Review: The triumphant return of Taiwanese gem Kato

Growing up in the San Gabriel Valley, Jon Yao recalls the joy he felt when he ate the song shu yu, or “squirrel fish,” a tempting dish that is defined as a playful illusion.

This recipe includes a perch or carp that is filleted and scored with cruciform patterns that spike during deep frying. Followed by a pitcher of sweet and sour sauce; Yao recalls ketchup as a tempting ingredient that popped up in his parents’ Taiwanese-American kitchen. Traditionally, the fish came to the table presented with its head and tail whole, although the puffy appearance of the middle fillet is said to resemble a bushy squirrel. Pine nuts dotting the top often reinforce the impression; Squirrels like conifers, don’t they?

Three people taking a portrait in a restaurant.

Kato’s business partners are Nikki Reginaldo, front, chef Jon Yao, center, and Ryan Bailey at their new location at ROW DTLA.

(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

Yao is thinking about new dishes for Kato, his once tiny Sawtelle restaurant that has grown in every possible way since moving to the Arts District in February, and he wants to evoke the flavors. of the song shu yu. But that memory also entwines another childhood favorite: his mother’s fragrant fish sauce, a savory dish for meat or vegetables sauteed with garlic, ginger, and doubanjiang (Sichuan chili sauce).

He combined and transformed their essence into the seventh item on Kato’s current tasting menu, a wonderful moment in a 10-course meal or more. A squat and very fresh Hokkaido scallop lies in a shallow bowl. It is wrapped in the thinnest of dough and fried long enough to bring out its maximum sweetness. External cracks create rich density; It may disappear in two bites but it is enough for the brain to record the texture, recall the impact on the teeth at will. Sparks of cold heat rise from the sauce below, and it’s precisely the finely chopped scallions that give teeth something crunchy. But mainly, the perfume of garlic and ginger join forces to flatter the cockle. If the concept of harmony could be attributed to a perfect flavor combination, I would nominate this dish for the honor.

Does the tangle of herbs, sliced ​​Fresno peppers, and coriander buds on a scallop resemble the nest of a particularly handsome squirrel? Those are probably overthinking things.

Scallop 7th course from Kato at new location at ROW DTLA.

Scallop 7th course from Kato at new location at ROW DTLA.

(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

Dining scene at Kato. CT Ucol and Czarah Castro (not shown) enjoy a night at Kato's new location at ROW DTLA.

Dining scene at Kato. CT Ucol and Czarah Castro (not shown) enjoy a night at Kato’s new location at ROW DTLA.

(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

But the mind whirling that comes with the excitement of dining at what might be called Kato 2.0, a beautiful re-imagining of what was once one of Los Angeles’ key restaurants.

Interpretive layers are always present in Yao’s cooking. If you’re looking to analyze his quasi-clinical dissection of nostalgia, pride of identity and redefining luxury in his food, the intellectual fodder is there. If you just want to enjoy a nice, thoughtful plate sequence, he can make you feel nurtured on so many levels.

That was especially true around 2018, two years after Kato opened in a cozy, empty space in the corner of a corner mall. At first, Yao got ideas from his Japanese, Korean and Vietnamese repertoire, as well as from his mother’s kitchen. He wasn’t quite 25 at the time, and as he settled into his career as a chef, he felt more drawn to Taiwan’s culinary scene; Its culinary culture contains many features, including indigenous traditions and imprints absorbed from migrations and colonial occupations (Spanish, Dutch, Chinese and Japanese) through many centuries.

He’s never been too dogmatic about the focus, but by choosing Taiwanese dishes, he’s made his great. For the tasting menus, he condenses the soul of Taiwan’s beloved beef noodle soup into a creamy, refreshing broth. He adopted a three-cup diet of chicken — soy sauce, sesame oil, and rice wine — in tasteful, basil-scented studies associated with octopus, tuna, or abalone.

Chef Jon Yao prepares Snapper during service at Kato's new location at ROW DTLA.

Chef Jon Yao prepares Snapper during service at Kato’s new location at ROW DTLA.

(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

A woman prepares one side of the table for another smiling woman.

Co-owner Nikki Reginaldo prepares a reception for friends and diners Czarah Castro and CT Ucol (not shown) at Kato’s new location at ROW DTLA.

(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

He makes pineapple custard pie, steamed fish with ginger and scallions, and boba milk tea for dessert. Yao and his skeleton crew’s ambitions, personal narrative cooking, and dial setting are fully registered as Los Angeles. Kato has received a lot of recognition. On The Times’ list of 101 best restaurants of 2019, Patricia Escárcega and I ranked it at number 1.

For all the acclaim it deserves, however, an atmosphere of anticipation always clings to the restaurant. Liquor permits in locations are not permitted; The group can stretch and dream so far in their spare time. Yao and business partner Nikki Reginaldo have been searching for the right new environment for many years. Reginaldo will drop a piece of tapioca with the word uni on it and you’ll ask her how the search went. “Still looking,” she said, her eyes hopeful.

Finally fitting: The airy, wood-paved and concrete space in Row DTLA was vacated by Melissa Perello’s short-lived M. Georgina. Eat-wise, the isolated Row complex has come to a halt during the COVID-19 pandemic. Kato’s appearance is definitely a life back.

