An Evening to Remember at T’s Kitchen
Brennan Cruz, Casual Nightlife LA
This city has long since hit the backlash to fusion bar food, but new downtown hotspot T’s Kitchen just might be starting the wave of backlash to that backlash, innovative and clever and somehow fresh. It doesn’t hurt that the food itself is delicious, and that’s perhaps what makes it stand out even more from the pack. Head chef Taiga Kagami’s creations include fried dumplings with a mustard dipping sauce, gumbo-marinated hot wings that come in one of three rotating flavors (or a sampler of all three—currently a tangy Carolina barbeque, sweet curry, and a strong hatch pepper that delivers a kick without overwhelming, all of which are superb and sure to be switched out by publication time), and fries with a crisp shell and soft, flavorful inside.
I very nearly filled up on appetizers; it was almost too easy to get lost in the atmosphere, like that of an upscale sports bar. It’s another overplayed concept, but one so few bars have gotten right. T’s Kitchen absolutely has, though; the chatter is relatively low and the TV showing the Lakers game at my end of the bar is audible.
The drinks are superb; they offer small-sized versions of their signature cocktails, prepared with no less flair by a bartender who pours liquor into glasses from sky-high, never spilling a drop. The Late Morning (melon liqueur, blue curacao, vodka, and pure cranberry juice) is a real treat, rich and sweet and nuanced, though I’m glad I only got the small size. And their Manhattan, served with just as much aplomb, is maybe the best you’ll find on this coast. I compliment the bartender on that and he laughs; as it turns out he’s one of the proprietors, Tatsuya Himuro, and he’s tended this bar every night since the place opened.
Himuro and Kagami met as children on a city basketball court; it’s a story Himuro’s clearly told before but not one he’s sick of telling. And it seems to lead here perfectly, as if one day they were playing HORSE and skinning their knees trying to make trick shots, and then the next they were opening up a restaurant together.
“We took a few detours,” Himuro demurs.
Those detours apparently include Himuro’s stint as a waiter and Kagami’s as an electrician, trying to pay the bills and come up with capital—stints that have served them well here (Himuro speaks with nearly as much pride in his voice about Kagami rewiring the restaurant as he does about Kagami’s cooking, and the impeccable quality of Himuro’s service is self-evident; even while talking with me he excuses himself to take care of patrons as soon as they look ready to order).
I ask Himuro for a main course recommendation; their menu is just as stacked in the entrée section as it is in with appetizers, and I’ve seen other people ordering everything from the seared fish to the gyudon to some sort of sandwich at the bar, and they all look good. Himuro advises me to go for the cheeseburger, medium-well if I’m not averse. Every place does hamburgers; few are exceptional, but at this point I should probably stop limiting my expectations for this restaurant. And sure enough, the burger arrives promptly, sizzling on a grilled bun with lettuce, cheddar, pickles, and a thick slice of tomato; the buns are spread with a thin layer of a house special sauce vaguely the color of habanero hot sauce.
The burger itself is juicy, a thin quarter of a pound of ground sirloin cooked evenly, crisp on the outside but still juicy and perfectly complemented by the additions. The sauce has a bit of a kick; there’s definitely some kind of pepper and maybe horseradish, but it’s not nearly strong enough to overwhelm the other flavors. And the simplicity of it all is far from underwhelming; like everything else here it’s hit just the right balance.
The amount of bar patrons picks up as the night wears on, but there’s no one pointedly redirecting me to a table or hinting about a check; Himuro leaves me with the dessert menu and doesn’t need to tell me there’s no pressure because I don’t feel any. None of the other patrons do, either; the couple next to me has been here since before I have and it’s been an hour or since they’ve ordered their last drinks and they’re still engrossed in the basketball postgame. Finally, though, when half an hour remains until the kitchen closes, Himuro reminds me about dessert, and I order the molten chocolate cake.
The place is beginning to clear out by now; the last few table patrons are settling their bills and as people at the bar (including the couple next to me) leave they aren’t so quickly replaced. Dessert comes, and it is rich—the cake is small but I’m not sure I can finish it all at once. Himuro laughs and says I’ve got until the end of the night if I’m up to it. And it does pair well with the dregs of my Manhattan and the strong, fresh coffee straight from the back of the bar.
I’m not prepared for when the head chef himself comes out to help tend bar, though. He’s shod his chef’s apron but his sleeves are still rolled up, and he runs a hand through his hair before asking what he can do to help. Himuro asks me if I’d like another Manhattan, and why not?
Kagami has none of Himuro’s bartending finesse but he’s clearly well-practiced; his Manhattan is not quite as smooth as Himuro’s, made with a different style of whiskey and a little heavier on the vermouth but still quite good, especially with the chocolate cake. I compliment Kagami on its richness, and he shrugs and says that’s just the kind of chocolate he uses. Himuro chides him for not just accepting the praise, and this little glimpse into their rapport reassures me that this restaurant is built on a solid partnership.
Kagami is evasive on most questions, but still quite charming, Himuro’s complement in many ways, but equally eager to tout his partner’s skills. When I ask him why he chose to name the restaurant after himself, he shrugs and says that it’s Himuro’s as well, and then launches into a description of all the recipes that were Himuro’s idea (apparently the sweet curry wings were his creation, as well as their steak dry rub and some of the sandwiches) but before he can finish Himuro cuts him off from where he’s fixing drinks at the other end of the bar.
“Taiga—” he says, and Kagami’s already passing him a glass.
It’s easy to imagine them passing a basketball between them until one of them drives to the hoop just as smoothly. I say as much, and Kagami shrugs.
“Well, there’s no one I’d rather do either with than Tatsuya.”
Tatsuya’s voice breaks off; he spins toward Taiga. “Did you really say that?”
Taiga kind of can’t believe they actually printed it (and he probably won’t even after he rereads the article for himself) but the look on Tatsuya’s face, the truly surprised smile that spreads wide across his cheeks as if he’s trying to suppress it but can’t for once, speaks for itself.
“You know I mean it, right?”
“Of course,” Tatsuya says, almost immediately.
Taiga gets up from the couch; they step closer to each other in almost complete synchronicity. When they’re pressed against each other, chest-to-chest and face-to-neck, the folded page of the nightlife magazine digging into Taiga’s back from where Tatsuya holds it against him, there is so much they could say. There are so many affirmations and words they’ve already spoken that wouldn’t, couldn’t, convey the meaning they want (because nothing does). This comes close though.