By now, most local food lovers have probably heard the story of Chef Jon Yao, owner of Kato. Originally dissuaded from pursuing a culinary career by his parents, he eventually was given a chance to take over a small space that his parents and family friend had set aside for a casual cafe (according to the Michelin Guide). From there, he had free reign to develop the menu as he pleased, and garnered enough accolades and attention to earn 1 Michelin Star. With the pandemic and dreams of expanding into a fine dining space, he recently took over a massive corner lot that previously housed M. Georgina at the ROW DTLA (the retail mall that is home to Hayato and Smorgasburg).
Walking into the space (there is no signage outside yet), and most of the sleek modernist design from M. Georgina is still intact. Chef Yao was on the line, plating and preparing dishes all evening.
I never made it out to the original Kato restaurant, but we were joined by a friend who had dined at the original, small corner spot multiple times. Looking at the menu, and it’s clear that Chef Yao is aiming for a full-on fine dining experience, perhaps to better “fit” into his current 1 Michelin Star rating, and/or to also aim for a 2nd Star.
There is only 1 dining option, a Tasting Menu starting at $195 (+ tax & tip) per person, and as of April 1, 2022, it will increase to $225 per person starting. There are also two Wine Pairings, either a $125 or $175 per person additional charge. M. Georgina had a hard liquor license, so with them taking that over, they have a decent Spirits Menu, with some entries clearly aimed at the baller / bling crowd, including the option to taste a 1959 Suntory Royal 60th Anniversary Japanese Whisky for $1,700 per serving(!).
They also had a decent Tea Menu, featuring 11 different types of Loose Leaf Teas.
Bancha Green Tea (Kagoshima, Japan):
The server mentioned that each of their “quality Teas” (as the server stated) featured unlimited refills (as they would re-steep the tea leaves whenever asked). I mention this because they went through this elaborate pomp & circumstance of showing off the tea in a base ceramic pot. Then they let it steep near us for 3 minutes. Then they came back, and poured the tea into a wide ceramic container, and then they poured it into the tea cup to drink.
Perhaps the extra pour made a difference, but what was frustrating is that after that initial pour, they threw pomp & circumstance out the window on refills. When I asked for a refill of the Bancha (note: I had to ask for refills every single time, because the servers never bothered to ask us for additional drinks or help refill anything), they came back and poured a refill that was clearly sitting around oversteeped (it was bitter), and lukewarm.
Amuse - Torn Bluefin Tuna, Shaved Bottarga, Caramelized Onion Dehydrated:
The opening Amuse-Bouche was a nice idea, but the quality of the Bluefin Tuna (raw) was questionable. It had a bad briny, fishy aftertaste, but I loved the crunchiness and the umami from the Shaved Bottarga.
Coal-Seared Japanese Sea Bream, Black Vinegar:
The Coal-Seared Japanese Sea Bream had a clean, bright taste to it (thankfully better than the Bluefin Tuna), and the Ginger and Preserved Sesame Leaf were a nice counterpoint. The Black Vinegar worked nicely here with a zap of piquancy, taking the place of Ponzu Sauce.
Santa Barbara Sea Urchin Donut, Iberico Ham, Brown Butter:
The “Donut” here perhaps was a homage to the Chinese You Tiao (Fried Cruller)? But it didn’t really evoke any similarities. However, Uni and Iberico Ham sound like a winning combination. Unfortunately, the case of the “variable Uni” strikes again: Sea Urchin has really felt to be continually random in its freshness, even at restaurants known for consistently great Uni preparations. On this evening, our Uni (Santa Barbara) turned out to be oceanic (in a bad way), with an unpleasant sea water aftertaste. If you look past that, and just on the initial creaminess of the first few seconds with the Iberico Ham and Fried Donut? It was pretty tasty, but ruined by that bad Uni aftertaste.
Astrea Kaluga Caviar, Geoduck, Koji, Korean Spinach:
While Sea Urchin is hinting that a restaurant is aiming for “lux” ingredients, when you start seeing Caviar appear on the menu, that’s a telltale sign that they’re trying to aim for “high end” / “bling.” In terms of actual taste, the Astrea Kaluga Caviar (China) should’ve been the star here, but instead it mainly serves as a backnote of salinity to the Geoduck (nicely cooked) and Korean Spinach in Mussel Water.
