Hinoki & The Bird Wears The Emperor's New Clothes

It was the obvious place for a door. I turned back to the valet for a hint, but he was driving away in my car. I hoped he was a valet as I ran my hand along the wide panel of a wall and pushed. A section gave way. I felt like I had passed the first test and made it inside one of the hottest restaurants in Los Angeles, Hinoki & The Bird.

Walking down the steps and into the dining room, I entered the backstage of a busy theater production. The hostesses had just pulled on their hunky boyfriends' over-sized shirts, and nothing else, and rushed off to work. These tall, glamorous women I'd follow anywhere, led me through the dark room, past a forest of Hinoki trees lining the walls like dancers waiting in the wings.

I arrived before Tom Landry, with whom I was dining, took my seat and enjoyed the great view of the stage show running in the open kitchen. I mentally applauded as a chef held a melon high in the air and deftly peeled it. I didn't see a lone, rogue, flashy star, instead each chef busied themselves manning their own station.  They wear black Henleys with a tiny red bird silkscreened on the right shoulder as a glint of exciting detail hopefully reflected in the cuisine.

Both Tom and I have huge appetites for life, fueled by great, adventurous food. He was just back from San Sebastian, Spain where he tasted two-count-em-two of the world's 50 Best Restaurants, Arzac and the forking fantasy Mugaritz. We had a lot of ground pork to cover.

We were excited to come here, we'd grown hungry as we shielded our eyes from all of the bright, flashing stars jumping out from reviews of Chef David Meyers' restaurant.

As I sat waiting about ten minutes, I got thirsty, but I distracted myself guessing which of the plentiful, young, bustling waitstaff would bring me food and drink. Mine caught me off guard by walking by my table six times.

He recharged my excitement as he filled my water glass, promising to guide me through my meal, explaining the spices and techniques used to prepare each item. The menu reads like a brothel full of exotic beauties from around the world, with many regions and ethnicities represented. But the house is clearly run by an elegant, Asian woman who has accessorized her dishes with miso, lemongrass and chili.

Once Tom arrived he sipped a refreshing, friendly Bird Cup cocktail, their take on a Pimms Cup, with muddled citrus, cucumber, mint and ginger. We huddled over the menu with our waiter like a group of guys deciding which girls to ask to dance. Cheerleaders are immediately asked, but there are some shy girls who, if given the chance, really tear that floor up. We high-fived our decision to avoid the popular selections and sample the more obscure offerings to give them a chance to shine.  

We ordered three fun plates: crispy marinated chicken with lemon aioli, fried oysters with black garlic aioli, and the chili crab toast with spicy cucumber and coriander. Our waiter was quarterbacking this meal, and we trusted his suggestion to send in a fourth player from the Inspiration section, coconut-curried mussels, sausage and cauliflower. Sausage made in-house sold me.

Soon the mussels were placed on our small, wooden table along with a thoughtful bowl for shells. The herbs lavishly heaped on top presented a fresh look for a mussels dish and released a flavorful, promising aroma. Nutty bread was crammed on the side of the bowl. 

Mussels with cauliflower and cilantro

My favorite part of mussels is dredging bread through the sauce, not caring if it drips on the table on the way to my mouth. But this bread had already been soaked in something oily, and on both sides. Dipping it was like kissing someone who had just been kissed by someone else. This dish was very good, but in the next moment the course of the meal took a turn I couldn't control.

Our fried oysters were dropped off onto our table, like an unwanted child abandoned at a bus stop by a parent late for work. Tom and I flashed each other a quick look of resolute understanding that we had to take these oysters in; they needed us.

Suddenly our conflict was complicated when a small board holding triplets of toast heaped high with crab was wriggled into our crowded house. The delivery person muttered cucumber as if hastily pinning an identification note on the jacket of a waifish child. I knew we had to love it too, like the others.  

Although concerned about the welfare of the other dishes, we kept eating the mussels. The broth was spicy from the chilies in the fennel-laced sausage, which was ground up and hiding in the bottom of the coconut milk broth. The mussels were steamed gently, resulting in plump, bouncy bites. I loaded cilantro and thinly shaved cauliflower on each bite and enjoyed the new flavorful crunch.

I watched a waiter carrying a plate of fried chicken circle our table three times. I knew it was ours, the tables around us had either eaten or were empty. He scratched his head on his way back to the expeditor, they chatted, then the waiter timidly brought the chicken over. We all worked together and made space for our exploded family.

