Sunday, December 18, 2011

In through the Open Door

Do the words, "Berkshire Pork Fat Mochi" give you any instant cravings? Or do you wince in disgust, thinking that only a pork-addled fool would even consider ordering such a thing? I hope it's the latter, because that leaves more for me!

The pork fused with the mochi by some alchemical magic, creating a smoky, umami mouth bomb accented with confetti-like nori. That shishito is more for looks than heat, since this is December after all: the plants need heat for heat. Dribbled over and around this marshmallow-shaped ball of doctor-scorned wonder lies a light ochre sauce. Maybe it's miso based. Maybe not, but it's the grace note that really makes the dish happen. This is not a regular menu item, so if pork is your thing be sure to order some while you can.

The scene is the Open Door Restaurant, a tiny izakaya nugget encrusted in a thick vein of mini-mall. Their take on this cuisine is fusion French-Japanese-everything else. You might find bone marrow logs sliced down the center and roasted. Perhaps duck confit tacos. Maybe something involving foie gras, maybe paired with sea urchin. You never know, but the odds are that the dish will indeed work, no matter how strange it may seem.

Whatever isn't on the menu gets scrawled in multicolored chalk on a large blackboard. Right now, Christmas lights provide most of the illumination, so diners would cross the dark room, squinting, to find their amuse-guele nirvana. Like those pork fat mochi balls. Heaven.

Adventures with small plates is what this place is about. Go ahead, mix it up. Everything is à la carte. Take some risks. If you don't like something, odds are someone else at your table will. There are twists on Japanese street food. Truffle butter edamame, takoyaki, inari... but they're elevated to fine dining status by an inventive twist where a sauce drizzles in, an extra step is applied. Often they pair ingredients, juxtaposing something unknown to your typical Samurai with something his obaa-san would have served.

We typically start with our favorite sashimi, white fish yuzu. They don't specify the fish - a wise move allowing them to pick the freshest white fish for their menu without getting locked in to a particular variety. The plate is a simple fan of thinly sliced fish, dabbed with something green, drizzled with yuzu, accented with a shiso leaf and a pickled cherry. At least I think it's a cherry. It's red, sour, and has a pit.

Then something perhaps a bit bolder, building up to bigger flavors. Chawanmushi arrives in a heavy bowl heated hot enough to burn Asian symbols in your arm, the custard inside heaving like something from Yellowstone. Hints of fish and vegetables infuse the soft custard. Another bite, a piece of shrimp this time, another.... shiitake. Another? Nope. Empty.

More food arrives. Takoyaki: little balls of something resembling pancake batter, topped with a bit of sauce, bits of seafood inside. Spicy weiners, really spicy. Hotter than those shisitos. Then eggplant miso cools things down again with simple eggplant rounds tossed in some kind of miso-based sauce and sprinkled with roasted sesame seeds. Then the yaki onigiri, triangular rice balls, fried, sitting on a sheet of seaweed (nori), topped with ume (pickled plum), shredded salmon or nothing at all. Break off a piece of the rice, wrap it with nori and enjoy. Yes, you need to eat the nori or the thing will taste flat. Besides, nori is good for you.

They don't stop with the food, either. Japanese micro-brews? How about a beer made from rice, like a gently bubbling very light sake? It's here. If you can pronounce it, it's yours for the tasting: koshinikari echigo. Say it just like it's written and you'll do fine. Don't expect big, bold flavor. It's extremely subtle, light and ever so sake-like. Some fools have called it bland, but pair it with delicate food and you'll find that it's the perfect foil to something like sashimi where you don't want an Arrogant Bastard who will grab all the glory.

Or, if you'd like a white ale that's a bit more Belgian, just say Hitachino Nest White Ale, o kudasai. There's even a cute red owl on the label. Sugoi!

Yes, they have sake. Probably more kinds than the beer, so if sake adventure is your thing, you'll be happy. But you get more beer for your buck.

Service is very attentive, and they will happily tell you of their current favorite dishes. You could get a comment like, "not many people dare to order that." Don't worry - if you like the main ingredient, you'll probably love the dish. My wife still talks about that bone marrow log, months after the meal (it's off the menu now, alas).

They don't allow photos of their food. There's a big sign on the door, then a notice in bold on the menu. No photos of any kind, not even blurry low-light grainy out of focus horrors snapped by cell phones. I would think that photos posted all over the place would be free publicity, but since those photos rarely if ever look appetizing they may have a point. They didn't say anything about doing an illustration afterwards, so hopefully they won't send Hideo* after me for retribution.

The Open Door sits in the back corner of a mini-mall at Atlantic and Garvey in Monterey Park (on the southeast corner if you're approaching from the South on Atlantic). Their address is 122 South Atlantic Blvd, but that may not help much unless you're just using it to program your GPS.

* Neuromancer.

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