Hayato, seafood kaiseki restaurant, finds a home in LA

Hayato

The entrance to Hayato, which is located at Row DTLA. Picture Taken by Author.

Following in the steps of n/naka, Hayato, which is run by owner and chef Brandon Hayato Go, has opened in LA and offers lunch bento boxes and kaiseki dinners. It specializes in kappo-style kaiseki, which is a traditional Japanese dinner of multiple courses of small, intricate dishes. Kappo, which means “cut and to cook”, is a phrase that focuses on the proximity between the chef and the diner in a less formal environment. These restaurants are usually small and offer only counter seats so you can watch the chef cook in the open kitchen.  Hayato maintains an intimate environment with a mere 8 counter seats (and eventually a tatami table by the window that can sit 4. Note it was not ready yet when I went in September of 2018) so you can watch the chef and his staff cook in the open kitchen in a more personalized setting. You also get the opportunity to talk to him during the meal.

Brandon Hayato Go began working at his father’s sushi restaurant at the age of 15 and has decades of experience making sushi. When he went to Japan for training, he realized there was more to Japanese cooking than just sushi. Since then, he has pushed the bar further by traveling back and forth to Japan for months on end for the last decade training at acclaimed restaurants such as Kohaku, Ren, and Nihonryori Shiro. Takeshi Kubo, his mentor who he met at Nihonryori Shiro, owns the 2-star restaurant Goryukubo.

Hayato offers seafood kaiseki, which is a multi-course Japanese dinner that focuses on different preparations of local, seasonal ingredients. Kaiseki is difficult to execute and master because it demands a high level of expertise in multiple cooking techniques, from sashimi to grilling, steaming, frying, and simmering as well as the knowledge of using different types of food ingredients. While a sushi chef needs to understand the intricacies of fish, rice, vinegar, and wasabi, a kaiseki chef requires mastery of those tools and so much more

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A Kappo-style Japanese restaurant means it is a less formal version of Japanese fine dining served at the chef’s counter.  Picture Taken by Author. 

Chef Go procures high-quality fish from local seafood markets and directly from Japan, such as uni from Hokkaido (he notes that it is sweeter than Santa Monica uni, which I found to be true). When you place your reservation for his kaiseki, it requires a $100 deposit so he can procure the seafood a week ahead of your dinner.

Brandon Hayato Go perfectly exhibits the way of the shokunin, which is what the Japanese refer to craftsmen who strive to continuously improve one’s mastery over one’s skill. This has always been a distinctive trait of Japanese food – commitment to top quality ingredients, immaculate service, and perfection.

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Chef Go and his staff prepping the first course of the night. Picture Taken by Author.

When people think of the concept of shokunin, they tend to think of the famous sushi chef Jiro Ono, who has spent many decades of his life honing his skills in constant pursuit of sushi perfection. This has led to certain distinctive techniques which could have only been worked out laboriously over a long stretch of time.  For example, Jiro Ono spends forty minutes massaging the octopus prior to cooking it to improve its taste and texture. This is a technique he discovered after decades of making sushi – he originally massaged his octopus for thirty minutes, but found forty minutes to be the sweet spot.

Brandon Hayato Go’s shokunin spirit permeates itself throughout the entire restaurant. First, he purposely chose a retail space that had limited seating, 8 counter seats, with a future plan to install a tatami table for 4 by the window. He wanted to provide an intimate experience for his customers who could watch him cook behind the kitchen. The counter table was custom built for his restaurant counter – he personally flew to Japan to select the type of tree from which the counter would be produced.

In the back, behind the counter seats is a space small enough to fit his tatami table. Go says “It’s hard to find a person who can install tatami mat floors these days.” That space has been empty for over half a year since Go first opened up the restaurant for lunch service (for lunch, he offers a 16-different item bento box). Tatami mats are a type of flooring made of woven grass used in traditional Japanese-style rooms. It makes sense it would be difficult to find tatami craftsmen in the vicinity of Los Angeles. Yet, Chef Go is a person of perseverance who would prefer to wait for the right person to come along to install what he prefers.

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A gold-plated tin sake cup and the sake menu to start off the dinner. Picture Taken by Author.

Besides looking for a tatami master to install a tatami mat and table he seeks, Chef Go also puts his utensils through the same meticulous process to use for his restaurant. All the utensils were carefully handpicked by him. Some of the ceramic plates he had ordered straight from Japan because he couldn’t find the ones he wanted. When it was dessert time, he handed us gold-plated plates with gold-plated cocktail forks. The plate and cocktail fork were beautifully crafted and aesthetically pleasing to the eye – they were extremely heavy and were certainly custom. I asked him where he got them from. Go says “they’re gold-plated tinware I got from a tinsmith in the area”.  Brandon doesn’t cut any corners and ensures everything from big to small is up to his standard at his restaurant.

When all the diners sat down, he brought out gold-plated sake cups and poured us some welcome sake aperitif. While pouring, Go says “my friend brought the sake straight from Japan”. When I asked him which sake is the best, Go smiles and says “If it’s on the menu, it is good since I personally selected it.” One could tell how much blood, sweat, and tears he put into the restaurant as he is seemingly involved in all facets of the restaurant. Most restaurants would hire different individuals for each area, such as a sommelier to deal with the wine and a pastry chef to deal with dessert. But not Chef Go.

