An izakaya is the Japanese version of a tapas/pub grub kind of place, where people gather after work for a drink and a bite–or perhaps just a drink or two or three. So explained our friends, Jeff and Marilyn. They spent two weeks in Japan on their honeymoon and developed quite a fondness for this style of eating and drinking, and they wanted to introduce Himself and me to their favorite izakaya, Musha in Torrance. Seeing as Torrance is home to the US headquarters of two of the largest Japanese automakers, Toyota and Honda, we knew we were in for an authentic experience.
Small plate dining is great, because you get to sample a lot of dishes without the risk of getting stuck with an entrée you don’t like, always a hazard of forging into new culinary territory. Most of my experience with Japanese cuisine has been in the realm of sushi and sashimi, so it was nice to try something different.
We started off with maguro yukke, a dish of tuna sashimi, so I began on familiar territory. Accompanying it were ribbons of nori and daikon radish, sliced green onions and a quail egg yolk for drizzling over it all. The rice cakes alongside were a high-end version of what we liken to styrofoam packing peanuts. These actually had flavor and a puffed rice texture that didn‘t remind me of styrofoam.
When I start a meal with some good sashimi, I’m hard pressed to want anything cooked. But I changed my tune when I saw the words “pork belly.” Buta kakuni is pork belly with potato, boiled egg and a bit of broth. This is one of those occasions when I wish I’d been there by myself. I yearned to snatch the bowl and slurp down that rich, porky broth.
A total surprise to me was the takotama, an omelette, which turned out to be my favorite item of the night (and that’s really saying something, considering there was pork belly on the table). I’ve never had an omelette like this one, with chopped octopus, seaweed, red ginger and Tokyo leek, and topped with a couple of sauces I’m sure they’ll never divulge the recipes for. It’s the kind of dish that can make you fake a celebrity sighting so you can snag an extra bite while everyone’s distracted. “Don’t look now, but I think that’s Brad Pitt!” Gobble-gobble-gobble… (Hint: Always begin with the words, “Don’t look now…” and everyone will do an immediate head spin, which will buy you a few seconds in which to pinch the good stuff.)
Then our server brought out a tiny tabletop grill, and we cooked our own gyu hire ponzu: beef tenderloin with chopped scallion, ginger and wasabi and a ponzu dipping sauce. Want it raw, rare or cremated? Cooking tabletop brings new meaning to that old Burger King jingle, “Have it your way…”
I wish the picture without the flash would reproduce better here–the charcoal glowed with the orange, purple, pink and gold of a sunset and looked really cool in the low lighting.
We were curious about the black sesame ice cream, which was technically sold out, so they brought us the final scoop of the evening, along with a scoop of vanilla. That was fine by me–I just wanted to know what black sesame ice cream was all about. It had a subdued flavor–I could only detect the musky black sesame essence on the back end as the ice cream warmed and slid down my throat.
Now, I’m back at home and would like to make something very basic, in the spirit of izakaya. I’ve decided on musubu, which reveals how simple and yet satisfying a Japanese dish can be. For the Japanese, rice is essentially sandwich bread, so when you tuck a piece of fish inside and give it a bit of seasoning, you have a Japanese sandwich.
Musubu is bite sized, so you can make as many or as few bites as you want. It requires only three ingredients: rice, raw or smoked fish and goma sio or powdered seaweed. Cook some sticky rice and let it cool. Make bite-sized balls of it and into each rice ball press a piece of sashimi or smoked fish–I used smoked salmon. Then roll the ball of fish and rice in a sprinkling of goma sio for flavoring. I didn’t have any, but furikake is similar, so I used that instead. Furikake is a mixture of seaweed flakes, toasted sesame seed and salt, with a tiny bit of sugar, soy sauce and green tea powder. Furikake is one of those seasonings that seems to be as ubiquitous in the Japanese kitchen as ketchup is in American one, sort of an all-purpose food enhancer.
After Himself and I nibbled our musubu as an appetizer, we headed out to our favorite sushi place for dinner. The izakaya was great fun, but we were ready for our old haunt and a nice array of sashimi. Ah, comfort food, Japanese style…