There is a great deal of interest in finding restaurants that might be characterized as “best kept secrets.” When I did a search on the internet, that phrase along with “Los Angeles Restaurants” got a mind-boggling 2,590,000 hits.
I assume that the owner of Rice considered higher profile locations before deciding on the small space on 8th Street around the corner from Manhattan Avenue. However the decision was made, Rice opened in the space that used to be Penny Lane Sushi and people seem to be finding it – in two visits and several strolls past the place I have never seen it entirely full or empty.
The chalkboard outside proclaims “Sake and Real Food,” the latter phrase indicating that this is a health-oriented restaurant; about half the menu is vegetarian, while the rest offers seafood both sushi-style and cooked. No beef, pork, or chicken are served here, and everything is gluten-free. This might sounds monkish and unappetizing, but it isn’t. We had trouble deciding what to try because there were so many interesting combinations.
We ordered a pair of small plate appetizers – fried eggplant and homemade garlic potato chips – along with a cup of fresh mushroom soup. The fried eggplant wasn’t what we expected at all – not the usual breaded slices, but a half eggplant de-seeded, roasted, and topped with bits of fried tempeh and sweet miso sauce, with fried kale on the side. Sweet miso and slightly bitter eggplant are a great combination, the tempeh adding texture more than anything else, the kale something to nibble as a palate cleanser. It was a surprising and successful way to start the meal, and we ate every morsel.
The other two starters were more conventional but no less enjoyable. The chips tasted of garlic and pepper rather than the usual salt and were delicious hot from the fryer – no surprise there. The mushroom soup had a delicate touch of cream to accent the smoky, musky broth, with a wisp of dill to add its forest scent. It was a cool evening and we decided to enjoy a hot sake, which went surprisingly well with the rich vegetable flavors.
For main courses we ordered two rolls – a vegan “Yellow Brick Road” (an avocado, cucumber, and asparagus roll topped with crispy tofu and sauce) and a “Sunset Pier” roll with avocado, cucumber, and shiso leaf roll topped with marinated tuna and a sweet sauce made with soy and koji. Koji is a by-product of sake manufacture, made from the fermented rice from which the alcohol has been extracted, and it has a unique sweet, malty flavor. When mixed with tamari – a soy sauce without wheat that is low-salt and mild – it is an interesting and unusual sauce. It worked very well with the roll, which combined minty shiso with fresh cucumber and avocado, and was a contrast with the one out-of-balance element, the very salty marinated fish. I would have preferred the tuna to have been left more natural, because the marinade overpowered it in this instance.
The vegan roll was actually more to my taste, thanks to a sweet and spicy sauce that accented the fresh vegetables and crisp tofu. Both rolls were made with brown rice rather than the usual white, and had a superior flavor because of it. Wasabi was used very moderately, if at all – we couldn’t detect it in either one, and didn’t miss it.
We finished with a gluten-free vegan chocolate cake, which, like other vegan “cakes” I have tried, was more like a chocolate pie or particularly dense brownie. Vegan sweets and light pastry seem to be incompatible, but if taken on its own merits they can be tasty. The nut crust and rich chocolate made even a small portion filling, and we were glad we split it between two people.
Dinner for two, with two sakes, was $84 – not bad at all for Japanese food made with very high quality ingredients. I decided that I had to stop in again to see what lunch was like. The room that had been romantically dim was bright and cheerful at midday, and though the place was nearly empty when I arrived, a party of adults and children added a cheerful buzz.
There are only four items on the lunch menu – a chirashi sushi plate, a roll and salad special, and two seafood combinations. I decided on the rice plate, which included spicy shrimp, marinated tuna, “crispy spicy tuna,” and a snow crab wrap, with some sunomono (pickled cucumber salad) on the side. I also noticed that the sushi special of the day was fresh uni, sea urchin roe, which is fabulous when fresh and staggeringly awful when it’s not. As such it’s a good test of a sushi bar – if they keep it on hand even a moment after it starts to turn, they fail. I tried it first by itself, then with a tiny dip into the tamari that is provided instead of the usual soy sauce. The uni here was first class, and the lower salt and milder flavor of the tamari enhanced the experience.
The meal came with soup, in this case a miso-based vegetable broth with mushrooms and carrots, and a simple lightly-dressed salad of lettuces and cherry tomato. At just about the time I was chasing the last leaves around the bottom of the bowl my meal arrived, a beautifully arranged plate of food. The cooked shrimp were excellent in their sauce of pepper, mild chili, and a dash of garlic, and the crab leg in soy paper with asparagus, avocado, and cucumber was mild but satisfying. I appreciated the crispy spicy tuna despite its failure to live up to its name – brown rice doesn’t crisp the same as white, and the texture contrast that usually is a highlight of this dish just wasn’t there. It also wasn’t spicy even by the standards of sushi bar tuna, but it wasn’t bad. As for the marinated tuna, my reaction was the same as it was the previous time – I know it’s authentic because many Japanese enjoy heavily salty dishes with a little sweet koji, but I don’t. I applaud their devotion to traditional flavor here, but will ask for unmodified tuna on subsequent visits. The strong flavor was moderated by alternating with the lightly sweet sunomono, which featured large chunks of cucumber with tomato and purple onion rather than the usual paper-thin slices.
The combo plate with soup and salad was $20, and with the uni sushi and tea it came to $34 – a slight extravagance for lunch, but occasional splurges are part of what makes life worth living. To enjoy it in this hideaway on a side street, just as many restaurants are tucked into corners in Tokyo, added to the sense of authenticity and exclusivity. Rice is a best kept secret for now – I live only blocks from the place and didn’t know it was there until a month after it opened. The secret is out, and I am sure it won’t be long before there are lines here, because there is nothing quite like it in the SouthBay.
Rice is at 820 Manhattan Avenue – entry on 8th Street. Open Tue-Fri for lunch 11:30 AM – 2 PM and 5 PM – 10:30 PM, Sa noon-11:30, Su noon – 10:30 PM. Vegan-friendly, beer, wine, and sake served, children welcome, street parking only. Website ricemb.com, phone 310-798-7722. ER