When Japonica first opened in 2002, customers unfamiliar with izakaya style Japanese food sometimes grumbled about the limited sushi options. So chef-owner Takashi Sada added more raw fish and hand rolls, even though izakaya translates more or less into gastropub.
Since then, this local gem has built a loyal following of both sushi lovers and folks who love the variety of the menu, including Japonica's specialty, Kunsei, or smoked dishes.
Last year, Taka took the fun casual concept a step further, and renovated the interior. The stark white walls and formal partitions have been replaced by warm woods and whimsical artwork, dazzling silk pillows (sewn by Taka's mother in Japan) and a large screen playing quirky Japanese pop videos. Ably assisted by sou chef Kenji Sugiyama in the back of the house, and energetic Val Lee in the front, Japonica now brings a welcoming atmosphere that complements the menu.
I arrived recently at the tail end of Happy Hour, which happens Sunday through Thursday from open till 7 p.m., to find a diverse group of diners enjoying what Val insists is the largest sake collection for miles, and huge selection of Japanese craft beers, rice lagers and red rice ales.
We started our meal with the shiso tomato, a whole tomato, peeled and chilled resting in a red wine/balsamic vinaigrette with a frizzle of shiso, an herb common to Japanese cooking that tastes like basil and mint with a smidge of licorice, a sort of Japanese Caprese, sans cheese.
Given Japonica's expansive list of regional Daiginjos, Ginjos, and Junmais sakes, we went for the sake sampler: a flight of three pours, each with a different level of sweetness and perfume, about which Val was happy to educate us.
Next came the sashimi offerings. The halibut sashimi in a smoked olive oil with dots of homemade ponzu wasabi is a gorgeous presentation, like a jeweled fan. The hokkado scallop is delicate and sweet. Plates throughout our meal were pretty as a picture, adorned with edible flowers.
Two different home brewed soy sauces are supplied at table: A traditional lightly sweet nikiri and Japonica's hickory smoked sauce, which is bottled in house and available for purchase.
The menu offers a number of specialty rolls. Baked crab hand rolls are a favorite of LA diners, and here we find them stuffed with blue crab and rice in garlicky butter wrapped in soft soy paper and sprinkled with sesame seeds. It's a generous portion.
The Aburi bluefin roll presents an interplay of textures; aburi means the fish, in this instance bluefin, is seared, while the spicy tuna is raw, balanced out with cucumber, green onion, ponzu and chili sauce.
Most popular with diners is the white roll; halibut, crab, tempura asparagus, tempura swai (a mild whitefish) with garlic butter sauce and a bit of chive and tomato. A bi-cultural mash-up, as if Japan went to Italy.
Uni udon also has a cross-cultural flavor, the delicate meat of the urchin resting atop a pile of thick udon noodles in a creamy garlicky sauce. A flavor like fettuccine with a mellow fish funk.
More traditional is the black cod marinated in sake and miso. Here it is lightly seared and baked, the fish flaking into easy to eat segments beneath the pressure of the chopsticks.
Wagyu beef is seared tableside in a tiny skillet. First the scorching pan is seasoned with a bit of suet then the slivers of rich seasoned wagyu are briefly seared on each side.
The Kunsei side of the menu has a variety of smoked foods including a fun smoked potato salad with bits of bacon and cucumber and daikon pickle, and a smoky, lightly seared 'foie gras' nigiri—actually bit of marinated duck (not goose) liver smoked and set on rice with a ribbon of nori.
There is also a tantan ramen. Rather than the traditional pork bone broth, here a lighter spicy chicken miso is the base to which Taka adds miso ground pork, bok choy, sesame and green onion. The noodles are wonderfully springy and the broth layered with flavor and heat.
Given the depth and complexity of the flavors in our meal, I was happy to be served a refreshing chilled dessert. The Yuzu chocolate trifle is a light citrus yuzu whip cream with some crunch from choko flakes—a Japanese snackfood like a chocolate covered corn flake—with mandarin orange, raspberry, blackberry and mint, topped with a sweet potato chip garnish. And, of course, a pot of hot green tea.
The concept must be working, the diners look happy, and Japonica is expanding to a second restaurant in Hollywood next year.
Japonica, 1304 Pacific Coast Hwy, Redondo Beach, CA 90277. For more information visit JaponicaDining.com.
Manhattan Beach resident Eileen Shields is a regular restaurant profiler for The Beach Reporter. Aside from discovering fabulous beach city eats, she spends time traveling and writing fiction. Links to her work can be found at eileenshieldswriter.com.