Bar Hayama… Lifestyles of the Hip & Stylish hits Sawtelle

I found it interesting that no one seems to have reviewed Bar Hayama yet, so I figure I’ll put my two cents as to what I think of it. 

So, Sugiura-san (aka Frank/"Toshi"), the owner of the Hama in Venice, has taken residence at the old building that was converted from an old Mexican restaurant in 1995 to what became known as Sushi Sasabune, on the corner of Nebraska & Sawtelle.  Marked by only a neon sign that read "Sushi", Sushi Sasabune turned from hole-in-the-wall to celebrity insider with frequent visits from Aaron Spelling’s family, Peter DeLouise, and the entire cast of Los Angeles’ FOX 11 News.  In 2006, Sushi Chef Nobi Kusuhara moved Sasabune to the location where it currently resides – the old Todai on Wilshire in West LA, which left the original location empty.

Enter "Toshi", famed owner of Hama in Venice.  After 9 months of renovating, the ‘old mexican restaurant’ looks nothing like it’s original appearance.  Featuring a massive firepit in the patio, frosted glass, and a modern stylish look both indoors and outdoors, Toshi opened Bar Hayama.  With a capacity of about 86, Bar Hayama has the look & feel of today’s modern Los Angeles sushi restaurant – a style made famous by folks like Innovating Dining’s Michael Cardenas of Katana & Sushi Roku.

It also has the personality of a Sushi Nozawa/Sasabune with Sugiura-san’s bellowing and stern authoritative commands to his chefs, but the ambiance (and potential insanity) of Koi or Hama with attractive Japanese hostesses waiting to greet you at the door.

This is a serious change up from the ol’ Sasabune days and it’s certainly nothing like what’s historically populated the Sawtelle ‘Little Tokyo’ corridor before which has been mostly traditional restaurants adhering to low profile, Japanese decor and a minimization of the whole "IRASSHAIMASE!" chaos that the tourists & newbies-to-traditional-sushi have come to adore so much in Los Angeles, not unlike interactive dinner theatre.

Toshi’s an interesting cat.  His fare was personally served to me and several of his dishes as you can see are fairly creative.

  • SAKE
    I’m starting out with this because this was both an extremely pleasant surprise as well as fantastic in it’s diversity.  There’s no restaurant on the westside right now with the breadth & depth of sake available that Bar Hayama has.  With over 60 different & genuinely QUALITY bottles available, Toshi, a Japan-accredited sake sommelier, has created a sake menu that is without a doubt the best I’ve seen in a long time in Los Angeles.

    I asked him point blank, "As a Japanese, I visited your restaurant in Venice and the sake there was a little… ehhh…"  (The Japanese for those of you who aren’t familiar with the culture, describe negative responses by soft shoeing descriptions and tailing off on sentences.  It’s considered rude to say negative things outright)  He said that while he has a great appreciation for sake, when he created Hama, there just wasn’t a market for it, and it just didn’t make good business.

    This of course made instant sense:  Sake should only be kept for one year maximum, if refrigerated… otherwise it loses its distinctiveness and its original character.  A decade ago, people weren’t consuming anything but low quality futsushu heated in tokkuri flasks that were hotter than the surface of the sun, and they existed only in order to get people drunk.  It didn’t make sense to stock high-end jizake nihonshu being that no one at Hama would buy it and it would just go bad.  These days, with people recognizing and appreciating more fine sake, Toshi has come out with guns blazing with a menu bound to impress the average Los Angeles sake fan.

    He seemed disappointed with my selection of Suehiro Ken, a favorite of mine.  I realized that he probably considered Suehiro akin to Kubota these days and probably would have prefered my pick of something more eclectic like the Daishichi sakes on his menu as a demonstration of my appreciation for the selection however, let’s be honest:  There’s only a few restaurants that even sell Ken itself in LA proper because of it’s moderate cost and it’d been a while since I’d had a bottle.  Next time, Toshi.  Next time.  I’ll probably tap the Tsukasaboton Genshu, a stronger, more potent sake which I’ve never seen served in Los Angeles before.

    It should be noted that the sake was EXTREMELY fresh.  With a bottle date of May 2007, I was fairly surprised at first… but then again, the place has only been open for 2 weeks to the public so, what would you expect.  Hopefully, Toshi will keep things fresh and turn a lot of sake out.

  • In fact, I mentioned that the menu was similar to what I’d seen in high end sake restaurants in places like Las Vegas’ Shibuya or Okada which prompted the two gentlemen seated next to me to nod approvingly and mutter, "Hai… Shibuya".  It turns out they were representatives for Japan Prestige, a sake brewery coalition that has a relatively large collection of sake for distribution. 

    I was served something not listed on the sake menu, and it might be worth asking Toshi if he has some if you’d like to try something different.  He had the Berkeley, CA brewery of Shochikubai (don’t laugh – read the rest of this paragraph before you judge) send him a bottle of something they are calling "Nama Nama" – an EXTREMELY raw, green unpasteurized brew that was essentially bottled no more than 24 hours ago.  That’s right:  24 hours ago.  They don’t make much more than a few hand bottled flasks of this brew and those that receive it have to serve it within 24-48 hours of receiving it because it goes bad within 4-5 days.  The taste is akin to champagne without the extreme carbonation and is very bright.   I suspect while rare, it’s not very expensive either being that it’s locally brewed and bottled thus incurring no import tax, and its sharp taste ultimately cloaks and overwhelms the other nuances of the sake.  Griff Frost of SakeOne in Forest Grove, OR has been trying to sell sake champagnes for a while, but Shochikubai might be onto something that might catch on in a certain niche market. 

