Tengu, Santa Monica – Drinking Poison Straight from the Devil’s Goblet

tengu japanese sushi restaurant, santa monica, los angeles, ca

Tengu

1541 Ocean Avenue
Santa Monica, CA 90401
310.587.2222
www.tengu.com

They say that Tengu is the God of Mischief, making him out to be some sort of impish goblin. He plays tricks on human beings, but is, for the most part, harmless.

The Buddhists have a long-held, slightly less charming view that tengu are actually highly disruptive demons and harbingers of war.

tengu, santa monica, los angeles, ca - chopstick wrapper origami
a little impish

I might have to call Tengu pure evil. The text message the morning after the first night we tried the new location of Tengu restaurant in Santa Monica read: “I swear I drank poison from the devil’s chalice.”

In another lifetime, I went to the original Tengu restaurant in Santa Monica and liked it. This was back when ultra modern techno trendy, dark design driven Japanese restaurant “scenes” were still a curious, new development; back when even Sushi Roku was on my ToDine List. However, I have since lost interest in Tengu because 1) it is in the heart of Westwood Village, which means either I am so focking pissed off from not being able to find parking, or I am so focking pissed off from handing over the financial equivalent of two cocktails to the valet, that by the time I get inside that all I can do spew my mouthful of haterade all over the menu, 2) it doesn’t actually taste good, 3) the DJ is too loud and 4) it doesn’t actually taste good.

Did I say that last one twice? I did that on purpose to prove a point. It’s called em-PHA-sis via repetition. Tengu doesn’t taste good.

Oops. That one popped out on its own.

However, not everyone shared in my distaste for Tengu’s taste, and apparently, the success of the evil dar-ku empire and subsequent disciples was an endorsement for such semi pseushi-esque establishments. Tengu went on to take over a long-open space on Ocean Avenue, not to move, but to open a second location. That takes some uni. They’re not saying, “Hey, our first location in Westwood wasn’t so great, so we’re going to completely move our entire operation and prey on a whole new mini-market of unsuspecting tourists.” They’re saying, “Although our first location was meh, we’re going to do what BloggerButts™ and communicable diseases do best – spread!”

With that kind of been-there-done-that preconc-eated notion, I had no intention of ever going to Tengu in Santa Monica. So, why, oh why, did I not only go once to give Tengu a chance to redeem itself (which it didn’t), but subsequently go there multiple times, this after drinking poison from the devil’s chalice and making an utter faceplanted fool of myself right there in front of the hostess’ stand? Why the hypocrisy? Why the stubborness? Why the gluttony for shameful, blameful punishment?

Why, Sarah, why?!?

Because…look at my options in the surrounding Promenade area, that’s why.

Because…I’m stupid, that’s why.

Having grown tired of double Ds at Roku, tired of fighting cougars at The Penthouse, tired of the second class scene at The Viceroy, we decided to give Tengu a chance to make itself our new Peach Pit. If all else failed, Tengu is still new, and a full bar is still a full bar.

Tengu is in the location that used to be The Ivy before The Ivy moved up the street. The space is shallow, but wide across Ocean Avenue with windows to take advantage of what view there is of the Pacific between blurs of traffic. With windows lining the entire Ocean side of the restaurant, the restaurant’s decor is bright and airy, unlike the dark, somewhat chaotic, cramped vibe of the Westwood restaurant. White as a foundation is de rigeur for Ocean Avenue establishments.

The small bar is just inside the front door, lining a short wall then turning an L just before the atrium. It seemed a little too obvious to me that Tengu made people “wait” in the bar area though the dining room was half empty. Like the pigeons we are, we hovered at one end of the bar before swooping down on still unbussed spaces and perching ourselves on the stools vacated by a couple being led to the dining room.

Like every other restaurant in the neotrendy-Japanese-fusion category, the menu is replete with tofu and sashimi salads with flashy dressings, entrees that range from a pedestrian chicken teriyaki to a spicy twist on the hated/loved miso-marinated whitefish (sometimes cod, at Tengu it’s seabass), sushi, and sashimi. The menu wouldn’t be complete without a list of “special” rolls that would make make my head pop off my body in white hot irritation. Tengu’s list reads like the roster for a fiery anime fantasy team. Surprisingly, the most offensively out of place ingredients in Tengu’s Special rolls are tempura green beans, and unless you’re badly deep-frying, deep-fried is never bad.

