Restaurants: Hinoki & The Bird, Los Angeles
We can all learn a few lessons about taking a step back and re-inventing yourself from David Myers. It hasn’t been an easy road for such an immensely gifted chef. If ever there was an example of how a chef must be both a businessman and innovative entrepreneur in the hyper competitive restaurant world of today, here it is. With Myers’ latest opening of Hinoki & The Bird in February, the chef has once again proven his strength of executing a focused, detailed vision in the front and back of the house into one of Los Angeles’ premier dining experiences.
Perhaps the bird with Hinoki is a phoenix, rising high above the Century City office towers to tell diners across the vast traffic-clogged metropolitan landscape that Myers is back, folks. The Los Angeles restaurant of the moment is not a pop-up. It’s not a tricked-out truck. It’s here, with a head-scratching name, at the bottom of the most expensive condo building west of the Mississippi.
Myers has teamed with a longtime protege of his Kuniko Yagi to craft this Silk Road inspired concept that really can’t be pigeon holed into a specific cuisine or style. The indoor-outdoor patio and cocktail fueled vibe certainly is pure Los Angeles. A dish of kale “crispy and raw” certainly fits in these parts. Chili crab toast with spicy cucumber veers towards Singapore, while pumpkin toast layered with goat cheese and an almost fruity miso jam borrows from the classic Malaysian street vendor dish. Sambal skate wing echoes Indonesia. Crispy marinated chicken wings would be right at home in a Shinjuku izakaya. Caramel braised pork belly follows the direction of claypot chicken from Vietnam, made famous by Charles Phan with his iconic dish at San Francisco’s The Slanted Door.
Lobster rolls? Clam chowder? Are we at Har-vuhd Yahd? No, this lobster roll is definitely not what you eat in the rough along the Maine coast and the chowder wouldn’t exactly be similar to what you’d find at Durgin Park.
What Myers and Yagi have created is a restaurant that invigorates assorted loose inspirations from all around Asia, prepared then with a serene Japanese aesthetic, and fully unafraid to borrow influences from anywhere in this country or the world. It’s a bold risk by Myers to not follow a clear path and he completely hits the mark spot on. Who really needs to be so specific when describing a restaurant? Even the menu descriptions are barely one step above vague. And yet, with all of the gorgeous diners accenting the suave surroundings inside the bustling room or the glittering outside covered patio, there is a wonderfully clear narrative leaving the kitchen. This is an intensely personal restaurant of Myers’, one that you knew would be the project to bring him to the top ring of this city’s dining scene again.Myers’ resume is essentially a Stanford undergraduate degree, Oxford Rhodes Scholar, and Harvard MBA in chef terms. Count Daniel Boulud, Charlie Trotter, Joachim Splichal, and the famed French chef Gerard Boyer as his mentors. In 2002 Myers opened his first restaurant, Sona, which soon became a Michelin starred critical darling for its daring modern cuisine that would still really be without a peer today in Los Angeles. Shortly thereafter, Myers opened the patisserie Boule next door with his pastry chef and now former wife, Michelle. It was a knockout 1-2 punch on a nondescript stretch of La Cienega near the Beverly Center, boasting possibly the city’s most innovative kitchen and a pastry shop on par with the best in Paris (I’m not kidding, the macarons could compete with Pierre Hermé any day).
Translating his days cooking in France, Myers opened the chic bistro Comme ça in 2007 nearby on Melrose, a location not far away geographically and yet worlds away in terms of luxury. Despite being a French bistro per its menu, the restaurant is every bit as sophisticated in appearance as its neighbor Lucques. It’s an upscale Melrose take on the French bistro standards, something you’d rarely find in Paris. I remember once telling a dining partner that it’s a casual French bistro that specializes in an incredible cheeseburger. He showed up in a t-shirt and shorts with that initial impression. Boy did he not feel comfortable the entire meal.
Then in 2009 came the next project for Myers, Pizzeria Ortica in Orange County that counts Steve Samson and Zach Pollack of Sotto as two of its alumni (at Sotto they now are making possibly L.A.’s standout Neopolitan pizzas).
Yet, as the Pizzeria opened, Boule closed. The following year, Sona shuttered, promising to re-open in 2011, and here we are still Sona-less in 2013. It’s hard to say why Sona closed necessarily, with plans for a new Sona 2.0 the real reason. The location also has been cited as a possible reason. As it turns out, the restaurant Mezze that took over the former Sona space afterwards with its excellent chef Micah Wexler closed last year because of lack of foot traffic and neighborhood construction. Another exceptional restaurant that couldn’t make it in that (cursed?) spot.
With Sona’s closing, Myers decided to step back and re-examine matters. Instead of going for the gold in Los Angeles with a new Sona, Myers followed his love for the Japanese lifestyle and cuisine by taking Sona across the Pacific.
In 2010, Myers opened a high-end patisserie SOLA, not unlike Boule and sounding quite a lot like Sona’s name, and the California-Japanese inspired David Myers Café, both inside the giant megastore Mitsukoshi deep in the heart of Tokyo’s glitzy Ginza shopping district. That same year, Myers opened the second Comme ça in Las Vegas’ The Cosmopolitan Hotel.
