The name Makoto Tanaka (aka Mako) strikes fear in the hearts of chickens everywhere in California. Best known for his namesake Beverly Hills restaurant, he’s more recently set up shop in Little Osaka, the Westside neighborhood running along Sawtelle, between Santa Monica and Olympic. The character-laden street, comes complete with Japanese toy stores, salons, tea shops but this quaint little communityhas really benefited from the addition of Mako’s exceptional new restaurant, Robata-Ya.
Myself, along with my cohorts in sin – Chase, Duke and the dapper Professor Bicklesby – made our way over to Robata-Ya and met up with Mako, eager to learn about his latest venture and even more eager to sample his highly-hailed fares.
First impressions are key and right off the bat you can’t help but to be impressed with the décor. The small space is open and contemporary without sacrificing the feeling of being comfortable and relaxed. The perfectly mild weather lent itself to our sitting outside where we gathered around a large wooden table on the front patio and really got a great feel for the neighborhood’s community vibe. Heavy foot traffic along the sidewalk out front and tons of eclectic style made for a more New York type feel. A first date would do well to start here, but this was no time for wanderlust – bring on the gluttony!
We started with a White Tuna Sashimi served with crispy onions in a ponzu sauce as Mako shared with some of his personal history. He moved to Los Angeles and studied under Wolfgang Puck, helping to open Chinois on Main, before deciding to try his hand in New York. “We opened the China Grill and I was happy, but I missed L.A.,” Mako mused.
After only two years in the Big Apple, he made his way back out West. “I love the weather here. Maybe if I’d never lived in California before I moved to the East Coast, maybe I would’ve stayed, but I missed California… and the weather.”
On arriving back in Los Angeles he served as Executive Chef at Spago before venturing out on his own with the aforementioned Mako restaurant, whose success made way for him to move forward with a new project. Hence, Robata-Ya was born. He named the restaurant for “robatayaki,” the traditional Japanese style of preparing food over a charcoal grill. “A lot of places do a yakatori, which is chicken skewers, but that’s different than what we are doing here.”
Mako and his team use very minimal spicing, preferring instead to let the natural flavors of the food speak for themselves. He believes that when the food is fresh and is prepared correctly there isn’t need to add much additional flavor.
I certainly couldn’t argue as my mouth absolutely melted for the Scallops in Pesto Butter Sauce. I noted just a hint of garlic, which according to Mako is the “authentic Japanese style” of preparing them.
We feasted for over two hours on Pork Belly and Braised Pork Rib, succulent Blue Prawn from Hawaii, Wygu Beef and more chicken dishes than what is decent to admit.
With so many different chicken dishes, it’s hard to fathom how Mako comes up with them all, but as it turns out he has an ace up his sleeve, which helps Mako in outshining his competition. In an unfair advantage over his cooking contemporaries, his partner, Dennis Mao’s, family owns a respected chicken farm in California that delivers fresh chicken daily to all of “the top restaurants in the city.”
Dennis and Mako met some fourteen years back when Dennis was delivering chicken to Mako in Beverly Hills. They became friends over time and started working together.
We have access to the freshest, free-range chicken – delivered daily. Nothing is frozen, everything’s fresh.
Dennis, unfortunately, was absent from our gathering, but for good reason – he was out in the desert for the annual Burning Man festival. Our very own Smash LeFunk was out on The Playa as well, shooting photographs and running amok and we joked with Mako that the two of them were probably sharing a flask of whiskey at the very moment that we sat sampling his family’s chickens.
Robata-Ya is a bit chicken crazy (in a good way) and when I say that no part of the chicken is wasted, I mean no part. At. All.
We sampled Chicken Gizzards, Liver, Tail, Skin, and two different types of Chicken Heart – yes, that’s right – I said chicken heart – which was served skewer-style with dabs of wasabi on top. You can order the Regular Chicken Heart or The Special Chicken Heart. The Special Heart is a small tender spot of the heart, a kind of heart inside the heart, and a must-try when you visit here.
Every dish seemed to top the one before and I must admit that I was a bit hesitant when it came to the hearts, but curiosity eventually won out and I actually found myself reaching across the table for seconds.
In fact, virtually everything we tried was delicious, but the award for standout dish of the evening has to go to the Chicken Tails. I know it sounds crazy, but one bite into the sizzling skewer and I was hooked. The Chicken Tail was superb and I swore then and there that I would never be satisfied with chicken wings again.
When I didn’t think it was possible to ingest anymore food, another round of specialties arrived. We finished the night off with Sweet White Corn that had been grilled and then shaved off the cob, Shiitake Mushrooms and a homemade Spicy Ramen flavored with – yep, you guessed it – Chicken Feet. Mako really wasn’t exaggerating when he said “no part goes wasted.”
Hard to believe that even after the incredible array of food we ate, we’d still only taken in about 40% of the menu. Robata-Ya is definitely the place to come when you’re feeling the gluttony kick in. My advice? Show up with an empty stomach and prepare to overeat. Chickens: You’ve been warned.