Out of politeness, I looked at Tengu’s Asian-inspired cocktail menu, but in the end, ordered what was the first of many of my signature Citron/sodas. Admittedly, we didn’t have any intention of eating a “real” meal at Tengu’s bar, but somehow, by absolutely no effort of my own except my simply being naturally fabulous and charming, I swear, I ended up tasting sashimi that was supposedly not available from the menu. The plate of unusually long slices of ashen gray fish looked a mess when it came to the bar with strange garnishes that looked like an afterthought, and unfortunately, the use of a blowtorch tasted less like a purposeful sear and more like gaseous flesh burn.

tengu, santa monica, los angeles, ca - seared hirame sashimi
smells like burnt fish flesh
tengu, santa monica, los angeles, ca - maki sushi
are you maki-ing me?

That first night at Tengu started as a soft, curious glow then accelerated into a whirly blur fueled at one point by a pair of pear flavored shots that were sent to our end of the bar from a mysterious admirer. Again, I swear, I had nothing to do with that. Later, the purveyor of the burnt fish flesh challenged me to a dare. Would I drink something that most certainly doesn’t appear on the menu at Tengu, and can only be served in utter secrecy (except when it mysteriously appears on The Delicious Life)?

Would I be willing to take a sip from the devil’s own goblet?

Would I like to try…turtle blood?!?!

The image of hundreds of teeny, tiny, baby turtlettes struggling across an expanse of predator-heavy sand to save their lives popped into my head. It was like asking me to eat a kitten. Had I not been in the presence of the Japanese Harbinger of War, had I not been possessed into some demon intoxication, I would have first thrown up in my head, then politely declined. Unfortunately, my senses had been raped and pillaged by an entire army of alcohols and I drank turtle blood. Even now, I have no idea if the deep dark crimson syrup was actual blood or just the name of a noxious concoction that completely knocks out your memory for a good six hours, but most of the antics after that drink only come back to me in nightmarish bits and pieces. Something tells me the abstract vision of a porcelain halo on my head is actually a toilet seat that hit me on the forehead some time during one of my many moments puking in penitence. I had a cut surrounded by a large bruise for several days.

tengu, santa monica, los angeles, ca - shots for paris hilton
oh s**t. shots
tengu, santa monica, los angeles, ca - turtle blood
two words: turtle. blood.

We did go back to Tengu after that first gloriously gory experience, thinking that perhaps we could absolve ourselves – of what, I don’t know – but the food, though decent enough, is not worth the prices one must pay for a semi-decent view of the Ocean. Though fried calamari, basic rolls, and sunomono were good at the bar with drinks, other dishes were disappointing to say the least. A steak was ridiculously over-dressed with sauce and a strange vegetable dish that I thought was eggplant but had been cooked and presented in such a way that it looked like either some alien brain or a slime-spewing orgy of snake-like sea creatures.

tengu, santa monica, los angeles, ca - oshinko
oh, sh..inko.
tengu, santa monica, los angeles, ca - calamari
fancy for “squid”
tengu, santa monica, los angeles, - steak
common mis-steak
tengu, santa monica, los angeles, ca - eggplant brain
apparently, eggplant has brains

Impish prankster. Harbinger of war. Whatever the case, I should probably stay away from Tengu.

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  • RT

    So, is it bad or is it good? I was thinking of going, but if it’s no good . . .

  • RT

    So, is it bad or is it good? I was thinking of going, but if it’s no good . . .

  • The Cooking Ninja

    Very nice presentation.

  • Hillary

    Their food looks pretty awesome if you ask me.

  • yixiaooo

    Ever since I returned from Japan, I could no longer accept newfangled sushi travesties. Woe is me.

  • Anonymous

    sarah, your blogs are becoming too abstract. i have no idea if you liked tengu or not.

    i want to know if the place os good or not. i think that’s why i come here anyway…

  • Rasa Malaysia

    My office is in Beverly Hills and everywhere I turn, I can only find Japanese restaurants. (Not that I don’t love Japanese food), but maybe LA needs more unique and hard-to-find ethnic restaurants, say, Malaysian?! ;)

  • sarah

    rt and anonymous: sorry about the abstractness. will try to get back to straight forward opinions. :) i didn’t love the food. i have no reason to go back.

    cooking ninja: the presentation of the rolls are clean, but some of the other foods were just way too over-dressed for my taste.

    hillary: as with anything, i’ts always best to try it yourself :) even if i read that a place is absolutely amazing or terribly bad, i will give it a personal taste test.

    yixiaooo: there is a flavor and function for every person, and like you mine is for simplicity when it comes to sushi!

    rasa malaysia: oh! i would be down to try malaysian! maybe you should open a restaurant, since your food looks and sounds so fabulous on your blog!

  • Anonymous

    The Delicious Life Haiku

    Food has many tastes
    Settings and textures matter
    Sarah explains all

  • Nicholai

    They have a new website for Tengu Santa Monica, http://www.tengusm.com

  • Nicholai

    They have a new website for Tengu Santa Monica, http://www.tengusm.com

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