By the time we reached the oysters they were cold. The oil had used the time to sneakily gather on top. Our seldom-seen waiter swooped in like a salesman letting us in on a great deal. We were lucky tonight: He'd not seen such a generous portion of fermented black garlic being offered with the aioli.

I wanted it to revive the oysters, but they'd flat-lined. I held their limp, dead bodies on my tongue for a moment out of respect. No garlic flavor said a timid hello or a sweet goodbye as I swallowed.

The poor crab toast! I could hear it crying on the wooden plank, getting limp and soggy like a dejected old man drowning his sorrows in a mushy quagmire. I wanted to put it out of its misery, but we were already mentally spinning plates.

I respect food and a chef who honors their craft and their preceding reputation. I want a good restaurant not only to prosper, but also live long. Something had misfired in the communication between me, my waiter and the kitchen to explain the rapid-fire, premature ejaculation of food. 

We didn't finish the really delicious mussels, ate what oysters we dared, then reached for the drowning crab. The once-crisp toast bent from the wet weight. Something chemically must have occurred as it cooled -- there was no flavor other than the fresh, cool cucumber.

I nervously offered Tom an inflationary million for his thoughts. He shook his head, searching for words and to loosen subtle flavor. We'd had plenty of time to discover even hinted at or hidden tastes. I'm not new at this - I challenge flirty undertones to turn my taste buds into a Jeopardy question. I was having aha moments back when Oprah was still having seconds.

It was then I realized we were eating the Emperor's new clothes. Tom and I both wanted to have the meal we had read about on Huffpo, in The New York Times and LA Weekly, where the chef seemed to open a vein and serve the reviewers some secretly sensational meal. I wanted to slam my fist down on the table like when Harry met Sally's orgasm, I'll have what she's having!

I was getting discouraged, but persevered. Concerned about the pace of our meal, we consulted the waiter. I honestly don't know what happened to the guidance he promised; we felt abandoned and avoided. I reminded him that we hadn't even ordered entrees and asked if he was concerned that our four plates had been served is such mind-bendingly rapid succession. He wasn't. 

I gently shared that we didn't want to finish our remaining fun plate -- the fried chicken still looming on the horizon -- and have a wide-as-a-hillbilly-tooth-gap of time between entrees. That weren't yet ordered. He recommended grilled salmon, as he believed it didn't get enough deserved attention. In retrospect, I should have gone with my gut and ordered the sumptuous-sounding caramel braised kurobuta pork belly with radish and mustard greens. But tonight, apparently, I was going to dance with every wallflower in the room. For our second entree we chose the BBQ pork.

So many !!!!s had been bandied throughout Lala-land about the food, the service and the room. During my wait and dinner, I observed three independent elements under this one roof. First, the floor managers gathered on the patio, then near the kitchen window, then near the bathrooms in sequential, serious-looking tête-à-tête détentes. They didn't seem connected to the waiters, who hung out by the kitchen window, jumping into action if food popped up, like surfers happily goofing off until the next decent wave. The third group, the kitchen staff, kept their bandana-headbanded heads down and stayed on task behind the open kitchen. I wanted to sit in that kitchen and eat. 

Chef Myers' show pony, Hinoki scented black cod, sweet potato and pistachio, pranced on almost every table. The fish is covered by a smoldering, jagged piece of the Hinoki wood, perhaps singed from a flash in the pan. It rushed steaming by us, with a distracting double-slap of sensory sensations -- hear the sizzle, smell the food -- like fajitas. It added smokey regret to my already bumpy road less traveled.

My attention returned to our food. Fried chicken is my guilty treasure. But I was the one at fault, leaving it unattended for half an hour. If it were a dog locked in car, we would have been thrown in jail. I reached out and tore into the skin, expecting it to feel soft and wilted like an old lady's flabby arm, but it was still crunchy and crispy -- just hearing it crackle was almost enough of a taste for me. Neither the skin nor the very dry meat held any delicate flavor hidden in Haiku or subtitles. I tasted very little lemon in the aioli; however, there was a lemon on the plate and I squeezed that on a bite, resulting in no great affect.

We decided not to harden our arteries further on this particular chicken, and as our table was cleared, I tried to remember the details the waiter had given about the salmon. The menu lists the food but isn't descriptive, and he rattled the list off that he knew well, really really fast. He explained that the gentle grilling sort of roasts the fish. I think. Before it's grilled, it's marinated in mirin and some other stuff. I knew I should have ordered the sambal skate wing. I love skate, even with the bone, and don't find it often.