If you’ve ever visited a restaurant in Sawtelle, the scalability of Kato 2.0 may be overwhelming: Lots of knowledgeable servers on the floor. So many chefs in the open kitchen. Yao is always present near the wood stove, often with his head down on a plate or gathering with colleagues. Reginaldo was everywhere in the dining room at once; I noticed her trying to specifically describe the fragrant fish sauce scallops at every table, mentioning that it was possibly her favorite dish.

Inside Kato at the new restaurant location at ROW DTLA.

Inside Kato at the new restaurant location at ROW DTLA.

(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

With much larger peaches, a longer tasting menu, and a nicer overall view driving the prices up: Cost is $225 per person, up from $150 pre-move. If you’re celebrating a special occasion – if you want to experience a successful expression of fine dining that’s only available in Los Angeles – it’s a worthy savings.

Along with the expansion, there is an all-inclusive beverage program directed by Ryan Bailey, Kato’s new partner. If you’re interested in cocktails, start with one of bartender Austin Hennelly’s liquid quizzes. They sound ridiculously complicated but land very cleanly. Cognac, bourbon and rum with brown butter and boniato, the two ingredients that pair with the dessert Yao serves in the quaint space, transforms into a clear milky mix of sweet and savory. “Bamboo”, a martini-like blend of sake and vermouth, interspersed with tomato and soy brandy, will prepare the palate nicely for the upcoming dinner.

Amazake Swizzle from Kato.

Amazake Swizzle from Kato.

(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

In addition to a 57-page wine list that covers all regions and levels, and wine pairings at two price points ($125 and $175), Bailey has crafted the most exceptional flight of non-alcoholic beverages I’ve seen. tasted. He blends non-alcoholic cocktails from Hennelly – for example, a refreshing blend of cucumber, bitter gourd and white peony – with bottled juices of Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir and other grapes from France, Germany and Austria. It stands alone as a great pairing with food, and it’s a revelation of contrasts and parallels alongside wines.

Yao’s cuisine, amid upgrades and debut drinks and now backed by a team of chefs, is still in poetic development. The menu changes essentially seasonally every three months, though nothing is stagnant; A new dish or two could appear at any time.

Garden Tonic from Kato.

Garden Tonic from Kato.

(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

Right now, the opening is kampachi sashimi wrapped around a deliciously varied package that includes preserved sesame leaves, myoga, Tokyo negi (thick, light green onions), raw radish and cilantro. Two slices of perch soaked in a black vinegar sauce and soy-based preservative. See the precision of the cylindrical construction as you pick it up with chopsticks. It took two people most of the morning to compose enough of them to serve each day.

Golden Eye Snapper 6th Course from Kato.

Golden Eye Snapper 6th Course from Kato.

(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

Some dishes are still reminiscent of Yao’s childhood. Yellow-eyed snapper, smoky, surrounded by fermented cabbage and Chinese mustard; Next to the table, a waiter pours a clear fish broth enriched with rice wine. The combination reminds Yao of suan cai yu, a hot and sour fish soup with vegetables that he still likes to order in restaurants in Sichuan. Aged duck breast topped with a powder of cumin, coriander, cumin and Sichuan peppercorns goes well with the lamb skewers at the Chinese barbecue restaurants in Rowland Heights enjoyed by his parents. .

The kitchen also offers mouthwatering delights: a sizzling butter brown donut filled with filling and drenched in Ibérico ham; The show’s third course consisted of Dungeness crab and spinach in a wild butter sauce consisting of mussels, fermented cream and smoked onions. Of course, there’s caviar on top. It comes with a soft, golden loaf of milk bread. Yao had made caviar before with geoduck, and the clams drowned in the rich cream. Crab can take it.

Aside from drinks, luckily there are a few decisions at Kato, but I have one piece of advice: Skip the optional Wagyu beef tendon course near the end. Unless you really want meat for the $45 surcharge, it’s an unnecessary indulgence and worse, it can dampen your dessert cravings. You want to save even a bit of hunger for desserts: enjoy bingsoo with strawberries, Chantilly ice cream and chewy rice cakes, and end with a jujube sorbet hidden beneath slices of castella (Taiwanese sponge cake) and muscovado street.

The 10th keychain from Kato.

The 10th keychain from Kato.

(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

Kato is usually booked weeks in advance, with slots open to stop by; If you can’t make a reservation, you can try going to the unreserved seven-seat bar early in the evening. Hennelly will make you a refreshing drink, alcoholic or not, and a short bar menu might include a bright sashimi or crab fried rice served in a shell – some of which aren’t quite as nutritious. supplement for a meal.

You’ll hear Reginaldo’s play list featuring Aaliyah, Hope Tala and Frank Ocean played just loud enough overhead. You’ll watch the steady stream of diners coming through the door, and you’ll probably notice Yao nodding at the kitchen counter. I went this route, and it was a fascinating look at what Kato was all about, but soon enough, I envied what I imagined everyone in the dining room enjoyed.

Kato

777 S. Alameda St., Building 1, katorestaurant.com

Price: Tasting menu $225 per person. Wine pairs start at $125; $75 alcohol free flight.

Details: Open from 5 to 8:15 p.m. (last reservation) Tuesday through Saturday. Bar Hours: 5 to 10 pm Tuesday through Saturday.

https://www.latimes.com/food/story/2022-06-16/kato-review-addison-downtown-taiwanese Review: The triumphant return of Taiwanese gem Kato

Russell Falcon

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