Sunday, April 18, 2010

Foodie Girls Lunch Brigade - Episode 14

Like all relationships, the bond between eater and restaurant goes through phases.  The flush of discovery when you first meet. The thrill of connection when you know this is more than a one-nighter.  The heady excitement of the early meals, when you can't seem to keep your joy to yourself.   And, over time, the cosy comfort of knowing each other very well.   Your table, the staff, the feeling when you walk through the door as familiar as the worn shoes on your feet.  The menu: superfluous.   You are that rarest of breeds:  A regular.   And the restaurant is your place*.

So it's kind of weird to find out that other people like your place.   Validating, yet somehow a bit disconcerting at the same time.  Especially when it turns out that other people like your place for entirely different reasons.  And that one of those reasons is tofu.

Episode 14 - Falling in love with Iroha (all over again)

Yes, tofu.   Agadashi Tofu, to be exact.  A dish I can't recall ever seeing on the menu at Iroha Sushi of Tokyo, but which FG7 swore was the best cooked tofu dish in the city.  Best in the city?  Huh.  How come I didn't know that?  I felt cheated, yet somehow titillated.  Like seeing a beloved spouse in the light of an admiring stranger.   And suddenly there were admiring strangers coming out of the woodwork.   "I love Iroha!" came an e-mail.  "My old stomping ground!" gushed another.    We practically had a complete Iroha harem around the table when we sat down to lunch**. 

One of the fun things about Iroha is how hidden it is, basically a tiny house behind a Japanese pottery shop on Ventura Blvd.   At night, there is a tarot card reader in a hut at the edge of the parking lot.  It's usually a toss up between sitting at the warm and inviting sushi bar or out on the quiet patio, particularly when the strings of twinkling lights are on during warm evenings.  For lunch on a nice day, the secluded leafy patio wins, hands down.

FG7 was quick to put in an order for the tofu.  Other voices piped up for the calamari salad.  Fried string beans. The lotus root is great here, someone raved.  I asserted myself with the albacore tataki and the crunchy roll.  Then suddenly there was spicy tuna on crispy rice cakes and a forest fire roll in the mix.   The juxtaposition of the familiar with the unexpected was thrilling.

Our animated conversation was briefly interrupted when a shower of water hit the heat lamp over our heads with a sizzling hiss before splattering on the floor behind us.   Staff on the roof was removing shades to let in more light, and got more than they bargained for.  But thank goodness they did, so I could get these photos...

That tofu!  A revelation indeed.  Chunky squares of the stuff, with the texture of great flan, flash fried in the lightest of tempura batters.  These were in turn surrounded by a rich, earthy broth and sprinkled lightly with finely chopped scallions.   This dish (a complete steal at $5.50) gave new meaning to the phrase "comfort food."

String beans were snapped up hungrily.  The lotus root salad was a small bowl of contrasting textures and dark, sweet-salty flavor.   Crunchy shavings mixed with the thinnest of cold noodles and a sauce full of soy, sesame and sugar.  FG8, in particular, was a big fan.

The calamari salad, by contrast, was enormous and almost tropical, bright with color and a zesty, crisp mix of citrus, pepper, and perfectly fried rings of calamari, dusted lightly with a spicy batter.   I have seriously been missing out!

Then came the fish.   The albacore, just barely seared, sliced perfectly and gorgeously fanned out on a plate with a pile of crisp, impossibly thin strings of fried onions, was stunning to look at, but even more incredible to eat.  Silky smooth, wrapped up with those onions and the delectable sauce, each bite was bliss on a chopstick***.

A ring of sweet, still-warm crispy rice cakes with generous helpings of spicy tuna disappeared quickly.   The forest fire roll, "albacore, ginger, garlic and cucumber roll with spicy tuna on top" - could be summed up more succinctly as "the yummy ginger one."   And then, I think our eyes may have all closed in happiness simultaneously with the crunchy roll.   Mixing fresh crab with tempura flakes and spicy mayonnaise, it is both a textural and taste sensation not to be missed.

Walking to my car after lunch, I felt an odd mix of surprise, comfort and pride****.   My place, in the end, turned out to be both more than I expected, and exactly the place I knew.  No wonder we've been together so long.

FG Final Verdict?  Iroha is ON the list!
Pricing information:  A very wide range.  Appetizers $4-15, rolls $5-20, sushi $5-17, entrees $11-30. 
FG Value Rating:  Fair deal*****
* My husband and I have been coming here at least once or twice a month for ages.  It's our favorite sushi place in LA by far, and that's saying something in a city full of incredible sushi restaurants.
** Including one Iroha virgin, who after confessing that she was "not a sushi person" before this lunch, left with a beatific smile on her face at the end, having tasted and thoroughly enjoyed nearly everything.
*** This dish is one of the reasons I'll always be true to Iroha.   When you throw in the crunchy roll and the fact that it's open until midnight, "'til death do us part" doesn't seem to do the depth of my allegiance justice.
**** As well as fullness of the belly.
***** Our bill was just over $25 per person.

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