the sawtelle district in west LA is where you go if you’re a twentysomething looking to get your ramen on. go there any weeknight, and you’ll see japan-o-pop kids with hair the exact shade and electric-socket, spiky-ended texture as your favorite luridly colored anime character. life is good when you’re on the five-year plan at nearby UCLA!
but a secret little japanese-french-italian bistro is hiding in a mini-mall among the student-y hangouts if only you’d look. and given its sophistication (there’s a wine list!), i think restaurant 2117‘s location is more a hindrance than a help.
i’m convinced that’s why restaurant 2117 is empty on a tuesday night: people older than twenty-five who’d otherwise enjoy a civilized “small plates” meal of french-italian-japanese fusion cuisine instead avoid the place because they mistakenly lump it in with the perfectly good, if sturdy, diner-like japanese restaurants surrounding it. at blue marlin or curry house, you can get a healthy portion of teri beef or curried chicken over rice for cheap, with a side of deep-fried breaded potato croquette that’ll stick to your ribs (or your hips).
but at chef hideyo mitsuno’s pretty bistro, set slightly back from the sidewalk, you’ll find white tablecloths and elegant “little plates” made from organic vegetables (sourced from a farm 22 miles away in city of industry) and “natural” meats. (i didn’t get a chance to ask the chef what was meant by that, but the next time i go i’ll probe a bit further; the menu says the meat is “free of growth hormones or anitbiotics as availability allows”.) entrees are no more than $21.95 (for angus beef filet mignon, beautifully medium rare). most are around the $13-18 range. there’s a prix fixe dinner for $36 that includes two tapas (or one tapas, one salad), an entree, and dessert.
our table decided to plump for the prix fixe dinner. here’s what we had:
- amuse bouche of grilled vegetables (eggplant, pepper, sun-dried tomato with grated parmesan)
- 1/2 leg duck confit w/lightly pickled onion and garlic
- crab cake with egg salad
- braised salmon with peppercorns and balsamic soy vinaigrette
- fried calamari with parsley pesto
- semi-boneless quail with thyme
- main: kobe-style beef meatloaf with mashed potatoes and spinach
- seared scallop with seaweed “caesar” salad
- kobe beef shortribs on a bed of arugula with thai fish sauce
- main: angus beef filet mignon with yukon mashed potatoes and spinach
dessert: mille-feuille (strawberries layered with flaky pastry crust and whipped cream)
overall, the dishes showed careful, creative preparation. i can see this being a favorite neighborhood bistro for when you don’t want to work up to a more splashy, scene-y place, aren’t looking for the informal greasy-chopstick fare of restaurant 2117‘s neighboring sawtelle eateries, and yet can’t face cooking yet another meal at home (or worse, leftovers).
the standouts for our table were the fried calamari on parsley pesto, crab cake with egg salad, the angus filet mignon, the salmon (with a qualification), and the duck leg confit.
let me rave unto the heavens about the calamari. we fell upon it like starved shipwreck survivors. i’m sure you’ve had fried calamari where you swear the little ring of squid tastes and feels like the industrial-strength rubber band that keeps your supermarket broccoli spears bunched together. well, restaurant 2117‘s calamari must be made from baby squid force-fed pureed plankton and penned into discarded soda cans awash on the bottom of the ocean where they cannot turn head for tail, they are so tender. and for garlic lovers like myself, not only was there garlic in the whisper of oh-so-delicate batter, but there was garlic in the parsley “pesto” sauce accompanying the calamari. bliss.
i also really enjoyed the 1/2 duck leg confit, with a most curious and yet tasty relish of minced onions and herbs (basil?) sort of muddled in rice wine vinegar. this “ravigote sauce,” as it’s called on the menu, looks much like pickle relish gone to a fancy finishing school. in spite of the crudity of my description it’s actually an intriguing and refined combination of flavors that pair nicely with the savory roasted duck. (duck is another one of those meats–like pork–that i just don’t get the continental urge to cook with a sweet fruit. orange duck? pineapple ham? eeeps. luckily chef mitsuno’s instincts lean toward the japanese treatment of duck on this one.)
the angus beef filet mignon was silky, with a nice fleshy red center. it, together with the red wine reduction, had a bit of pucker that was textbook umami (or osmazome, which contrary to what it sounds like, is not the latest cirque du soleil traveling roadshow). a generous topping of blue cheese crumbles only serves to reinforce the umami-fest. the yukon gold mashed potatoes were nine parts butter, one part potato. and i mean that in the most approving way. wasn’t able to taste the spinach to see if it absorbed too much salt, as can sometimes be the case…but when you order the filet mignon you’re not really about the spinach, are you?
also delicious was the crab cake atop a bed of egg salad. if you can get past the initial vision of your crab cake looking a bit like the shape and color of a felafel, you’ll find a pretty high blue crab meat: breadcrumb ratio. if i recall correctly, dill married egg salad to crab cake pleasingly.
as for the salmon, i enjoyed how perfectly medium rare it was, just as i requested. but i do think the one flaw in the dish is the large swath of uncrushed peppercorns studding the fish. (i’m no peppercorn expert, but these appeared to be the plain black chinese/indian kind.) crushing peppercorns makes them more potent, of course, but perhaps this potency can be wrestled with and modulated by the chef before the patron crushes them with her jaws. because the scent and sinus-clearing snap of peppercorns against the palate an octave or two below horseradish is still an overpowering sensation, especially in relation to the salmon. otherwise, i enjoyed the crisped salmon skin and balsamic soy vinaigrette that balanced the rest of the dish.
of our other dishes–the sides of seared scallop with seaweed salad, the semi-boneless quail, the kobe beef shortribs, and the main of kobe-style meatloaf–i’ll say the scallop was decent, the quail tiny and dry-looking (i recuse myself from any more comment, as i didn’t get to taste it or the seaweed “caesar” much, though i notice my guest ate all the quail), and the kobe beef shortribs a wonderful concentrated blast of beefyness but disappointingly gristly. (but i liked the bed of arugula they came upon.)
the kobe-style meatloaf was essentially a giant meatball with what tasted like worcestershire sauce. i wouldn’t say it was worcestershire, i just think from my hasty sampling from my guest’s plate that some of the subtlety of the sauce got lost in the shadow of such a large hunk of meat.
we were full when it came time to gobble our mille-feuille. didn’t stop us. it was a simple and pleasing dessert consisting of flaky pastry crumbled atop whipped cream and strawberries. (as indication of his ambition, i notice that chef mitsuno has a lengthy dessert menu with a list of in-house-made confections longer than that of some other restaurants with a pastry chef on staff.)
to summarize, perhaps the “small plates” are the way to go. chef mitsuno has a large and varied menu for such a cozy restaurant, so it’ll take a few more visits to figure out which pastas are the ones to order, for example. but overall, i believe in chef mistuno, think it’s a shame his restaurant is such a secret, and think it’s deserving of more support from westsiders who are up for a little experimentation. better an inexpensive, flawed neighborhood bistro with some ambitions than a shi-shi place that’s slack on execution and has no imagination or desire to please, wouldn’t you say? and better the uneven, brave little bistro than no such place at all.