L.A.’s best Japanese restaurants
You could say that the Netflix documentary Chef’s Table helped shine a spotlight on n/naka, but in L.A., the Palms restaurant was already on the map—front and center. Chef-owner Niki Nakayama is a protégé of the legendary Morihiro Onodera (who’s currently running the show at Inn Ann), though Nakayama focuses her talent on kaiseki, a classical style of Japanese cooking that dictates a specific progression of textures, temperatures, tastes and seasonal ingredients. À la carte is not an option: n/naka offers either a 13-course modern menu ($225) or a 13-course vegetarian menu ($200), and both can be paired with wine for $95. The menus change daily and seasonally, but there is always something to delight in: a glass filled with sea urchin and lobster in a bath of chilled dashi, maybe, or a seared diver-harvested scallop cuddled next to a warm okra pod. It can take two or three hours to get through a meal here, and a month or two to land a reservation, but it’s well worth it. Nakayama is one of L.A.’s best culinary talents, and scoring a meal at her restaurant is money well spent.
Many of chef David Schlosser’s dishes require the kind of time, care, delicacy and effort that defines kappo cuisine, a kind of specialty-driven Japanese tasting menu, or omakase fine-dining meal. In an almost-hidden dining room Downtown, Schlosser tenderly ferments shrimp in its own juices, grinds nubs of fresh wasabi and steams pork jowl with California-grown rice in a heavy iron pot to create some of the most intricate flavors that can take months to develop. Order à la carte, or, more recommended, go for the omakase, which starts at $75 per guest and runs to $150—you’ll be in excellent hands. Be sure to sit at the bar to see the master at work, and always trust the team when it comes to the sake pairings.
Brandon Go is one of L.A.’s humblest chefs, but he consistently turns out immaculate kaiseki dinners and phenomenal bento lunch boxes from behind the counter of his nine-seat restaurant. Go Figure. Tucked discreetly into the ROW DTLA complex, Hayato offers a traditional Japanese ambiance in a surprising location. Inside the restaurant it’s transportive, all warm woods and handmade ceramics just like you might find across the sea. Go’s precision and technique come by way of training under Michaelin-starred Japanese chefs, and he uses this expertise to craft painstakingly-detailed and seasonally-driven morsels such as tender, charcoal-grilled cod; delicately steamed abalone in liver sauce; or days’-marinated agedashi eggplant. Whether you’re stopping by for dinner ($200 per person) or the bento ($46 per box), you’ll need to plan ahead: The kaiseki often fill up a month in advance, while the bentos require at least 24 hours’ notice.
Traditional Japanese technique meets modern, sustainable California flavor at this intimate bungalow on the edge of Chateau Marmont. Restaurateur Reika Alexander shaped her Sunset Strip restaurant into a whimsical, low-lit hideaway—in sharp contrast with her bustling NYC hit, En Brasserie. Here, you can choose à la carte shareables such as delicate sashimi, A5 wagyu and Japanese fried chicken; build your own bento box with items like truffled tofu and miso black cod; or let the staff surprise you with an omnivorous or vegan kaiseki meal. Ideal for a date night or a celebration, this is a restaurant with style in spades, and a bit more flexibility than some of its Japanese-cuisine contemporaries.
While Nobu Matsuhisa’s eponymous restaurant is nothing new—his Japanese-meets-Californian-meets-Peruvian food is now global—the Malibu outpost is a sight to behold, with a minimalist, zen-meets-the-Pacific space and an oceanside setting that leaves diners speechless. Just as stunning is what’s on your plate: Mini tacos are filled with creamy uni, rib eye is topped with truffle butter, and tangy lobster shiitake salad with spicy lemon sressing showcases elegant, raw preparations that bypass the typical sushi and sashimi menu.
Morihiro Onodera long left his Beverly Hills temple to fish, Mori Sushi, but the famed chef is back—and running the kitchen in one of Hollywood’s best-kept secrets. Take the elevator all the way to the top floor of the Hollywood & Highland shopping center just off the Walk of Fame and, wedged into a front corner, you’ll find INN ANN. The restaurant perches over Hollywood’s sprawl, with long, spanning windows that peer out onto the twinkling lights of Los Angeles. Onodera’s menu only plays up the romance, with sashimi, uni-topped Japanese wagyu, and specialties flown in from the likes of Hokkaido daily—often served on ceramics that the chef himself makes by hand. To order à la carte is a treat, and even more so is the sushi selection—but to really make the most of your visit, tell Onodera you’d prefer the omakase, then let him go wild.
Little Tokyo’s most exciting restaurant might just be Marugame Monzo, where freshly-made udon is the star. Ask for seats at the counter so you can watch the noodle-making action up close: Behind a large glass, the udon master will roll out the dough and cut strands and strands of the thick, chewy noodles for each order. The traditional bowls are perfection here: Try the hot kitsune udon ($8.25) topped with fried tofu, or the cold plum shiso bukkake udon ($9.25). Or, for a fun mash-up of Japanese and Italian cuisines, go for the very popular miso carbonara udon ($12.95). Just be sure to avoid peak dining hours, or arrive with a small group—wait times can easily reach past an hour at this no-reservations spot when it’s busy.