    One of their signature dishes is a "macrobiotic salad", a three stage salad with red potato salad, shoyu-noodles, and a light fish that tasted like a flaky cod but I forgot what it was.  It was good and certainly a nice appetizer.  This sort of salad is common in traditional family style Japanese restaurants like Wakasan & Yabu and I could see where he wanted to serve something along those lines but yet different and acceptable to "American" tastes.  He acknowledged as much after I’d asked him but not before somewhat pooh-poohing the other restaurants… as I would expect him to. <smirk>

    They also served a Blue Crab cake with what tasted like a lobster sauce.  This was as good a crab cake as I’ve tasted however the lobster sauce was a tad too salty for the dish slightly overpowering the sweetness of the meat.  If anyone takes this dish, eat the cake straight up for maximum flavor.  The crab is delicious.

    I went ahead and ordered a few specials including the Shima Aji and the Toro, both of which were very good.  Although the Toro has a little tsuji in it (fiber strands) it was still melt-in-your-mouth good and the serving was very large… surprisingly so.  The shima aji was good however I’d just had better at Yabu so it might have been a slightly unfair comparison.

    We were served a small sukemono & baby amaebi salad which was something I hadn’t had before… and it was definitely excellent.  Shrimp that are ACTUALLY sweet is an amazing sign of a high quality Japanese restaurant.

    Of course the wasabi was fresh grated, and not bitter.  I make mention of bitterness because I’ve noticed a trend of chefs serving fresh grated wasabi that just plain tastes bad… and it could easily be avoided if they simply taste a little before serving it.

    They also served raw mitsutake beef – a sashimi style cut of beef heavy with fat and and absolute delight to consume.  My wife ordered a salmon collar while I finished my plate and we found the salmon to be a little on the dry side but decent nonetheless. The cheek of the salmon however was fantastic and frankly, that’s the best part.

    Maguro Blue Cheese.  That’s right.  Toshi served something that I found to be unique and quite good.  It was a tuna with a blue cheese and shoyu sauce that was a very good match. (Toshi was very proud of this dish of his)  The last time I had Japanese food that matched well with Blue Cheese was Tamanohikari’s Kaori Ginjo – an American-importable sake that tastes great with Blue Cheese.

    Toshi made some comment about kanpachi being the filet mignon of fish in comparison to yellowtail being the "sirloin".  I cocked my head at that comparison and gave him a jaded, "Alright… whatever" look.  He proceeded to then serve me the best piece of kanpachi I’d ever had.  Kanpachi is generally a firmer more flavorful fish than yellowtail or other tuna, however this was unusually soft and fluffy.  I don’t know exactly how to describe it except to say that I had to take back my ‘look’ because he was right:  This was the best fish I’d had during the meal.

    Two other dishes were served:  Miso cucumber & hamachi & a Scallop & cerviche dish.  To be honest, these were okay – not the spectacular dishes that the maguro and the kanpachi were, but perhaps that’s an unfair comparison.

    This is going to be the dark side of this restaurant and I wonder how things go when not being served at the sushi bar:  While the hostesses are friendly, attractive and do a great job of warming up guests, bringing them to their seats and hanging jackets, their waiters don’t know what they’re doing quite yet. 

    Even though the restaurant is still new, it’s surprising to see that the waitstaff is still taking instruction from the chefs behind the bar half the time and while I don’t expect much from them, these guys seem to have no autonomy:
    - The waiter only brought one glass with a 720ml bottle of sake, even though my wife was there and only brought one glass of water (for my wife) when we both asked for it.
    - They had absolutely no idea what was on the sake menu.  After I pronounced the word "KEN" three times, I relied on the "point-at-the-bottle" method of showing them what to serve.
    - The bus boys took forever to pick up any empty plates and the waiters didn’t introduce any of the chefs at the bar, nor did they introduce themselves.
    …I could go on on and on, but suffice it to say that if there’s room for improvement at Bar Hayama, it’s with the waitstaff.  At least they were quick to turn the check.

    On the positive side, the chef-patron banter is quite lively.  Unless you actually know something about sake, (or are willing to suck up <grin>) don’t plan on leading a discussion with Toshi – it’s his bar and he’ll be the one to start & end conversations.  Toshi’s California Sushi Academy has placed a few of the chefs at the restaurant, all of which have genuine personalities and are great guys unto themselves with skills.  The former headchef & cuisine architect from Blowfish Sushi (on Sunset Blvd) is working at Toshi’s side now at Bar Hayama after seemingly getting tired of the headaches from his previous employer.  And Toshi himself sits center stage at the bar.  Of course.

Pricewise, it’s similar to most of today’s high end Japanese sushi restaurants.  My wife and I left with a $250 tab with a $50 tip – a 1/3rd of the bill was sake however.  If you’re looking for cheaper, you can certainly buy less pricey dishes with the same experience.

I suspect that this place is going to be reservation-only for a while as the culturally elite start pushing their way there.  The parking is valet and for those of you that remember the parking situation when the building was Sasabune, it’s only going to get worse with a capacity of 86 customers.

I’ll be back to at least see Suryo, one of the chefs, during the grand opening this Saturday.  If you see a short Japanese guy without a Japanese accent sitting at the far end of the table, say hi. It’ll probably be me.

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About kurtsh

I am a Global Account Technology Strategist in Southern California with a background in Financial Services & Media & Entertainment. I've worn many different hats in my 21 years working with Enterprise IT. Past roles include Technology Specialist for Management, Operating Systems, SNA/Legacy integration, & Mobility. The opinions expressed on this blog are solely those of my own and do not reflect those of my employer.

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