Milk Bread, Kelp Butter:
The fresh, hot Bread Course definitely hearkened back to numerous Michelin-starred, high end restaurants in San Francisco, where the Chef would present diners with some freshly baked loaf of whatever Bread they felt matched their Tasting Menu. Here, it felt perfunctory. The Milk Bread arrived piping hot (a plus), but it was a bit on the dry side. Still soft and airy at least, but dryish. The Kelp Butter was fine, but lacked any depth of real buttery goodness. It’s hard to mess up Hot Bread and Butter, so it was still enjoyable. It just lacked the execution to really sing (good, but not great).
The Garden, A Snapshot of Aaron’s Farm, Taiwanese Sesame:
It turns out “Aaron” is the farmer at Girl and Dug Farm, where Kato gets many of their greens from. This was the highlight of the night: Super fresh, vibrant micro-greens and herbs and edible flowers direct from a farm. The freshness shone through. The dressing was a Taiwanese Sesame Dressing and it worked nicely here adding a gentle nuttiness.
The only downside is that it was minuscule. It looked like a decent “volume” but most of that is air. When you get to the actual bite of greens compacted, it’s like 1 - 2 tiny bites of a standard Salad plate. I wish there was more. I could’ve eaten a whole plate of this and be happy; that’s how fresh the greens were.
Egg Custard, Kelp Vinegar, Chinese Chives:
This felt like Chef Yao’s take on the classic Japanese Chawanmushi (Steamed Egg Custard) dish. The Egg Custard arrived just cooked through, perhaps a bit too runny, but just on the edge. It was light, silky, slippery, watery.
Local Black Cod, Soured Napa and Chinese Mustard, Celtuce:
The Local Black Cod was presented in a broth of Fish Bones, Fermented Mustard Greens and Chinese Rice Wine. Unfortunately, the Black Cod was overcooked. It was dryish, meaty, chewy, and lacked the moist suppleness of properly steamed fish.
However the Soured Napa Cabbage and Fermented Mustard Greens were the first bite this evening that evoked anything that tasted like “Chinese cuisine” which is what our friend told us Chef Yao was doing well at the original Kato location. The Napa Cabbage and Fermented Mustard Greens in Fish Bone Broth was delicious. I just wish the actual Black Cod wasn’t overcooked.
The Steamed Rice with a dusting of Seaweed was fine. It wasn’t overcooked, nor did it have anything standout about its execution, which was disappointing.
Miyazaki A5 Striploin, Beef Tendon, Maitake, Potato:
And in the ultimate failed attempt to aim for more Michelin Stars, sure enough, Grade A5 Wagyu Beef made an appearance. It’s one thing if there’s a reason for Grade A5 Wagyu Beef to be on the menu, if it fits your restaurant / culinary point-of-view. Here, it felt so perfunctory and the taste reflected that:
What you have is a nicely seared piece of A5 Wagyu Beef from Miyazaki, Japan. Seasoned with a bit of Salt & Pepper. Biting into it, it’s super fatty, tender, except my piece of Wagyu had a massive piece of gristle running along the entire bite. It was inedible and I had to spit it out (quietly). I informed our server of the issue, and reflecting just how immature Kato is in its current state, our server simply said, “Oh OK. I’ll let the kitchen know.” No apologies. In fact, by the end of the meal, no one came over to check on us, or even offer condolences to the mishap. Baffling for a restaurant trying to aim for bling and Michelin Stars.
The Beef Tendon Ragout was super concentrated, salty and stew-like, probably a nod to, say, a Taiwanese Beef Noodle Soup perhaps, except it was totally out of place here. If you tried some of the A5 Wagyu Beef with that super concentrated, salty Beef Tendon Ragout, the Sauce overpowered the delicacy of the A5 Wagyu. Eaten by itself, and it was too salty. The A5 Wagyu by itself had the massive gristle problem, but besides that, it was just “there.”
A totally unnecessary and stereotypical “luxury” dish made to try and impress less discerning customers who would get star struck seeing “A5 Wagyu” on the menu.
