The Zen Master of Beef

Totoraku has no Web site. The name on the sign belongs to a place that closed years ago. Reservations? More power to you because, unless you know Kaz, the chef-owner, or someone who does, you’re not getting in


Oyama modeled Totoraku, which hides in plain view on Pico, after the secret spots he explored with his dad in Japan. Photograph by Misha Gravenor.

Then there are the secret gardens. Concealed from passersby on downtown’s San Pedro Street since the 1970s, the James Irvine Garden has waterfalls and a 170-foot brook in a grove of rare Japanese black pines. Several avenues over, the Hilton DoubleTree, formerly the Kyoto Grand, still has the half-acre rooftop Japanese garden created when the place opened as the New Otani Hotel & Garden in 1977. The Japanese Garden at the Donald C. Tillman Water Reclamation Plant, on six-and-a-half acres in Van Nuys, is so inconspicuous, many neighbors are unaware of the refuge, with its replica of a nobleman’s house on the lake.

While secret restaurants are suddenly as common in Los Angeles as self-righteous locavores, Totoraku is not an underground venue in the style of, say, pHeast, Wolvesmouth (arguably L.A.’s other toughest reservation), or Chicks with Knives. What Oyama is doing at Totoraku is distinctly Japanese and tied to the archetype in that country’s culture of the invisible place. “In Japan there’s beauty in what’s just out of view and of the spaces in between,” says Hirokazu Kosaka, artistic director of the Japanese American Cultural & Community Center. “The most important ceremonies, like tea ceremonies, often take place in a location we call the engawa—the veranda—that is neither interior nor exterior, neither public nor private. There’s fascination in the buffer zone. Spaces like these hint at a hidden dimension.”

Kosaka himself oversees a veiled outpost—a dojo, or school, for Japanese kyudo archery on the Palos Verdes peninsula. The center is nearly 100 years old, but few would be able to locate it on a map. Kosaka is an ordained Shingon Buddhist priest and master of Japanese archery, and he chooses his students the way Oyama chooses his customers. For him, archery is a form of standing meditation. “In Japanese archery the focus is not a bull’s-eye but something called the ‘hazy target,’ ” he says. “From a distance you see a full moon with a cloud obscuring it. As with so many experiences in Japanese culture, it’s what is clouded that’s most special. It’s a place to contemplate the infinite shades of gray.”

It did not take long for word to spread about Totoraku. For six months at the beginning, Oyama might fill seven tables one night, two the next, but then the restaurant took off. “It was all Japanese friends, Japanese trading guys, airline guys, Toyota guys,” he says of his original clientele. Things changed when “the first foreigner,” as Oyama calls him, knocked at the door. “I didn’t know what to do,” he says. By “foreigner” Oyama means Chinese, and by “didn’t know what to do” he means “I told him, ‘Who the hell are you? Go away. Can’t you see I’m busy?’ ” The man did not back down. He left his information and said he would keep trying.

The intrepid customer was Raymond Chow, the Hong Kong film producer who helped launch the careers of Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, and many others. He had heard about Totoraku from Japanese friends in the movie industry and was tipped off to Oyama’s love of good wine. Oyama says, “He came back with 12 people and three bottles of Chateau Latour, 1959, and gave me one.” The temptation was too rich to pass up.

The wine trick became something of a tradition as news about a secret beef restaurant whirled through Hollywood. Whoopi Goldberg brought a vintage magnum of Chateau Margaux. The PR agent Bob Gold showed up with bottles of Screaming Eagle and Petrus. Sharon Stone came with some friends from the entertainment industry. Next the chefs arrived: Gino Angelini, Anthony Bourdain, José Andrés. “What’s not to love about Totoraku?” Andrés says. “It has mystique. A chef with a great personality. I love Kaz’s smile. You can bring your own wines. And really, the food is delicious. The only question becomes, How many beef dishes can you eat in one night?”

Andy Gavin was introduced to Totoraku 13 years ago by his friend and boss at the time, Shuhei Yoshida, a top Sony executive who helped bring PlayStation to market. Gavin, who blogs about his nights out at All Things Andy Gavin, says, “My first time I thought, ‘Is this really a restaurant?’ It looked closed. I think the door might have been locked. It was like a beef speakeasy.” Again it was the liberal BYOB policy—and Oyama’s shining eyes when a good bottle was being uncorked (“I’ve never known Oyama-san not to partake,” Gavin says)—that kicked off the meal and many since. One night last November Gavin took over Toto with a members-only dining club called the Hedonists. The buy-in for guests: one or two extraordinary bottles of wine each. Over four hours “Oyama-san helped us through the top of the wine pyramid,” says Gavin, citing a 1980 Penfolds Grange, a 1986 Chateau Margaux, a 2003 Châteauneuf-du-Pape Cuvée da Capo, a 2007 Colgin syrah, and so much more to stumble home over. “What’s amazing is that you don’t wake up thinking about the wine,” Gavin says. “You wake up thinking about the beef.”

Right. The beef.

This feature was originally published in the March 2013 issue of Los Angeles magazine.