Yuzu – Why Sarah Could Never be a Professional Food Critic

yuzu, torrance, los angeles, ca

>Yuzu Restaurant
1231 Cabrillo Avenue
Torrance, CA 90501
310.533.9898

Every once in a while, I get an email from a reader who thanks me for The Delicious Life – for providing basic address/telephone information about restaurants around LA, sometimes providing a little bit of entertainment, and for writing such thorough reviews. Hm. Reviews. That word makes me squirm a little, but I get over it, and I always write back because I do appreciate the kind words and thanks. It’s always encouraging to hear and read nice things.

Sometimes, the reader ends up writing something along the lines of “You should be a food critic!”

Yikes.

I love hearing/reading that because in my heart of hearts, nothing would make me happier than to write about food and restaurants for a living. I would love to do it, but I would never seriously admit how much I want to do it. Sure, I joke and I say it somewhat flippantly – even in my About section. But I can’t seem to make myself admit that I really do want to do it. I always respond to that last sentiment slightly untruthfully. I say “Thanks!” I take it as compliment, but “I couldn’t be a restaurant reviewer,” I modestly say. That’s what I say, because I’d never admit that deep down inside, I would love to be a restaurant critic. Good gracious, that would be like my dream come true. But I could never admit that. I can’t. I won’t.

You see, I have a bit of a self-esteem problem when it comes to writing. I have a fear of rejection, if that’s the right identification. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say fear of failure. I want to tell everyone, “Oh yeah, I am totally aspiring to be a restaurant and food critic,” but I can’t because I’m afraid of being completely laughed out of the blogosphere. First of all, who doesn’t want to lead the glamorous lifestyle of a restaurant critic? It’s like hearing someone say she’d love to be rich and famous. Well, duh. Flying around the world with just a Louis Vuitton carry-on and my over-sized Prada sunglasses on for anonymity, dining at fabulous restaurants, drinking bottomless bottles of wine, and getting paid!?!?! Yeah. Duh.

But I am afraid that people would look at me thinking, “WTF? Why do you think you could even try to be a restaurant critic? What makes you think you could even aspire to be one?” That’s like Britney Spears telling people she wants to be a great Mom. You have no culinary training! You don’t have a degree in writing! You have no talent! You have…no taste. *ouch* That last one would hurt, but it’s also kind of true. But I’ll get to that later.

So though secretly I long to be a restaurant critic, I never tell anyone about it seriously. I joke that I do, but it’s a joke.

But it’s not.

Now, the thing is, though I secretly aspire to be a food writer, I kind of know that I really don’t have what it takes. Or rather, I have more than what it takes.

I am opinionated. I have strange, deep loyalties to cuisines and people that have been shaped by personal history. I am biased. I go into a restaurant with expectations, instead of giving it the same chance as every other restaurant. I am judgmental. I am not objective. I am passionately affected by the atmosphere, the service, and the company.

When it comes down to it, I am emotional.

Professional restaurant critics seem to block those things out and review the food objectively. A sauce was too salty. The meat was dry, overdone, cooked at too low a temperature. The greens weren’t fresh. The service is a part of it, too, but a professional food critic treats service and food as mutually exclusive.

I, on the other hand, totally let my emotions take over my judgment when I dine out. If the hostess was cold and condescending, then suddenly, the entire space feels chilly, even if there is a fireplace blazing like the tropics in the center of the room. If the server is uninformed, unintelligent, rude, then somehow, even a technically perfect medium-rare steak becomes brutal and gory. The converse is also true. I could have ordered a bloody rare steak that comes to the table as shoe leather, but if I’m laughing my ass off because my dinner companion is re-telling a riotous story, I relish every bite along with every word. By the end of the meal, I’ll have polished off the shoe leather, sopped up every drop of industrial pre-packaged mix sauce with stale bread, and will walk out of that restaurant thinking it was marvelous.

