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Hollywood's A-List Finds a Home at Hamasaku

When Toshi Kihara left his home in Kyushyu, Japan, he was young and determined and hungry for success. He had studied cooking in Fukoka and moved on to Osaka, Japan’s “eating town” before setting his sights on Los Angeles. He brought only a suitcase, a dream, and a few words of English. But his is not the usual immigrant tale of hardship for Toshi also had a pocket full of money. The scion of a prominent family, when he left home he turned his share of the company assets over to his brother and went off to make his own fortune. Call it a rich to riches story.

 

As soon as he unpacked he headed to trendy Melrose Ave. to start job-hunting. Cruising the street, he noticed a snazzy red convertible pulling up in front of a nondescript building. As he watched, a suavely dressed man who had been waiting on the sidewalk opened the driver’s door and a skinny, full-lipped young guy bounded out. Toshi didn’t know it then, but guy was Mick Jaggar. As the waiting man ushered him inside, Toshi started to follow them. The older man spun around and barked, "Alor! What you want?" Toshi stuttered, "A-a-a job?" "Be here at 7am sharp!" No questions. No interview. No reference check.

Dumbfounded, and fearing he might be the butt of a joke, Toshi nevertheless arrived promptly the next morning. The gruff man was waiting for him and pointed to a starched uniform folded neatly on a table. "Change your clothes and go help zee chef!" he ordered.

The chef was from Austria and he and Toshi barely spoke English, which made communicating with each other, their impatient French benefactor, and the Spanish-speaking kitchen crew, a challenge. Toshi, thinking his new boss must be either brilliant or mad, decided to apply himself "1,000 percent." And that is how Toshi Kihara began his career at the fabled Hollywood hideaway, Ma Maison, under pedigreed restaurateur Patrick Terail, working side by side with Wolfgang Puck.

Toshi remained with Puck for a dozen years, following him to Spago before doing a turn at Melrose Place and then, with backing from Uber-Agent Mike Ovitz, opening Hamasaku.

Perhaps influenced by the nondescript exterior of his first California restaurant, Ma Maison, an in spot that was known for its unlisted phone number, Toshi picked a partly-hidden corner in a neighborhood strip mall. Inside, architect Steve Jones installed a smart ebony and cream interior and left plenty of room between tables. There’s a counter for sushi and updated traditional ippin-ryori, small dishes served tapas-style that supposedly ward off the effects of alcohol.

Many of the names in the reservation book can also be found on the pages of Variety but the names we care about belong to the guys in the kitchen: Head Chef Hiro Fujita; Executive Sushi Chef Hisao Tsuzuranuki; and Assistant Chef Katsu Hatano. Fujita is responsible for the omakase, a selection of sushi bar and cooked dishes. A chef’s skill and imagination, combined with the quality and variety of his ingredients, determine the caliber of his omakase. At Hamasaku, omakase is the specialty of the house.

Signature appetizers include “tuna, tuna, tuna” (spicy Tuna Ravioli, Tuna Tartar and Tuna Sushi); Hamasaku style crispy soft shell crab; marinated codfish Saikyo style served with Mushroom Tempura, and Japanese-style bouillabaisse. In the entrees, shiitake mushrooms stuffed with chicken mousse, beef carpaccio with tuna sauce, and rack of lamb appeal to traditional appetites and grilled tenderloin with wasabi mashed potatoes, once considered daring, has morphed into Japanese comfort food.

Anyone hooked on sushi and sashimi will find it difficult to divert their attention from Tsuzuranuki’s pristine slabs and slices of uni, toro, sweet shrimp and yellowtail. It wasn’t until our most recent visit that we finally sat at the sushi bar and realized what we’d been missing: salmon sashimi in black olive and red pepper sauce; yellowtail rolled in rice paper, dolled up, and served in a narrow glass; G6, rice paper wrapped around six kinds of lightly spiced chopped fish and crunchy rice; crab and lobster roll topped with a light dynamite sauce and browned; Shiromi Usuzukuri, thin sliced Halibut in Ponzu Sauce; Salmon Terakobu wrapped in cucumber; and Marinated Albacore Sashimi. "Everyone who knows about, orders it," states Toshi.

To drink, customers choose from a short but well-priced wine and sake list — Horin saké is the most popular, or order the house special Iblastini, a green tea sake martini. We were taken aback when business-suited Toshi — no flowing silk robes involved here — performed a traditional tea ceremony for us.

In a business that is rife with failures, no one really knows why any one restaurant achieves instant success. Certainly, it makes a difference if the owner has had good teachers and Toshi Kihara gathered a lot from Wolfgang Puck and Patrick Terrail. But that tea ceremony? We don’t know where he learned that.

Hamasaku
11043 Santa Monica Blvd.
Los Angeles, California 90025
310-479-7636
Lunch: Monday - Friday
Dinner: Monday - Saturday

© 2007 Andrea Lita Rademan