It begins, after an amuse-bouche assortment, with beef carpaccio flecked with “special” salt and tiny edible flowers. Beef rib eye and beef throat sashimi come next, accompanied by a Korean-style hot sauce that’s intense with ginger and garlic. There is steak tartare, prepared in the Korean style, with raw quail egg, cucumber, daikon, and pine nuts. That’s followed by the gyu portion of the evening: Shizumi, Oyama’s wife, walks over with a battered tabletop grill and a heaping plate of beef tongue. Salt, scallions, a side of lemon juice for dipping. Perfection. If there’s a God moment, it’s the filet mignon with bell peppers, onions, and shiso peppers. Or maybe it’s not a meat dish at all but the extraordinary momotaro tomatoes that are somehow as succulent as the beef that does not stop arriving: outside rib eye, inside rib eye, kalbi short ribs, skirt steak. “At a certain point you have to yell ‘uncle,’ ” Gavin says. “That’s usually when I see Oyama-san with his great big smile, bringing a final, unbelievable course. It’s a very satisfying experience.”
Late one afternoon last winter, Oyama sat in semidarkness at Totoraku, taking a rare moment to acknowledge his own satisfaction. “I could say it’s been a great adventure,” he says as a warm expression comes over his face. He has an ongoing debate with Nobu Matsuhisa about who has the happier life. Nobu has the restaurant empire, but Oyama gets to handpick his customers. Nobu has celebrity investors and fame around the world, but Oyama has time to golf and recently bought the one toy he wanted—an attention-grabbing Nissan GT-R sports car. Nobu has a full house almost every night, but so does Oyama.
“Neither of us ever wins this argument,” Oyama says. “We both end up laughing. We’re doing what we want, and our customers keep coming back. That’s the chef’s dream. Little by little, course by course, mouth by mouth, we do what we love, and customers keep coming back. It’s the life of a happy chef. A little happy, a little lucky—and, OK, so maybe a little crazy.”
Anatomy of a Totoraku Reservation (Or How I Got My Secret Beef)*
- Overhear friend of a friend at a party mention a “secret Japanese steak house” on Pico Boulevard that’s open by invitation only.
- E-mail friend of friend for details. FOF promises to e-mail her brother-in-law, who has the “prized business card” for making reservations. Never hear back.
- Contact several Yelp reviewers who’ve bragged about being Totoraku regulars and ask their advice on getting in. No responses.
- Contact the blogger known as Kevin Eats, who was one of the first to write about Totoraku. “I know people who’ve cold-called their way in,” he replies, “but you’ll need to make a good impression.” Translation: Promise Chef Oyama-san old (think pre-1990) bordeaux, burgundy, and champagne.
- Stymied when I see that pre-1990 vintages like these can run upwards of $800 a bottle.
- Cold-call Totoraku number found on Google (310-838-9881) and leave message promising to share a good bottle of wine. No response.
- Leave second message. No response.
- Have my wife leave message. No response.
- Have a friend leave message. No response.
- Leave another message. Two weeks later receive call from Chef Oyama-san. “Do I know you?” he asks when I say hello. I say no. “Oh, then I cannot let you come. But maybe you can find someone who knows me.”
- Post notes on Twitter and Facebook asking, “Can ANYONE in this town get me into Totoraku?”
- Two days later a Facebook friend writes to say she’s eaten there. But only with her ex-boyfriend, who has the card. She shares his e-mail address. I write asking if I can join him there one night. No response.
- Two days later same Facebook friend writes to say she remembered that she has a card with the reservation number! She agrees to make a reservation for herself, my wife, and me. Chef Oyama-san does not respond to her for five days.
- Success! Reservation for three is booked. I rush to Wine Expo in Santa Monica and tell the clerk I need wine for a famous wine snob. He asks which snob. I tell him it’s for the secret beef place. He says, “Oh, I know that guy. Here’s what you get him.” He takes me to a 2004 Montefalco Calle alle Macchie.
- Double success! Dinner is life changing (as much as raw and grilled meat can change your life). At meal’s end Chef Oyama-san presents me with his famous business card. Handwritten in the upper right corner is the private number for booking a table.
David Hochman has written for The New York Times, Esquire, and Forbes. This is his first piece for Los Angeles.
This feature was originally published in the March 2013 issue of Los Angeles magazine.