Sunday, August 24, 2008

Totoraku - 08/23/08

Totoraku aka The Pico Teriyaki House has become something of an open secret of late and is known for the quality of its beef and for being impossible to get into unless you know somebody. I got in through a classmate who read my blog and decided I might enjoy the dinner. (so my blog is good for something other than my own self-aggrandizement).

As expected the exterior of the restaurant is totally nondescript. The interior isn't much better except if you look closely at the wine bottles they have names like Mouton, La Tache, and Petrus reflecting the owner's penchant for elite wines

Our table was set when before we arrived each person had a little plate topped with chopsticks, a napkin, and a wet nap. There are also three sauces, from left to right they are a sweet sauce with sesame, lemon juice, and soy sauce.

A meal this rich wouldn't be complete without plenty of wine. I brought a 2003 Chateau Pavie and the other diners brought a double magnum of Robert Mondavi and a magnum of BV Georges de Latour. We started with the Mondavi which I felt was fairly typical of California cab, with lots of fruit and alcohol. I enjoyed the Pavie despite the controversy surrounding this wine. I thought the aromas and flavors were more subdued than the Mondavi but more well-balanced, definitely felt like a Bordeaux to me. I detected none of the port-like flavors that some reviews have mentioned. The Pavie also had a nice rich and plush mouthfeel that I quite enjoyed. We unfortunately did not get to the Georges de Latour, maybe next time.

Once all the diners arrived, we were presented with a plate of seven appetizers. Given the simplicity of the upcoming courses the appetizers were surprisingly complex. First up, steamed abalone, mild flavor firm meaty texture very nice with the beans, I probably should have taken it with a bit of the soy. There was also a lobster salad with seaweed and shredded jellyfish, the subtle ocean accents of the seaweed and jellyfish were a very nice foil for the sweet lobster. Next I tried the quail egg topped with caviar, very rich intense caviar flavors tempered down with a creamy base of egg yolk. I believe there was a pear dish with some sort of puree, with dried sardines, all in all a very bland muddled course not sure what I was supposed to taste with this one. Following that was a very good melon prosciutto combination, chewy salty ham and sweet soft melon. I recall the next dessert being some kind of bean puree (fava?) with gelee. This had a mild sweetness although the texture was a bit sandy. The last appetizer of a very elaborate starter was wild asparagus topped with candied nuts. I thought the nuts tasted like walnuts, an interesting and very pleasing combination.

Rib-eye Sashimi
Next we were brought out one of two raw courses. The rib-eye sashimi came with lemon, ginger, garlic and hot sauce for added flavor. We were told to use the regular soy sauce for this one. I thought the meat was very tender but missing a bit of the fattiness I normally associate with rib eye. With the mild flavor of the beef, adding almost any of the accoutrements overpowered the natural flavor.

Korean-style Steak Tartare
The second raw beef dish was a beautiful looking steak tartare that came with plenty of white radish and was topped with a quail egg. After mixing all the ingredients no clear flavor really came out. I think this could have done with some soy although we were told not to use any. I did like the texture contrasts between the meat and the vegetables even if the flavor was a bit light.

Beef Tongue
Easily my favorite course of the night. The raw slices of pinkish red beef tongue come sprinkled with salt and pepper and our hostess suggested the tongue be paired with lemon juice which really added a nice flavor, and kept the fat from being overwhelming. The tongue had a slick slightly chewy texture and rich oily flavor that would have been very heavy but for the citrus kick. The feel of the tongue on my tongue... it was like French kissing pleasure.

Filet Mignon
I am not normally a big filet fan but this was probably the best of the steak cuts tonight. The filet was super soft and tender as one would expect, and the flavor was the pure expression of beef. Definitely a meat-eater's delight.

I thought it strange that the restaurant would serve all this high-quality meat then offer a simple presentation of raw vegetables as a side, but after experiencing it, I understand. The vegetables come with a spicy miso that really help cleanse the palate after eating all this meat. The tomatos are soft and sweet while the crisp cucumber and carrots go really nicely with the heat of the spicy miso.

Outside Rib-eye
Rib-eye tends to be my steak of choice at steakhouses and at home. The outside ribeye was another super tender piece of beef (as they pretty much all are), a bit fattier than the filet but not as fatty as many rib eyes I have had in the past. I really think the chef wants diners to appreciate the natural flavor of the beef not just taste an explosion of pure fattiness.

Inside Rib-eye
In a rare lapse, I forgot to take a picture of this. Probably my least favorite, but that isn't to say the meat wasn't very good. I just thought the inside rib-eye didn't have anything that made it stand out above the earlier cuts. If I ate this alone it would have been a wonderful steak, but with so many other wonderful cuts of meat it just gets lost in the pack.

Short Rib
Normally the provenance of Korean BBQ places, Totoraku does it way better. Also slightly marinated, we were counseled to eat this by itself but we could also add some of the sweet sauce if we liked.

Skirt Steak
Normally not a cut of steak I tend to enjoy, very flavorful but tending to be a bit tough for my tastes. I shouldn't have worried, tough is a word that does not apply to any of the beef at Totoraku. Definitely a very flavorful piece, I quite enjoyed this one, after so many melt-in-your-mouth tender pieces of meat it was nice to be able to sink my teeth into something.

The spicy soup was made with fresh Alaskan King Crab and some sort of fragrant sansai (Japanese mountain vegetable). A couple of my dining companions (perhaps budding food bloggers) astutely noted the soup combined miso and kim chi for a nice blend of Japanese and Korean flavors. I really liked the spicy bite of the soup and the sweetness of the crab. To top it off the thick firm and chewy udon added a nice texture contrast and some carbs to balance out the copious amounts of protein.

White Chocolate Raspberry Ice Cream
Almost as an afterthought we were offered three flavors of ice cream, Pistachio, Espresso, and White Chocolate and Raspberry. A nice cool palate cleanser especially after the hot and spicy soup, fairly pedestrian ice cream but it did the job.

So did the secret beef restaurant live up to the hype? I think the answer is a qualified yes. Ultimately with so much attention paid to the exclusivity, I feel that ineveitably plays into what people think about this restaurant. That being said, the quality of the beef is exceptional, certainly worth all the trouble it took to get here. My only issue is with so much beef the meal ends up being a bit heavy and monolithic but people who truly love beef are going to appreciate the subtle differences between the various cuts. If you are a meat lover, this restaurant might very well be worth trading your firstborn to get into.


Aaron said...

With a multi-course beef meal like that, I'd imagine it being pretty expensive. I've only heard about the secret beef restaurant as somewhat of an urban legend. Thanks for exposing it.

Epicuryan said...

The meal is 160 per person plus tax, tip and what will likely be a fairly hefty wine bill.

As much as I hate to admit it, the exclusivity does give the restaurant a kind of mystique.

Anonymous said...

I agree w/ your comments about the beef throat - it took me 2 meals to get used to it, but now i love it.

i also love the (still warm) raw liver that he sometimes serves. it has a slight bite but, when you bite down, it has a texture redolent of seared foie.

Epicuryan said...

Hey Chuckeats,

I missed out on the liver. I don't know if they stopped serving it or they just didn't have it the day we were there, but from your description it sounds great and I hope to get it on a return visit.