Restaurant Review

Pub food, Japanese style
by Richard Foss
Published January 15, 2009

Chef-owners generally have a lot of freedom about what they serve – if they want to change the menu, fine, that’s their prerogative. A rare exception occurred with Yakitori Bincho, the small restaurant on the Redondo Boardwalk that was a sensation when it opened earlier this year. They attracted raves for excellent Japanese barbecue but attracted less welcome attention from other quarters – air quality inspectors who decided that the building’s ventilation was insufficient to allow indoor charcoal grills. A restaurant specializing in barbecue was out of the question.
Many eateries would have closed given such difficulties, but after pondering their choices owners Tomo and Megumi Ueno decided to stay open and change the focus of their cuisine. Yakitori Bincho was no more, and Izakaya Bincho opened serving the tapas-style grazing food that originated in Japanese pubs.
I had visited the restaurant when they were serving yakitori and already written a delirious review when I heard that they had closed. Having visited and tried the new menu, I can say that while I miss their yakitori, they’re still serving excellent food of a type unique in the South Bay.
First, of course, you have to find the place, which is complicated by the fact that the restaurant has no sign. They apparently have ordered one, but as of this writing there’s nothing outside to even suggest that a restaurant is there, much less what kind. A glance inside reveals that it is Asian cuisine of some kind; the décor is minimalist but includes black lacquer furniture and framed Japanese calligraphy. The interior space is small, comprising just three tables and eight bar seats. You won’t be inside for more than a moment before being greeted by Megumi, who ushers you to a seat or table quickly and graciously.
The menu was obviously designed for those who are already familiar with the style of dining, and some of the dishes are a bit unusual to the uninitiated, but Megumi was helpful and fluent with explanations. Photos on the pages help – a bit. The prices were low, so we settled on our favorite strategy- just order five or six things that sounded interesting and hope for the best. Categories include salads, soups, grilled meats, seafood and a great many types of crispy fried rolls.
This is pub food, so of course the first thing to arrive was a drink. The available selections included four beers and three wines, but many varieties of sake and shochu, a mildly alcoholic liqueur made variously from barley or sweet potatoes (also known as soju in Korean places; the Koreans and Japanese continually argue as to who invented the stuff). A charming custom is that diners pick their own cups out of a large bowl of variously decorated ones. One appeared to have Eeyore from Winnie-the-Pooh painted on the side of it; I was disappointed to find none with Hello Kitty.
The first food to arrive was a lotus sandwich, which is nothing like it sounds. Lotus is primarily known by literary folks as an ecstasy-inducing drug eaten on an island in Homer’s Iliad, but in Asian cuisine the lacy, crunchy roots are sliced thinly and add zest to stir-fries and salads. In this presentation, the roots are used similarly to the bread in a sandwich, housing a pork filling with a lightly sweet and spicy sauce. My brother and I finished off this starter in four bites apiece, but they were lovely bites that boded well for the rest of the meal.
This was followed by a black swine roll, made with heirloom Berkshire pork called Kurobuta that is considered a delicacy. The thinly-sliced meat is layered with vegetables in an egg-roll wrapper, rolled in crumbs and fried till crispy. I will confess finding nothing particularly distinctive in the meat’s flavor, but the overall sensation was delicious. If you order this item don’t make the mistake that we did; we didn’t try the fabulous sesame dipping sauce that came with it until our last bite, when it was almost too late.
We continued with an izakaya favorite called agedashi tofu, fried tofu in an onony broth. This was a delight, as the tofu somehow retained a crispy exterior even when submerged in the tasty soup. This shouldn’t be possible, but it is when the chef is skilled, and Tomo is up to the challenge.
Each of the small plates of soup and starters were the right size for two people to share, and they came with perfect precision from the kitchen, one arriving fresh and hot after the other so that we were never rushed but never bored. A dish of fried chicken with green onion sauce was more redolent of sesame than onion, but excellent nevertheless. The next dish was salmon rice, simple but splendid – the risotto-like rice in briny broth had plenty of moist flakes of salmon, and after some of the calculated and elegant dishes that had preceded this one, it was a nice contrast of natural flavors. Our last dish of spicy chicken wings proved to be a surprise; by the aroma we thought they would be blisteringly hot, but the sauce was piquant rather than painful.
The bill for two, with sake and shochu, was under $70 – a fantastic deal for such quality and personal attention. Each dish at Bincho Izakaya was a masterpiece of a few ingredients in perfect proportion, artfully presented as a treat for the eye as well as palate. Tomo and Megumi hope to eventually find another location where they can prepare their beloved yakitori, and I wish them well, but until they do I will be happy to savor their izakaya specialties in the little restaurant hidden on the Boardwalk.
Izakaya Bincho is at 112 North International Boardwalk, near Quality Seafood. Validated parking in pier lot – best entry from Harbor Drive. Open daily, except Monday; dinner only. For reservations, (310) 376-3889. ER