Meiwa Kumquat Bingsoo, Vanilla Anglaise, Meyer Lemon:
This was a great Shaved Ice Dessert. It’s hard to mess up Bingsoo or any Shaved Ice Dessert when you have a good fruit base, and here it shone brightly: Meyer Lemon adds that fragrant high note and citric sweetness that only Meyer Lemons can bring, the Meiwa Kumquat brought in harmony, and the Vanilla Anglaise added just the right sweet notes.
Jujube, Scorched Rice Cream, Muscovado Tuile, Castella Cake:
This was OK. The Muscovado Tuile reminded our friend of some Chinese sweet snack growing up. For us, it was a light, pastry-molasses sweetness, which worked fine with the Rice Cream and Cake. The Cake itself was overcooked and dry.
Mignardise, Coconut Pandan Bon Bon, Raspberry Lychee Pate de Fruits, Rose Caramel Candy:
These were fine. The Coconut Pandan Bon Bon was visually arresting, and had a nice tropical, herbal taste. The Raspberry Lychee Pate de Fruits tasted like its ingredients, so it paired nicely. The Rose Caramel Candy lacked any rose flavor.
When dining in L.A., one should already expect a certain casual level of service, but for a restaurant like Kato trying to be “fine dining” in the vein of S.F.'s top eateries, seeing this same mediocre, lax service is a bit disheartening, but not unexpected. Our server rarely checked in on us. Our plates weren’t removed after we finished each course. Our server and the Sommelier never bothered to stop by during the meal to ask if we wanted any additional drinks or refills. The “high quality Tea” (as they referred to it) was improperly steeped and they just poured lukewarm, oversteeped, bitter refills when I asked for more Tea. When you’re charging customers ~$250 (after tax & tip) for a Tasting Menu meal and clearly trying to aim for fine dining, service should be better.
The new Kato feels like it’s trying so hard to chase after a 2nd Michelin Star. It’s in a space that is much bigger than its original beginnings. There’s a single Tasting Menu that is going to be starting at $225 per person (+ tax & tip) starting in April. They’re pitching Wine Pairings for an additional $125 or $175 per person depending on what option you want. And they resorted to the stereotypical “bling” ingredients offerings (Caviar, A5 Wagyu Beef) to try and make themselves look more precious.
Executive Chef-Owner Val M. Cantu (of vaunted Michelin 2 Star Californios in the Bay Area) once told me that he was looking to avoid using Caviar or A5 Wagyu Beef on his menu if possible. He lamented that many fine dining restaurants in S.F. resorted to using those fancy ingredients almost as a necessity, as a shortcut and easy way to impress Michelin inspectors and the average fine dining guest. After that chat with us, I looked back on the meals we had around S.F. at various Michelin-starred fine dining restaurants (and thinking on other cities’ Michelin restaurants) and sure enough, Caviar and A5 Wagyu Beef seemed like it was just a given on many of those menus. (@ipsedixit @BradFord @A5KOBE @sck @hyperbowler @paranoidgarliclover and all.) (Note: I love a well-executed A5 Wagyu Beef dish as much as anyone, but it should be within that restaurant’s culinary viewpoint; and for a reason other than just because it’s showy.)
There were perhaps 2 bites of food the entire evening that felt like it hearkened to a Taiwanese or Chinese dish. Our friend who had dined at the original Kato multiple times expressed profound disappointment as well, noting that at Chef Yao’s OG restaurant, many of the dishes were nods to the chef’s heritage, but not so here. I left this meal feeling like it could’ve been an offering at any random 1 Michelin Star fine dining restaurant in any city in the world: European / French cooking techniques, a typical Tasting Menu procession that felt uninspired. When looking at an Asian-influenced, fine dining Tasting Menu that excels and shines, look no further than San Francisco’s Michelin 3 Star powerhouse, Benu. The new Kato isn’t even in the same league. It feels lost, grasping at ways to earn a 2nd Michelin Star with no focus. Here’s to hoping Chef Yao and team find their focus and have better execution.
777 S. Alameda St., Building 1, Suite 114
Los Angeles, CA 90021
Tel: (213) 797-5770