Even though Little Tokyo and Sawtelle have come on strong in the past two years with a spate of openings, locals know that more good Japanese meals are still available in the South Bay. Thanks to an early boost from Japanese car companies like Toyota and Nissan (now in Tennessee), who set up shop in the area, Gardena and Torrance saw the rise of restaurants that met the needs of auto workers who were homesick for sushi, yakitori, ramen and more. One of my better Japanese meals to date in L.A. was at Kagura, a stand-alone Japanese restaurant from Tokyo tonkatsu specialist Kentaro Masuda that opened three years ago on the fringe of Old Town Torrance, a neighborhood designed by the son of Central Park architect (park-itect?) Frederick Law Olmsted.
The space was surprisingly contemporary, featuring a wood bar, matching tables, a single round white booth in back, a raked, textured wall, and a giant, geometric box-in-a-box-in-a-box lantern. Kagura has an adjacent room with floor to ceiling dining chambers divided by wood slats.
During our dinner with a rep from Discover Torrance, who was looking to illuminate the city’s food scene, we learned that Chef Masuda also owns T.O.T. and Joy Mart in Little Tokyo, and that he seemed to have taken matters to another level with Kagura, since the food was especially good there.
Tokobushi Awabi ($12.50) was the first of many dishes cooked tabletop. Firm slices of orange-rimmed, soy-soaked abalone appeared in the shimmering shell. Our server told us to add a pat of butter and let it cook in aluminum foil over an open flame for 10 minutes. The “meat” never got tender, but with that much soy and butter, of course it tasted good, and it didn’t mask the abalone’s essential flavor.
Spicy Chicken ($6.95), deep-fried, free-range chicken leg with “spicy sauce,” wasn’t especially spicy. However, with rich, boneless soy’d and sesame’d dark meat and a thatch of shaved scallions, we still got plenty of flavor.
Agedashi Tofu ($5.25) may have been my favorite version to date, with firm, deep-fried cubes dressed with bonito shavings, scallions and spicy grated ginger. The cubes rested in a murky, savory soup that incorporated fish broth and soy sauce.
Premium Fillet Katsu Gozen ($19.50), a deep fried premium black pork fillet cutlet, was the star. The katsu set included crunchy pickled daikon and cucumber, hijiki seaweed with soy soaked tofu, a cold tofu cube with ponzu and spicy edamame, mushy mashed daikon with shredded salmon, miso soup with daikon, pork and carrot. Our choice of rice was white or grain, and we went white.
Millefeuille Katsu ($12.95 Katsu only) stacked multiple layers of deep-fried black pork loin cutlet. The slices were juicy, but we preferred the firmer texture of the fillet. This “Katsu only” presentation still came with a crunchy shredded cabbage salad, tangy dressing and spicy mustard paste.
Kani Kama-meshi ($19.50) sounded better than it tasted, described on the menu as “rice cooked and served in an individual sized pot with snow crab, and with our special soy sauce flavor.” We had to pour on extra salted soy sauce since the rice was a little dry, though it’s always good to find crispy bits at the bottom of a hot bowl.
Kagura even offered an Ice Cream Cutlet ($4.95) filled with vanilla ice cream, fried like tonkatsu and sporting a thick, donut-like shell. It was a pretty preposterous concept, but when it doubt, add whipped cream, strawberries, mint, and drizzles of strawberry sauce and chocolate? This wasn’t my favorite plate, though it was fun, and good to have a soothing cup of hot tea handy.
Since our meal was so good, it made us want to visit T.O.T. and Joy Mart in Little Tokyo, to see if either spot approached Kagura’s heights. Then again, we recently heard that the Kagura may have changed their menu. Hopefully Chef Masuda knows to retain the Fukagawa and category-killing tonkatsu. If so, his restaurant will continue to be a culinary destination.