Astro Kitchen fuses Japanese and French cuisine beautifully
A Gem in a Torrance mini-mall shows how well an unlikely culinary mash-up can work.
by Richard Foss
The fusion of Japanese and French cuisines is one of the weirdest success stories in culinary history. French cuisine uses rich, heavy sauces based on cream and cheese, neither of which the Japanese historically regarded as food, and meat, which they ate sparingly. French cooking is rich in long-simmered stocks, Japanese in light, clear seafood-based broths. The French enjoy deep, tannic red wines paired with courses, while the Japanese drink the same delicate sakes and shochus throughout a meal. The two countries are already on opposite sides of Earth, but their cooking might have come from different planets.
On paper a combination like this shouldn’t work, but in your mouth it does, and one of the places to get it is the oddly named Astro Kitchen, a little restaurant by the corner of Artesia and Van Ness.
The name suggests food that really is from another planet, perhaps another solar system, but as soon as you walk in and see the bottles of sake and wine next to the vintage posters of the Riviera, you know what’s going on. The menu includes dishes as rustic as French onion soup and ratatouille on one hand, eggplant with soy ginger and vinegared octopus on the other, and since the chef is from Iwate in the far north of Japan there are a few regional dishes not often seen on local Japanese menus. My companion and I puzzled over the offerings for some time, asked a patient server named Sanae for help, and finally ordered rather too much food because we didn’t know how big the portions were.
We started with Japanese appetizers of cold tofu with Jaja sauce and fried octopus with shisito peppers, and fusion dishes of seared duck breast and pork ribs with honey mustard sauce. Jaja sauce itself is a fusion item, a Japanese variant of a Korean version of a northern Chinese item. It’s a salty soybean sauce with ground pork that Koreans make pungent with garlic and vinegar, while Japanese prefer it mild. This was less meaty and also less salty than any I’ve had before, which makes sense as it was served over delicate fresh tofu rather than the usual noodles. Jaja is usually hearty comfort food, and this kept the spirit while remaining light and fresh.
The octopus was a bit more standard, lightly fried in a crisp seasoned batter. The meat is a bit firmer and more flavorful than squid, which may be good or bad depending on your attitude toward calamari. I happen to like it, and happily crunched my way through this.
I had been interested in seeing what they’d do with the duck breast because duck isn’t traditionally eaten in Japan. The seven thin slices of rare meat were treated like sashimi, served in a light soy and rice wine sauce with ginger and some mustard on the side. The mustard wasn’t needed, because it was perfect just as it was. The pork ribs were less impressive, meaty and tender but almost unseasoned and tasting mainly of meat and smoke from the grill. It was good backyard barbecue and something I could easily do at home.
That was not the case with the next item to arrive, the oddly named bell pepper, sea chicken, and prosciutto salad. The “sea chicken” actually was tuna, the red and yellow bell peppers had been sautéed to sweetness, and the tuna had been tossed in with sesame oil, capers, olives, and a dusting of green onion and sesame. The effect was Mediterranean with a hint of Japan, and it was brilliant. I can’t imagine returning without ordering this again.
The wine list by the glass was short and not particularly interesting, so after the first course we decided we wanted to learn more about the barley shochus that are offered. Our server recommended two different styles, and we found the Suzume to be like a low-alcohol vodka, while Kannoko resembled a scotch and water. Since Scotch whisky and this shochu are both made of cask-aged barley and shochu is low alcohol, the resemblance was no great surprise. It was pleasant but I’ll probably order sake or wine next time.
For mains we ordered a scallop, chicken, and macaroni gratin and a spaghetti carbonara, knowing as we did that these would not greatly resemble the European originals. French gratins involve meat and root vegetables baked in a creamy garlic sauce after being topped with breadcrumbs and Gruyere or another richly flavored cheese, but the Japanese variant usually uses a mild cheese and omits the garlic. That was what happened here, and it works with a delicate ingredient like scallops that would be overwhelmed by a funky Gruyere. It was a fine showcase for the virtues of French-Japanese fusion.
The carbonara didn’t work quite as well because there was so little cheese and garlic in the sauce and only tiny specks of bacon. The flavors were in balance but too timid to hold our interest, and we yearned for a more traditional bold carbonara. We had almost ordered the French-style beef tongue stew, and wished we had stayed with that because it would have been better alongside the gratin.
Pudding or ice cream was offered, but we were full after over-ordering on our starters. Our waistlines might pay a price for that, but our wallets weren’t badly injured, as the price for too much food with two glasses of wine and two shochus was only $92. This was a spectacular bargain for excellent food in this pretty environment, and Astro is now at the top of my list for the great deals in the South Bay. The place is small so reservations are recommended, but even if you have to wait a bit it’s worth it.
Astro Kitchen is at 2212 Artesia in Torrance. Open daily 6 p.m. – 1 a.m., parking lot, some vegetarian/vegan items. Wine, beer, sake, and shochu served, corkage $12. No website, phone 310-329-9006.
by Richard Foss