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On any given night, Tsubaki, a tiny neighborhood izakaya in Echo Park, radiates the kind of buzzy, convivial warmth that inspires small huddles of people to gather outside the front door at dusk to wait for an open table.
Is it the exposed brick, high ceilings and carefully calibrated lighting that makes the dining room so appealing? The warm, scratchy wailing of Faces-era Rod Stewart crackling over the house speakers? The copious amounts of premium sake on the menu, or maybe the vague scent of charcoal-grilled chicken in the air?
Whatever alchemy is at work, there are only 35 seats inside and they fill up quickly. A reservation is not a bad idea. Neither is spending the first part of your meal poring over Tsubaki’s sake list, a compendium of hard-to-find bottles weighted toward small Japanese producers. There are sakes made from heirloom grains and biodynamically grown rice; funky, Kyoto-brewed sakes that smell faintly of wet loam and raw mushrooms; creamy, lightly sweet nigori sakes. For entry-level drinkers, the restaurant’s popular “sake school” flights, a rotating, seasonally oriented selection dispensed by one of the restaurant’s cheerful servers provides an intoxicating education.
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The sake list at Tsubaki is handpicked by co-owner and sommelier Courtney Kaplan, who slung sake at Decibel, a venerable izakaya in New York, and served wine at Bestia in Los Angeles. She supplements the menu with clear, straightforward tasting notes designed to steer you toward the most appropriate bottle.
But sake is not the whole story at Tsubaki. Co-owner and chef Charles Namba, who was most recently cooking at Bouchon, the now-shuttered Beverly Hills outpost of Thomas Keller’s French bistro, working with chef de cuisine Tim Lockhart, have put together a modern izakaya menu that marries classic Japanese pub fare with small-plate finery, a style increasingly familiar to Angeleno diners and one that Tsubaki pulls off particularly well.
Light, cold dishes include hirame tartare — bright, citrusy lobes of yuzu-zapped fluke that melt elegantly against a scattering of crunchy, diced scallions. Wagyu tataki is in a similarly delightful vein; the lightly seared beef slices, slicked with a fermented chile sauce, dissolve in a swirl of vinegary, umami richness.
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A pasty terrine of Jidori chicken is fine, but you’re better off skipping ahead to Tsubaki’s steamed courses. Wild Japanese mushrooms, blanketed in the flat-leaf herb mitsuba, are exquisitely meaty. Chawanmushi, an umami-heavy huddle of egg custard and Dungeness crab, is one of the restaurant’s comfort food high points.
Make room on the table for yakitori, particularly the primal collection of charcoal-grilled chicken innards: plump, smokey chicken hearts; chewy, elastic hunks of chicken cartilage; chicken gizzards cooked to a soft, springy softness. The purely decadent succulence of lightly charred chicken oysters, the tender coin of dark meat tucked near the thigh on the back of the bird, is essential. If there’s a can’t-miss skewer, though, it’s the chicken meatballs — fleshy, ultra-juicy spheres served with an egg yolk dipping sauce on the side.
Of course, part of the pleasure of any izakaya, even a fancy one like Tsubaki, correlates strongly with the potential to overbear your digestive system with sake-sopping fried foods. To that end, there’s ultra-crisp karaage, deep-fried Japanese chicken that’s more or less a rote version of what you’ll find on other izakaya menus around town. The real gems in this category are creamy medallions of fried sweetbreads served with a bright endive salad, beautiful slices of pan-fried pork infused with a sweet-smoky curry butter, and flaky grilled sea bass served in a velvety green garlic butter sauce. The kitchen does not skimp on butter.
The most primal cut on the menu, though, is a bone-in short rib glazed in a sweet-savory yakiniku barbecue sauce. Braised for about 48 hours, the dish is everything you might hope it for: the bone slips away effortlessly, the soft, flossy tendrils of meat collapsing into a dark, saucy muddle that could almost be called pudding. There may not be a more emphatic way to end your meal at Tsubaki. Except, maybe, for one more round of sake.
Sommelier Courtney Kaplan and chef Charles Namba highlight craft sake and modern izakaya fare in a sleek Echo Park space.
1356 Allison Ave., Los Angeles, (213) 900-4900, tsubakila.com
Cold dishes $11-$33; steamed dishes $10-$34; fried dishes $10-$18; yakitori $5-$8; grilled and braised dishes $12-$27; rice & noodles $7-$34.
Credit cards accepted. Valet parking. Full bar. The trip to the dining area requires traversing two steps. The restroom is wheelchair accessible.
Hirame tartare; chawanmushi; chicken yakitori; braised short ribs