritated me that the garnish wasn’t really meant to be eaten. Just as a side note, I hate “garnishes.” Food, clothing, or otherwise, if it doesn’t serve a purpose it shouldn’t be there.
I ate it anyway. It made me clench my teeth and scrunch my face from the tartness, and I couldn’t break down the fibrous part. Oh well, at least I tried.
Up until now, I’d been taking pictures surreptitiously, I thought, because I wasn't using the flash. But I guess it’s pretty obvious when I’m leaning down against the edge of the table, hovering low over each plate, taking multiple shots from each angle, moving the candle around the table to get the best lighting. Yeah, the staff suspects something, because now the manager ( I think) is the one taking our orders and serving us. Oh for fox ache, I’m not a food critic – LOL!
The name of the
Chicken karaage, like shishito, is also a favorite, but I have yet to find one that perfectly suits my taste, though En Sushi has always been close. Sasaya’s chicken is served with a silver mini cupcake wrapper of spiced salt for dipping. The chicken inside was tender. The coating outside was crisp, but something about it tasted a touch off. I can’t put my finger on it, but it’s something like...the Colonel. At least Sasaya was better than that absolutely dreadful canned chicken coated with ketchup that the Geisha House shamelessly passed off as chicken karaage. *shudders at the thought*
As much as the food was mostly disappointing with but a few highlights, we were fairly full after the karaage. So I have no idea what possessed us to order one more dish. Unfortunately, the unagi kabayaki was something we should have ordered first because it was good, but we couldn’t finish it all. Tender and oily just like the saba, and drizzled with sticky sweet kabayaki sauce, that now that I think about it, was good as a sort of dessert-like ending. Actually, it might have been a little too sweet to start.
Sasaya didn’t impress me much with their food, but the service was quick and respectful. I can’t figure out how sincere it was though, since they caught me in a photo shoot even without the flashbulb popping. As far as how it compares with other similar Japanese restaurants in the immediate vicinity (like Terried Sake House and Nanbankan), it’s still early yet for Sasaya.
And oh! Did I forget to mention that Sasaya has a full liquor license? I did. Sasaya has a full liquor license. For now, they can serve me citron/soda (if I wanted) until midnight, and they are waiting to have their license upgraded so they can serve until 2 am. Not sure what that little two hour stipulation is all about, but still, it’s a full liquor license. So I might be back to give them a second chance. :)