I am affected by the entire experience. I try to review restaurants in a vacuum, but I can’t. Dining out is an experience, not just a meal. If all I wanted was merely a great meal, I would make that at home and eat it by myself in front of the TV watching Michael Chiarello…walking through the vineyards, in his jeans and California casual button-down shirt, caressing the grapes, snipping herbs in his garden, then going into the kitchen and making…risotto. *dreamy sigh*

Oh, alright. So I guess watching Michael Chiarello is an experience, too. ;)

yuzu, torrance, los angeles, ca
its not black and white

So it is difficult for me to write an unbiased “review” of Yuzu, a relatively new Japanese restaurant in Torrance. I don’t even like saying “review” because the word alone imparts the idea of neutral professionalism, and there was absolutely nothing neutral nor professional about me, my behavior, or my opinions about Yuzu. Nothing.

I was going to try to hate Yuzu because the drive from West LA to Torrance down the 405 freeway during pre-dinner rush hour is not a “drive” because “drive” implies “movement.” It is a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad parking lot that happens to slide forward a few feet due to plate tectonics. Yuzu is also difficult to find because way back in the day, Torrance’s city planner decided to map out its streets by dropping Pick-up Stix in a sandbox. We eventually found Yuzu. I was about one quarter of the way to a bad mood coming up the escalator from the underground parking garage.

But mymymym
y my, how one’s mood can flip like a light switch with the promise of ice cold sake!

As we walked toward the restaurant, the scene out front belied the “review” that I had read in the Los Angeles Times. Under normal circumstances, I try not to do that – read a review before going to a new place – but I had to make sure that a road trip from hell wasn’t going to end up at a crapeteria. Yuzu serves “washoku,” a retro step backward to traditional Japanese-style food, or in the polished words of the professional, a “revival of pure Japanese flavors and traditional cooking methods.” For some reason, I chose to focus on the word “traditional” in the review, letting it conjure images in my whacked out brain of ancient feudal Japan, the shogun era, samurais guarding the palace door, and geishas in tube socks and flip flops conducting tea ceremonies in strained, utterly fearful silence.

On Yuzu’s front patio, there was a table of shiny, red-faced twenty-something-year-old Japanese kids dressed in so-unfashionable-it’s-fashionable street fashion, smoking, laughing, and chattering away in ultra high-pitched, high-decibelled conversation that had I not been sober, I would have sworn was coming out in giant black-and-white cartoon balloons over their heads in kanji characters. It looked like a page right off manga.

Definitely no “traditional” kimonos there.

Yuzu’s interior is oddly bright, as if it were a cafeteria, but the decor is modern and almost sexy, as if the place should have been lit with candles instead of tiny, powerful halogen bulbs. The center space is wide open, with an open “kitchen/grill” area that is surrounded on three sides by bar seating. We took a seat at one of the few regular tables along the wall. The opposite wall has tables that are halfway hidden behind wooden slats – sort of kinky in that modest-on-the-outside-because-I-have-something-to-hide-on-the-inside way.

yuzu, torrance, los angeles, ca
yuzu is a citrus fruit
yuzu, torrance, los angeles, ca
where’s upapi?

Though the term “washoku” was new to me, the foods on the menu were not. I had eaten many of the foods before – sushi, shabu shabu, soba, nabeyaki – but still, there were things that didn’t look as traditional as I would have expected. Most of these were under the izakaya-style section, which Yuzu labels “umami.” Normally, when I eat sushi, I eat sushi; when I eat shabu shabu, I eat shabu shabu; but here at Yuzu, there was a little bit of everything. I had a few questions for our server about how and what to order.

Our server was not a geisha. Mostly because he was a “he” and not a “she,” but neither was he a shogun. He was a young Japanese guy whose name sounded like it was from Street Fighter, though I cannot remember it exactly – Ryu? However, he certainly didn’t look like a Street Fighter – more like a japanime rockstar, with his goofy smile that exposed very bad teeth, piercings, tattooes, and hair that looked like the dirty crossbreed of Zoolander on top and a mullet on the bottom. On anyone else, it would have been a Glamour “Don’t,” but strangely, it worked for him.

