I have long been a fan of “They Have A Word For It,” a book about language that illustrates the ways in the ways that complicated ideas can be expressed in a single word. There are words in other cultures that mean, “the person in an office who always seems to be wandering around” and “the argument that you have about something trivial because you are mad at that person about something important.”
The Japanese language has many brief but complex terms, one of which is within the name of a restaurant in Rolling Hills Estates. Juju means “happiness and best wishes,” and with the suffix –ya (which means “place of”) added, is the new enterprise from a startlingly talented chef named Makoto Tanaka. Makoto was the original executive chef at Spago, helped open Chinois on Main with Wolfgang Puck, and owned his own restaurant Mako in Beverly Hills for several years.
For a chef of this caliber to open a modestly-sized restaurant in a quiet section of the Promenade is a bit startling. This isn’t one of those operations where the chef’s name and recipes are used but he isn’t present – when we stopped in on a Sunday evening, Makoto was strolling the dining room and was happy to answer questions about the food.
The cuisine here isn’t startlingly different from what he has done at his other restaurants – a seafood-centric blend of Japanese and European ideas, in which meals are a succession of small-plate tapas. It’s a fun way to dine that has become mainstream, and at Jujuya they’re made by the chef who invented many of them.
Our party of six started a recent meal with a simple heirloom tomato, avocado, and asparagus salad dressed with Japanese plum and oba leaf vinaigrette. Oba, otherwise known as shiso, is in the mint family, and it was used delicately with tart Japanese plum as a fine contrast to the fruity tomato flavor. A great chef knows when to let good ingredients speak for themselves, and here the artistry showcased natural flavors.
We continued with a sampler plate: a centerpiece of tuna tartare, encircled by plates of halibut carpaccio with dashi jelly, soft shell crab roll, albacore sashimi, truffled salmon, and ahi seared with three peppercorns and sautéed onion. Tuna tartare is a broad term that sometimes is a stand-in for sashimi, at other times can mean a mix in which the fish is a junior partner with salsa and other ingredients. Here the fish was chopped and blended with a bit of onion, tomato, and herbs, then topped with two kinds of caviar. It was excellent, though the wonton chips served with it were so delicate that they snapped if used to scoop up the seafood mix – it’s best to ladle the tartare on with a fork or chopsticks.
Another mainstreamed dish was seared peppered ahi. Makoto’s innovation was to use red, pink, and black pepper and serve it topped with onion sautéed in soy sauce and chopped almost to an atomic level.
The flavors were bold, but the rich texture and taste of the fresh fish was not obscured. The effect was even more pronounced in the cooked salmon topped with truffles, in which intense mushroom flavors were equal partners with the fish; the two-bite portion was exactly right because the rich flavors would be too much in larger quantities.
Grilled salmon with black rice.
The most surprising item was the halibut carpaccio, which was served alongside cubes of jellied dashi, the Japanese fish stock that is a traditional soup base. Dashi, based on dried kelp, fish, and often mushrooms, is the basis for many traditional dishes, but to make it into jelly and then top it with pureed jalapeno and scallions was a work of genius. There were so many things going on in each bite that I could have easily ordered another plate so I could sort the flavors out at leisure.
I didn’t, because our grilled scallops with uni topping had arrived by then. Uni (sea urchin) is the test of a sushi bar; when very fresh it is like eating the scent of the sea, but it turns rank very quickly. The Japanese aren’t the only ones who enjoy it; it’s a staple of French and Italian Mediterranean coastal cooking. Taking a lightly grilled scallop and topping it with raw uni, Japanese style, then serving it over a Provencal-style uni cream sauce, was a magnificent idea. My only complaint was that there weren’t any noodles on the plate, because short of drinking the sauce by itself there was nothing to do with it. I might have done that but for the fact we were dining with company, so I was sad as the plate was cleared.
We continued with Brussels sprouts and onion in a soy glaze, a salmon, whitefish and avocado pizza, and grilled salmon with black rice.
Crispy spicy tuna roll.
The Brussels sprouts were the only item of the evening that wasn’t to my taste – I thought the sauce was a bit too sweet – but the small pizza with its dusting of caviar hit the spot. The salmon with sake sauce (probably made with the lees, a by-product of sake manufacture) was even better, and had hints of fruit and caramel, and it was served over nutty, aromatic Nepalese black rice.
The parade of fish ended with Mako’s take on fish and chips – a whole halibut that had been butterflied and deep-fried, served with fries and ketchup. All but the largest bones were edible, and we happily crunched away, enjoying it with glasses of wine from the well-appointed list. Sake is also served, and later we enjoyed sips of Kikusui, which has a crisp flowery character reminiscent of a Riesling.
Our companions somehow had saved room for a roasted half jidori chicken, of which I had just a nibble; it was excellent in a backyard barbecue style, with a little char on the outside and juicy meat within. I had saved exactly enough room for desert, and reveled in bites of a rustic plum tart and a very dense chocolate cake. We hadn’t managed to taste every item on the menu, but had come as close as a party of our size could manage in one sitting.
Dinner at Jujuya is not cheap – you should budget at least $50-70 per person, because while the prices for most items are moderate, you’re likely to order several and they add up. Still, they are far from the most expensive on the Peninsula, and may be the best. We are fortunate to have Jujuya in our community, the newest expression of creativity from a chef who has changed the way we think about Japanese cuisine.
Jujuya is at 550 Deep Valley Drive in the Promenade center in Rolling Hills Estates. Open daily except Monday at 5:30 pm, close 10 pm Su and Tu-Thu, 10:30 Fr-Sa. Parking in adjacent structure, wheelchair access OK, some vegan items, beer and wine served, reservations accepted. Menu at juju-ya.com, phone 310-541-9500.