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Sake from Japan brought by the Chef’s friend- our aperitif. Picture Taken by Author.

Throughout the courses, he had to juggle between fielding questions from me and other patrons, and prepping the food. His staff took out a wasabi vegetable and gingerly grated some fresh wasabi for us. I was surprised as I had not seen a wasabi plant before. Most people in the US who have had Japanese cuisine have never tried wasabi – 99.9% of Japanese restaurants in the US serve dyed green horseradish because actual wasabi is rare and has to be imported from Japan due to its restricted growing conditions. I can only imagine the difficulty that Chef Go goes through to procure ingredients from Japan.  

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One of my favorite courses of the night – looks like a simple dish consisting of deep-fried eel in dashi, but the beginning to end process shows the dedication Chef Go puts in his cooking.  Picture Taken by Author.

One of the courses that stood out was the eel course. He took out an eel that was carefully skinned and gutted and began chopping it with a dark knife, half the size of a butcher knife. He made numerous chops to the eel and there was a continuous crunch that I realized was the bones breaking. Go told us that eel is very popular in Japan, but that it has many bones so that he had to break the bones into little pieces by chopping through the eel diligently centimeter by centimeter. Frying it after the process makes the bones brittle and unnoticeable when eating. The knife he had used for the eel was a unagisaki hōchō, a knife specialized in filleting eel. The knife was specifically just for eel and most definitely brought over from Japan. That is what I enjoy most about Chef Go’s open kitchen counter seats, they give you a front seat view of what is going on in the kitchen. Many restaurants do this around LA, but it is usually a limited view of what is going on in the kitchen –  you also typically don’t get the chance to chat with the chef. I wouldn’t even have known the effort he had gone through to serve us the fried eel if I hadn’t seen the preparation process first hand.

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Sea bream sashimi and hokkaido uni served with freshly-grated wasabi, salt, and soy sauce. Chef Go says he tries to use hokkaido uni instead of santa barbara uni when possible because it is much sweeter. It was the first time I had hokkaido uni, and the sweetness was more noticeable. Picture Taken by Author.

Besides the eel course, his sashimi course was one of my favorites. Seeing a true wasabi plant for the first time and seeing his staff grate it was a true delight – I’ve only had wasabi in Japan and at n/naka, and there is a flavor difference between fake wasabi (dyed horseradish, which is what most Japanese restaurants use) and real wasabi that is quite noticeable. Trying Hokkaido uni was also a plus, as was the soy sauce and salt plates he gave us – I’ve never dipped my sashimi in salt before but it really enhanced the flavor of the sea bream.

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Hayato’s staff grating a wasabi vegetable root for us. The great thing about the open kitchen is that you can see everything that is happening in preparation of the meal. Picture Taken by Author.

Hayato might be new, but it is bound to attract many customers. The open kitchen plan and the intimacy of the counter seats are both proven hits with LA foodies.  If you can’t make it for Brandon Go’s kaiseki, you can drop by for lunch and try his beautifully crafted bento boxes – they come with 16 wonderfully crafted ‘courses’, all carefully prepared by Chef Go and his staff.

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If you can’t stop by for Hayato’s kaiseki dinner, be sure to grab one of its 16-piece lunch bento boxes. Picture Taken by Author.

Line Up of the Whole Tasting Menu

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The first course consisted of abalone, okra, and seaweed served with a vinegar sauce. Picture Taken by Author.

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Second course: fresh corn and scallop kakiage tempura, sprinkled with coarse salt. Picture Taken by Author.

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Third course: Wrapped in nori, the Spanish mackerel was served speckled with sesame seeds. Picture Taken by Author.

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Fourth course: A flavorful and clean dashi with dungeness crab and a baby turnip. Picture Taken by Author.

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Fifth Course: Sea bream sashimi and hokkaido uni served with freshly-grated wasabi, salt, and soy sauce. Chef Go says he tries to use hokkaido uni instead of santa barbara uni when possible because it is much sweeter. Picture Taken by Author.

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Sixth Course: Seared bonito. Picture Taken by Author.

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Seventh Course – A grilled filet of blackthroat seaperch (nodoguro) with some burdock root, accompanied with coarse salt and soy sauce on the side. Picture Taken by Author.

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Eighth Course: Freshwater eel, battered and deep fried, served in a ginger-infused dashi thickened with starch and garnished with Japanese scallions. Picture Taken by Author.

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Chef Go prepping the eighth courses. Picture Taken by Author.

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Ninth Course: A filet of rockfish in a dashi with extra konbu (kelp) along with shiitake mushrooms, bamboo shoots, and Japanese mustard greens (mizuna). Picture Taken by Author.

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10th Course: The last course before dessert – rice dish made with seasonal ingredients including baby barracuda and Japanese parsley stems. Picture Taken by Author.

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11th Course: Dessert was sliced peaches marinated in rice wine (mirin) washed down with piping hot green tea. He had extras if you wanted a second plate of dessert. (I couldn’t help myself!). Picture Taken by Author.

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