The sign reads “Teriyaki House Pico,” but don’t let the unassuming facade on a nondescript block fool you. The tiny makeshift restaurant may not be much to look at, but once inside this clandestine shrine to beef, you’ll be served sublime plate after sublime plate. The kaiseki-style dinner begins with delicate preparations, from seared beef tataki and marbled sashimi to a daikon-and-pine-nut–flecked tartare—and an enlightened version of tongue that’s impossibly tender and complex in flavor. But the main event is yakiniku, grilled preparations of tongue, rib eye, short rib and other varying cuts, all prepared over a tabletop charcoal grill. The night will set you back roughly $300 per head but it’s one of L.A.’s best—and best-hidden—meals.
Shunji almost looks like it belongs in the Shire—with its circular frame and low ceiling, Bilbo Baggins would feel right at home. Not so Shire-like is the fantastic sushi inside this Pico Boulevard restaurant, including the well-curated omakase available at lunch and dinner. But first, ask about the fried oysters, which come four to an order and will convert even the oyster-averse among us with its soft, pillowy exterior shielding a juicy helping of mollusk inside. In fact, while sushi is the specialty here, we can't help but order from the daily specials (and even fill up on them). Items like steamed black cod with porcini in dashi butter sauce; the silken chawanmushi; and halibut with soba are all worth an order. When your plate has been picked clean, a steaming cup of green tea helps ease your way into the outside world—L.A., not the Shire, in case you needed a reminder.
Simple and cozy, this 40-seat Brentwood joint elevates even familiar dishes such as the ubiquitous edamame: Fresh pods are slightly steamed and salted at the hands owner-chef Takao Izumida, a Matsuhisa alum. Something as elementary as the grilled salmon-skin salad ($13) has both sweetness and depth thanks to the high-quality ingredients, while flashier dishes such as white-fish new-style sashimi with truffle ($25)—garnished with chive, ginger and yuzu—bring a whiz-bang twist to a Japanese classic. Takao is also a great tempura destination—sublime fried foods ($28) can include everything from traditional vegetables to fresh scallops—and if you really trust Izumida (and you should), he also offers a daily-changing omakase.
If ramen is the attention hog of the Japanese-noodle family, then soba is its more refined cousin. Soba’s beauty lies in the delicate, slightly nutty flavor of buckwheat and a skilled touch in hand-making each thread. Any purist will tell you that the best way to enjoy these noodles is plain or zaru—served cold, topped with nori shreds alongside an umami-rich dipping sauce. But at this South Bay noodle destination, we prefer tensoba, an upgraded version with the addition of light, crispy tempura on the side. The best way to sample an authentic taste of Nippon is a set dinner: I-naba’s seasonal omakase often includes sunomono (pickled vegetables), grilled fish, miso soup, a mixed plate of nigiri and maki sushi, that etheral tempura, chawanmushi (egg custard) and a small bowl of soba. But if you’re just here for that tempura—well, they even have a special tempura kaiseki (but you should still order some soba on the side).
That same friend that always tells you to buy investment pieces instead of an armful of Forever 21 will love KaGaYa, arguably home to the best shabu-shabu in town. You can only order by the set here and the basic beef will run you $58. Wagyu ($156) and seafood ($72) upgrades are available and you’ll be rewarded with eight to 10 slices of exquisite quality meat to be lightly cooked in the bubbling broth, then dipped into a smooth but complex sesame sauce. The luxe, DIY meal commences with a small, lovely serving of the day’s fish specials and one soup special, followed by beef-enriched–broth–turned udon or rice porridge—a couture dining experience, topped off with your choice of dessert such as ethereal crème brulée.
Those who frequented the West Hollywood location of Yabu were devastated when it closed, but fear not: The original Sawtelle location still stands, serving as a comfortable neighborhood walk-in eatery. The dish to order? Yabu’s signature house-made soba. It’s perfect in any iteration—our favorite is the kamo nanban, with broiled duck and green onion—but traditionalists would insist that you try the zaru soba, served cold with seaweed flakes and a dashi dipping sauce, the perfect cooldown for an especially hot day.
Carved wood, glowing lights and tastefully kitsch elements—samurai armor, lights made of sake bottles, hanging demon masks—make this glass-walled storefront on West Third feel like a stylish Shinjuku den that’s always packed with diners in outfits from nearby boutiques. The restaurant welcomes à la carte dining, but the omakase menus are well-constructed here—even the $48 menu gives you an overview of all the favorites, like the perfectly crisp tempura Brussels sprouts and the smoky, charcoal-grilled chicken oysters. Whatever you do, be sure to order the tableside, soft-as-pudding house-made organic tofu to start.