Our salmon plate looked disheveled when it arrived, not cared for nor skillfully prepared. I figured that a chef had quit, yelling, You do it then! as he stormed out. He knocked the expeditor unconscious and a bug-eyed dishwasher with spastic culinary dreams threw stuff on the plate and shakily shoved it through the window.

My first bite of salmon was alarmingly dry. This was turning into the type of meal where I'm already thinking of my trip home, and what drive-throughs I pass. Thankfully when I reached the thicker center, it was still moist. Had they used a piece of fish that was the same thickness throughout, there wouldn't have been unexpectedly thin, dry edges. As I ate it, the salmon had a back flavor, maybe from tea, that made it taste like the kind of attic dirt you find on a lamp and if you rub real hard, eventually a genie shines through. You still taste metal, but you get a wish.

The roasted or grilled or whatever BBQ pork saved me a Taco Bell driveby. Subtle flavor was released like freedom in each bite. I dipped some in the spicy sauce offered, some I ate brazenly bare, waving my fork gleefully in the wind. It was moist and tender. Tom and I literally chewed the fat.

The little plate to the left was a crime scene. Someone had tried to cover up the bodies of some freshly grilled/murdered, rubbery mushrooms with shredded scallions. They scattered sesame seeds on top to throw the search party dogs off scent. I was stunned that a chef would send this plate out. It made me think of schoolchildren I saw in Costa Rica last week all dressed up in plaid uniforms but barefoot. They were ready, just not well-prepared.

I needed dessert to be simple and fast. We both loved the donuts at Mozza, so in their honor we ordered the matcha donuts, dipped in koji milk. The gentle green color and the delicate flavor of the matcha represents everything gentle that I love and respect about Japan. Once in my mouth, America popped up in the too-thick outer layer of a crystal-y sugar crunch. Inside that, we found the simple, soft donuts. The koji milk drowned out any hyper-sweetness.

Our waiter gifted us with a fun mochi ice cream. The surprise of the occasionally hot shisito pepper dust on top cast a shockingly fun pop of color over our otherwise mediocre meal.

The mochi was trapped in caramel sauce that was deliciously, impossibly gooey. It's the kind of sticky your mother warned you about, and I hope to find remnants of it in my teeth, days later.

Our time at Hinoki was ending. Tom's an inspired designer, with princely good looks and matching polo-playing skills. I took my eyes off him and we both admired the beauty of the room, glad to see Chef Myers' example of abandoning the Starck white, bright rooms to nestle down into a warm, inviting cuddle. 

Our meal didn't match the promise that the wood-wrapped room held. At first, we were tiny birds sitting deep inside a precious Japanese box, waiting to be fed. Now, I felt hangry -- not full and a bit upset.

The check came on a little Hinoki wood plank branded with the tiny house bird. My eyes met Tom's and we silently mourned that precious detail not being carried throughout the experience.

When I got home, I flipped on the kitchen light and grabbed an apron. I remembered that the devil is in the details as I reflected on my dinner, and I glanced down to see that the devil had hopped on my blue slacks in the form of tiny, white pills of cotton fluff from the restaurant's white napkin. It's going to be hard to get all that off. I heard a collective moan reverberating throughout the city as the other mostly dark-attired Hinoki diners also discovered the linty parting gift from the linens. Dark clothes deserve dark napkins.

I only half-scrambled the eggs. It was late and I was starving, with no time to saute onions or slice mushrooms. The citrusy, woodsy aroma from the freshly cracked pepper rode up with the steam and hit me before I tore the tarragon into the bubbling skillet. I carefully rolled the omelette onto my plate as if I were turning the page of a good book.

I don't expect every meal to pop out of a fantastic cake and expertly dance with the skill of a stripper holding lit sparklers with her nipples. But I wanted more from the buzzing title Hinoki & The Bird, which had drawn me in. I didn't find this book compelling, so I put it back on the shelf and moved on. The library is so big. 

Hinoki & The Bird. 10 Century Drive, Los Angeles, CA 90067. (310) 552-1200

1 comment:

  1. I am continually amazed at your capacity. I would have been full before the chicken arrived, forget the entrees.
    The waitstaff needed their butts kicked but there was no butt kicker.
    At one time something must have been right for them to have built the reputation that brought you and Tom to this joint. However many times the problem has to do with absenteeism of whoever dealt with the successful details originally. It is called resting on your laurels, and nothing wilts faster than laurels that are rested upon.
    xo jc


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