Back on track
Oba’s small plates make light eating fun
By Erica Wayne 01/29/2014
Many years ago, Komeyoshi (at the corner of Glenarm Street and Marengo Avenue) was one of my go-to places for Japanese food. The sushi was good; shabu shabu, sukiyaki and combination dinners (mostly consisting of teriyaki and tempura) were tasty and reasonably priced. There was plenty of hot sake, some pleasant appetizers and flaming tempura ice cream for dessert.
The piece-de-resistance was a “cruising dinner.” It took two to order ($13.50 apiece) and about three to eat. A wooden boat arrived loaded with a cargo of teriyaki meats, tempura, broccoli, potato salad, dumplings, egg roll, tempura crab roll and fruit. It was accompanied by smaller “vessels” of sashimi and sushi. What gourmand could have asked for more?
Well, that was then and this is now. Komeyoshi is no more, its site now occupied by the sleeker, more sophisticated Oba. Like Oba, I too am more sophisticated about Japanese cuisine (although sleeker is not the word I’d use after my long winter binge, starting with Halloween and ending with the final day of dineLA, with its many temptations, tomorrow evening).
Oba, whose name means perilla, an herb commonly used in Japanese recipes, is a peaceful dining environment. The walls are moss green, tables are set far enough apart for a decent conversation, the sushi bar is spacious, lighting is low and so is the soft rock background. And the menu is mesmerizing.
Oba designates itself an “izakaya” — in Japan a drinking establishment serving small plates of food to accompany the drinks. These oriental “tapas” are meant to be ordered throughout the meal and shared. Provided you’re careful, a meal at Oba is not only interesting and delicious but also light and wholesome — a perfect detox after protracted overindulgence.
Oba’s annotated list of premium sake is 18 strong, the majority offered by both glass and bottle (the bottle prices a relative bargain). The beer list is more limited, but still goes beyond Sapporo and Asahi to artisan brews like Orion and Echigo Red Ale and Hitachino XH. (Surprisingly, Kirin isn’t even on the menu.)
The izakaya plates seem endless, numbering almost 70. Many will be familiar to patrons of other top Japanese restaurants (e.g., Kabuki), but the sheer number is overwhelming. One of the tidbits we like best is Oba’s coconut-curry marinated yakitori ($5.50) served with peanut sauce. Another is spicy Berkshire (pigs, not mountains) sausage wrapped in bacon ($5.75).
Pea sprouts, sautéed in sesame oil, garlic and bacon chunks ($4) are a real treat. And, surprisingly, the spring roll (six fat pieces filled with cabbage, mushroom, carrots and glass noodles — $4.75) is too. Oba’s eggplant miso ($5.75) is sweet, oily and the vegetable peeled. It’s one of only a few dishes we won’t try again.
Other vegetable dishes include salads, seaweed, tofu seasoned with ginger, green onion and bonito flakes, fried ($5.75) or cold ($5.50). Cucumber, spinach, potatoes, mushrooms and string beans are featured ($2.50-$5.25), as are shisito and jalapeno peppers, unfilled or, like Oba’s oba leaves, stuffed with crab-mix and made into tempura ($4.50-$5.50).
Whole baby octopus comes deep-fried ($5); calamari is grilled ($7.50) or fried ($5.50). Soft-shell crab is only $6.75. Grilled yellowtail collar ($11), one of my must-orders in most Japanese restaurants, is less of a bargain. (Kabuki charges $8.95 for a bigger portion.) But it’s definitely tasty. And so is Oba’s slab of cod, marinated with miso and baked ($8).
Raw fish comes in even more variants than the small plates. Thirty-two types of sushi (including relative rarities like halibut fin, monkfish liver and butterfish) form the permanent list. Another 32 are seasonal. If you’re looking for needlefish, barracuda, flying fish, black seabream, gizzard shad, bluefish, red gunard or grunt, Oba’s your place. Many, according to the Web site, are flown in from Japan daily.
Thirty-eight rolls are listed, 28 are “specialty” creations of the kind that seem to be ever more popular. Frankly, I’d rather indulge in a simple yellowtail or salmon skin roll than contend with a mishmash like Oba’s “richie rich” roll ($14.50) stuffed with spicy tuna, jalapeno, sweet sauce and yamagobo (pickled burdock root) with tuna, yellowtail, avocado, lemon rind, chili and ponzu on top; or (yikes!) the chimpanzee roll ($9.50) with fresh water eel and banana tempura.
Oddly enough, the only roll we’ve ever tried at Oba, a $12 rainbow (crab mix inside and tuna, salmon, halibut, yellowtail, shrimp and avocado on top) was deprived of its main appeal — the gorgeous diagonal array of multicolored toppings — by having its eight pieces dismantled and placed randomly on the plate before serving.
Oba does have some of the more common menu items that Komeyoshi used to offer: sukiyaki, yakisoba, teriyaki, tempura, and even tempura ice cream ($3). We, by the way, prefer the black sesame seed ice cream (a great finale for $2).
No boats I’m afraid, but once you’ve started sailing through the extensive izakaya and sushi lists, you’ll definitely feel as if your ship’s come in.