I asked Ryu questions. He answered every single one of them in his half-laugh/half-speaking tone, but I could not comprehend about 98% of what he said. I am sure his explanations of butamiso were textbook, but unfortunately, they were Japanglish textbook. All I would hear is “ramen-sushi-geisha-domoarigatomisterroboto,” then “butamiso,” then burst out laughing because, well, “butamiso” is a very funny word when you’re slightly buzzed. In the end, we decided on omakase. Because we’re special like that. Because it sounds way sophisticated to say “omakase” as if we were part of some special club. Because it is much easier to simply trust the chef than to make sake-marinated decisions based on attempts to decipher a rockstar’s Japanimated descriptions.

yuzu, torrance, los angeles, ca - tuna sashimi
obscenely fuschia
yuzu, torrance, los angeles, ca - tofu
quivering like a virgin

The meal came out in what I now realize was a very well-thought-out progression, though at the time, I was unaware of how carefully planned it was with respect to flavor, temperature, texture. Mild to strong. Cold to hot. Soft, smooth, slippery down the throat to thick, coarse, and requiring a thoughtful mastication. Our first course was tuna sashimi – perfectly uniform slices of an obscene fuschia that was even more pronounced in a puddle of barely there ponzu. It tasted as bright as it looked, and had the added aftershock of microscopic chives and a dollop of yuzu kosho, an intense, bitter paste made from yuzu zest and pepper. Yuzu kosho. I’d even eat a chicken’s heart if it had yuzu kosho on it.

A bowl of creamy, pale ivory tofu was next. I am not usually one for bland flavors, but tofu’s refreshing mildness is always an exception. It tasted that much better, too, when I realized that the tofu, naked with nothing more than a simple adornment of pale green scallions, was quivering in the bowl with virginal anticipation. I felt like Mrs. Robsinson. And I loved it. Oh yeah, and I loved the tofu, too.

yuzu, torrance, los angeles, ca - salad
salad
yuzu, torrance, los angeles, ca - crab
i don’t eat crab

Neither crab nor salmon are dishes I would have ordered myself. Crab makes me wonder whether I am really related by blood to three-fifths of my family. They can dive into a crate of crabs with bare hands, come out with flecks of pink and red and white flesh all over their faces and fingers, and say it was positively delectable. I, on the other hand, wouldn’t go near what I see as far too labor-intensive for their taste. I used to think of them as enormous spiders, but now, I only think of screeching Alien beasts that explode out of human abdomens. *shudders* But sake had temporarily turned off my movie memory. The crab salad was much less a salad with a garnish of crab and more the inverse – a fortune of fresh, mild crab garnished on the bottom with lightly citrus-dressed greens and a few spears of bitter gobo.

yuzu, torrance, los angeles, ca - salmon
like a creamsicle
yuzu, torrance, los angeles, ca - sake
better than berlitz

Salmon in a restaurant is the ocean’s equivalent of chicken breast. It is boring, “safe,” and very rarely done well because it is always well-done. Even salmon served as sushi is merely raw, dead fish when compared to the sparkling personalities of other fish. Yuzu’s chef presented salmon sashimi in beautiful repetition. Each individual slice was creamy ribbons of fat breaking the monotony of pale orange in perfect intervals, then the plate altogether was precise placement of slices in overlap, like striations upon striations in infinite illusion. If we eat first with our eyes, my tastebuds were dizzy with delicious anticipation. Salmon. Well, I never.

Through the evening, Ryu was never more than a look away. In fact, we had only to think we needed something and as if by telepathy, he was at the table, smiling his goofy smile, clearing plates, delivering dishes, and most importantly, pouring sake. The sake list was a joystick, which we’d flip open, quick left, quick right, then a hard point, and Ryu would go bouncing off to the front sake room to return victoriously with another bottle of what promised to be smooth and delicious and dry/sweet, light/full-bodied, and floral/herbaceous.

yuzu, torrance, los angeles, ca - shabu shabu prep
chem lab
yuzu, torrance, los angeles, ca - for shabu shabu
mise mise for shabu shabu

A strange thing happened with the sake. With each shot, it was becoming easier to understand Ryu’s words. I swear I think sake infuses a Japanese English dictionary into the bloodstream. Suddenly, when Ryu giggled – yes, he “giggled,” but Japanese guys can get away with that – his way over to the table with a hot plate, I knew we were having shabu shabu. Oh right, that’s not the sake. That’s just because I can reckanize like that.

yuzu, torrance, los angeles, ca - yuba
yuba duba doo
yuzu, torrance, los angeles, ca - duck
i am not eating duck