Here you have Myers, a 2008 James Beard award winner for Best Chef Pacific among a trophy case of awards and television appearances, in the prime of his career, with many exciting projects, but no centerpiece restaurant. Enter Kuniko Yagi.
Interestingly, Yagi is the complete opposite of Myers when it comes to formal cooking training. She didn’t work for any Daniel Bouluds or Charlie Trotters. She started in the finance industry before leaving Japan and cooking at a noodle house in Los Angeles. By chance, Myers was a customer of Yagi’s and soon she joined the Sona team. Yagi rose to chef de cuisine at Sona, before opening the Comme ça in Las Vegas and Myers’ two Tokyo establishments. After returning to be the Los Angeles Comme ça executive chef, Yagi was given the Hinoki & The Bird assignment.
What a duo to have running the kitchen of a restaurant now. You could almost see the stars align for Hinoki & The Bird with the backgrounds of these two.
The restaurant really could be called Myers & Yagi, but instead the honor goes to a special Japanese cedar wood, hinoki, that emits a particularly enchanting smell. The wood can be found along the walls and the dining room ceiling, in addition to the perfume when lit as part of the signature black cod dish that appears on every table midway through each meal. Even Nobu’s famed miso black cod doesn’t receive the hinoki treatment.
The bird part? It evokes the Silk Road travels and journeys used in the restaurant’s formulation process.
That black cod is indeed a beauty, where the sensual smoke infused flesh is supremely soft, given a wonderful crispy accent from the skin. Earthy oyster mushrooms almost steal the show from the cod. The only knock would be the half-hearted plating. the lit wood covering the cod like a tent is artistic, but the mushrooms and sweet potato scoop are isolated from the cod as if it’s a meat and three dish at a Tennessee buffet.
The black cod is part of the “inspirations” on the menu. Yes, Myers elected to follow the popular direction these days of not having traditional names for courses. There is the self- explanatory “Raw Bar,” then “Fun Bites,” “Inspiration,” and “Simply Grilled,” which really aren’t that simple, and “Vegetables & Grains.” Don’t make too much of these categories.
Why is the single lobster roll not a “fun bite” and the substantial crispy marinated chicken is? Who cares, go with the flow. If there is any strategy advice to pass on, it’s the usual sample from each category and focus on smaller plates for more tastes.
The menu’s version of sashimi is a marinated tuna with a lemongrass salad. The steak tartare adaptation is stellar, a beautiful, delicate composition veering towards Italy with a shaving of parmigiano, then to Mexico with a not subtle pickled jalapeno, then out to Japan with a lovely sesame dressing, all crowned by a ready to melt egg yolk to tie it together.
Both of the toasts are winners, be it the chili crab, spicy cucumber, and coriander one, or pumpkin mousse slathered over thick, sweet toasted brioche, with miso jam and a generous layer of goat cheese. I could see the dish being on the menu at Los Angeles’ darling jam and toast spot in Silver Lake, Squirl.
Fried food is considered great fun according to this menu, with fried oysters to be dipped in a black garlic aioli, or salt & pepper fried calamari paired with an ajwain- tomato jam. Hinoki’s fried chicken is perfectly moist, boneless white meat, something I previously thought impossible. The slightly sweet coating could use a little more crunch and marinade à la the Korean fried chicken you might find at Kyochon.
“Inspiration,” is, not surprisingly, where the creativity takes off. The black cod is the flagship dish, but the lobster roll with its photograph inducing charcoal stained bun is the dish everyone is talking about. You feel the room watching you as the dish is placed on the table. No, the bun doesn’t taste like soot despite the addition of charcoal to the flour. It actually tastes no different than a buttery brioche hot dog bun. The lobster filling comes from the mayonnaise salad school, brightened by plenty of lemon, and enough Thai basil flourish to keep matters exciting. Yes, you’re far from Cape Cod here.
Don’t forget about the excellent kale salad. Kale isn’t elevated to unforeseen heights here, just in exquisite harmony as various textures with sharp pecorino wisps and curried almonds, dressed flawlessly by a red wine vinaigrette. It’s a great kale dish and I mean that as a compliment. Clam chowder has evolved with the addition of lardon and celery leaf, while a mussels dish is a little bit more status quo with a coconut green curry fortified by sausage hunks and a raw cauliflower topping.
The tender caramel braised Kurobota pork belly is almost there, lighter than almost any pork belly large serving I’ve ever seen with a far smaller fat layer. The preparation itself seems a bit sloppy from overly wilted mustard greens and an unspectacular caramel sauce that lacks the symphony of nuances most other dishes thrive with. It’s haphazardly tossed about with little eye to plating.