I can do crab if I forget about Alien. I can do salmon when it looks like a creamsicle. Unfortunately, I squirmed when I saw the accompanying plates of “ingredients” for shabu shabu. Oh duck. Though, I wasn’t actually thinking “duck” in my head when I saw it. I was thinking more like something that rhymes with “duck.” I don’t like duck. And I had absolutely no clue what the army green blocks were – they looked like moldy tofu. Oh those crazy Japanese and their interesting foods.

yuzu, torrance, los angeles, ca - shabu shabu duck
ok, maybe this one time
yuzu, torrance, los angeles, ca - yuba shabu shabu
looks like dirty laundry

It had to be done. I had to ask Ryu what everything was. I guessed on the yuba, gossamer-thin sheets of fried tofu that looked like torn tissue. The green, however, was a noodle. At least, that’s what it sounded like Ryu said, though it came out something like “eets-who-japangee-sty-noo-doh.” Eet’s who wha? He repeated himself a few times before I laughed out loud and he ran off to go cry in the sake room. Actually, he went to back to the chef, returned, and slipped me a note like it was 3rd period study hall. “ ‘Hu’ are made from glutin of flower. It is remaining solid separated when flower is put into hot water.” I loved it. I still have the note.

yuzu, torrance, los angeles, ca - hu
hu’s that girl?
yuzu, torrance, los angeles, ca - shabu shabu
perfection in a pot

The duck wasn’t bad, though I only tasted a piece of a piece, then left the rest for those of us who really enjoy it. The yuba sheets were interesting, though I didn’t find any outrageous enjoyment in them. They were somewhat too insubstantial to have any lingering effect on the palate, sort of like cotton candy. The hu, as well, were interesting, and though Ryu had passed along the information, it was still a bit of a textural shock to bite into something that was sticky, like a noodle, and not slippery like tofu. It didn’t matter about the ingredients because like the true third world Korean that I am, I slurped up the broth straight from the shabu shabu pot like I was eating jji-gae. That made everything okay. Even the duck.

yuzu, torrance, los angeles, ca - grilled shrimp
chrimp on the barbie
yuzu, torrance, los angeles, ca - crab
what did i say about crab?

From the robatayaki, Ryu brought us shrimp and crab in their shells. I didn’t touch the shrimp because though I am likely not truly allergic to them, I have been traumatized by the thought of oatmeal in places on my body that oatmeal should never be. I tasted the crab, which had been thoughtfully cracked open.

yuzu, torrance, los angeles, ca - saba
my dessert – saba roll
yuzu, torrance, los angeles, ca - yuzu ice
their dessert – yuzu ice

It doesn’t seem like there were too many courses, but food coupled with liquid in the form of alcohol can be very filling. We whispered to Ryu that we would have only one more course. *pause* Not true! No one whispered! It seemed like whispering would have been appropriate in a “traditional” Japanese setting, but I basically shouted it out loud, even though he was standing right next to me. He nodded, skipped away, and came back with the most beautiful saba rolls I had ever seen. Rice was topped with bitter, intense vegetables that could stand up to the fishy, oily mackerel that was camouflaging the entire thing with its silvery skin and a thin, sheer veneer of something that I don’t know. The saba was a strong finish. It was my dessert. I needed nothing else except to chase it with sake. I was glowing, and I don’t even have Asian/alcohol glow.

Of course, the saba wasn’t really the end. The final course truly is a dessert of yuzu ice served “up” in a martini glass. Yuzu is a napoleon of citrus, a strong, sharp sour flavor that belies its tiny size. Ice cold, sweet, and tart, it was meant to refresh the mouth after the saba, the way pickled ginger does for sushi. The yuzu ice was good, but what a shame to lose the flavor of this fish.

If we had chosen from the menu ourselves, only the saba would have made it to the table. I would never have ordered those things, never believing that they would taste as good as they did. But then again, did they really taste good? I don’t particularly like the texture of crab. I am “allergic” to shrimp. I find the flavor of duck to be a little too gory. And yet, I enjoyed every single thing. It was, dare I say it? It was *inhale* fabulous, baby, fabulous.

Maybe Yuzu is actually quite horrible. Maybe it’s a sparkling testament to washoku. I don’t know. I’m an amateur biased by sake.

** a year ago today, three, yes three, sprinkles cupcakes **

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