Surprisingly, the “simply grilled” skate wing was the table’s winner, causing one dinner to call it his “langoustine moment” (a nod to another dining companion’s dining epiphany in Paris from a langoustine dish.” The fish comes as the entire wing, complete with bone, but easy to take apart with directions from the waitress. You’ll devour this like a grizzly bear, alternating between pure chile paste coated fish bites, and bathing it in the fiery bowl of sambal. It’s a fiery, yet tranquil experience. Simple? Yeah right. The carefully calibrated oceanic funk to the fish’s coating is a marvel.
There are the crowd-pleasers too. Where there’s pork belly, there’s apple marinated braised short ribs. Fire up the expense account report with a Maine lobster or a Wagyu strip loin.
Accompany the meal’s bold flavors with a grilled brown rice that somehow is stickier and earthier than it ever has been before. Myers has a way with the cooked vegetables, topping braised Shiitakes with Japan’s beloved yuzu kocho condiment, and an umami fest of steamed mustard greens with soy.
Desserts don’t reach the heights of the rest of the meal, but don’t falter either. Following the savory menu’s lead, there are four categories with roughly a dozen items to choose from in total: “Rice Creams,” “Ice Creams,” “Sorbets,” and “Sweet Dreams.” Japan’s pastries and desserts are much less sweet than what our supreme sweet tooths are used to. Once at a Michelin three star restaurant in Tokyo, I was served watermelon for dessert. It was life-changing watermelon. But, it wasn’t chocolate.
Rice creams are mochi coated ice cream. The rice cream itself is forgettable, elastic and bland. Fortunately the pairings are great– pitch-perfect sticky salted caramel, or a miso mochi with butterscotch and togarashi. Just ask for caramel sauce and you’ll be happy.
Spice creeps its way into the ice cream sandwich via pandan chiffon. There’s a devil’s food cake with a guyaquil mousse. Frequently, you’ll see the matcha dusted beignets that get overpowered when dunked in koji milk. It’s fine, but you won’t be transported to Café du Monde anytime soon.
Drinks are certainly a vital part of the menu, with a deep wine menu that also will cause you to reach deep into the wallet with very few choices below $50. It’s a little disappointing for an otherwise very thoughtfully priced experience.
Cocktails are as essential as the lobster roll and black cod. The man in charge is Sam Ross, one of the definitive figures in the country’s modern cocktail renaissance. After leaving his mark at the cult favorite New York speakeasy Milk & Honey, Ross came west to run the cocktail program at Comme ça, creating the venerable “Penicillin” in the process.
Cocktails here are more tame, with calmer seasonal fruit “cups” and swizzles that look more appealing than they really are. The “Bird Cup” is a pretty standard Pimm’s Cup and the “Gordon’s Cup” was another pleasant cucumber- Gin number that begged for more Szechuan pepper to be relevant.
Instead, focus on the unique Negroni portion of the menu. You can be classic or daring with the regal “Harajuku,” a sumptuous, sweeping tuxedo of a cocktail with Hakushu Single Malt Whiskey, Gran Classico, Mauin Quina, and chocolate bitters. Best was the “Kingston Negroni,” with the caramel- like Smith + Cross Jamaican Rum adding an eloquent, funky take to sweet vermouth and Gran Classico, all tempered by a glacier of a single hand cut rock. “Die Hard” fans will of course get the “Nakatomi Plaza” of Choya plum wine, Yamazaki, and fresh pressed green apple. This is Century City after all, the studio honchos are just up the Avenue of the Stars from here.
Century City isn’t exactly a primo dining neighborhood. That’s what a Westfield Mall does to its environs. But oh my does Century City provide a glimmering entrance to this restaurant, down the Avenue of the Stars and its towering offices and luxury hotels, past Constellation Boulevard, then you turn into what seems like a fire road, but really is a cul de sac for the restaurant. The sedate entrance looks more Rolls Royce showroom than restaurant and once the door is opened, you descend down a grand staircase feeling like you should do so in an Astaire-Rogers dance number.
It’s loud in there. That’s what a good bar and good times do to a restaurant. Inside and outside is very dark, so best of luck reading the menu when the sun goes down. At the same time, the modern meets rural country with a few dashes of Zen tranquil notes designed by MAI Studio (a design similar to their work at Venice Beach’s Gjelina, something I didn’t think about until later) is quite striking and a terrific enhancer to the dining festivities going on. Everybody is beautiful. Everybody is laughing and smiling. And, despite being in a building where Candy Spelling calls the penthouse home, it doesn’t feel exclusive like a Spago tries to be.
Service follows suit, friendly, timely, and wonderfully organized. Our head server couldn’t have been more genial and on the mark with recommendations, a rare 100% with each pick. The only misstep was an acknowledged long wait for opening cocktails. It’s a common problem for larger restaurants where carefully constructed cocktails are a mandatory part of the process: the bar gets slammed.
That’s one of the few faults of one of the most accomplished openings this city has seen in years. You’ll be flying into the Century City night smiling and smelling like hinoki after a meal here.
Hinoki & The Bird
10 West Century Dr., Los Angeles
Lunch Tuesday- Friday, Dinner Tuesday- Saturday