Author Jeff Bercovici Illustration Michael Byers
The most remarkable steak restaurant in California is a shabby-looking Japanese barbecue joint called Totoraku on the west side of Los Angeles. If you don’t know the place, there’s a good reason for that: You’re not supposed to. Totoraku is a secret restaurant. To get a table, you need to call a special reservation number, and the only way to get that number—in theory, anyway—is from the hand of the chef himself, Kaz Oyama.
Basically, a reservation at Totoraku is the culinary equivalent of an invite to a pool party thrown by the coolest kid in high school.
Luckily, I had an in. My friend Dave, a Hollywood dealmaker and rabid foodie and oenophile, offered to take me while I was visiting Los Angeles. He even threw in a quick pre-Totoraku primer, presumably so I didn’t do anything that would get his cool-kid privileges rescinded. Kaz, he explained, has a famous thirst for old Bordeaux. The custom is for everyone who dines at Totoraku to bring a bottle of wine and offer a glass to the chef. If Kaz approves of your selection, he’ll reward you with a card bearing a reservation number.
No one would ever mistake me for a wine expert, or a food expert for that matter. I can tell good from bad, but distinguishing between good and fantastic requires a little input from my friends. For me, the sensory and the social go hand in hand. I’m sure I’ve consumed something truly delicious only when I see my delight mirrored in the faces of my friends across the table. In this regard, a meal is like a, ahem, romantic encounter: You can do it alone, sure, but it’s far less interesting.
I’d heard from another Totoraku fan that gourmands anxious to get their hands on a card will improve their odds by going to Kaz’s neighborhood wine shop and asking the manager to recommend a bottle of Chateau de Sure Thing, which typically sells for $150 and up. I wasn’t about to do that, partly because it felt like cheating, but also because the idea of dropping that kind of money on a bottle of wine scandalized the frugal Midwesterner in me—all the more because I needed a second bottle for my wife. Surely, I thought, there must be a wine out there that would get the job done for less. I just needed someone knowledgeable to point me toward it.
Over the next week or so, I badgered anyone and everyone who might be able to help. I canvassed wine bar owners and audited food writers. I sipped and sniffed and swooshed until I could do so no more. In the end, I went with a reasonable Italian red and a bottle of cheap-for-its-quality grower Champagne, for a total expenditure of $163. Would this be the culinary equivalent of showing up at the pool party with a six-pack of Yoo-hoo? I was about to find out.
Bottles in hand, my wife and I arrived at the address we’d been given only to find a drab storefront with a sign reading “Teriyaki House Pico.” It looked closed. Just in time, Dave and his wife showed up and explained that the sign was subterfuge. The way in is out back, via an unmarked door. Having been shown to our seats in a small, aggressively unstylish dining room, we popped our bubbly. Where was Kaz? Should we offer him a glass? Dave pointed him out, bent over a stove in the partly exposed kitchen: a compact man in an immaculate white chef’s jacket, his black pompadour gathered into a toque. He was busy.
The meat started to arrive. It didn’t take long to figure out what all the fuss was about. Ribeye, shortrib, filet mignon—I’ve never experienced beef so meltingly tender and flavorful, so exquisitely marbled with gossamer threads of fat. I opened my Montepulciano. Was now the time to send a glass to the kitchen? Dave swirled, sipped and declared that it would benefit from breathing for a bit. Something about the way he said it made me think I’d be better off quietly emptying it into the ice bucket. That hunch solidified as Dave opened his bottle: a 2009 Chateau Fleur Cardinale Grand Cru Class from Saint-Emilion. It was no contest. The Montepulciano had its charms, but it faded into the wallpaper after a sip of the earthy Bordeaux. Dave poured a plentiful glass and asked a waiter to deliver it to Kaz. Within minutes, the chef emerged from the kitchen. “How did you know I’m an alcoholic?” he said with a grin. After delivering a few more one-liners that seemed well workshopped, he retreated to the kitchen.
This seemed promising, but as the end of the meal approached, I was still cardless. Had Kaz somehow divined my unworthiness, even without tasting my offering? Was he scoffing at me from the kitchen for not offering any of my mediocre wine? As I fretted, Dave told the waiter that we were hoping to thank the chef for the wonderful meal. A moment later Kaz came back out of the kitchen. This time, our small talk kindled into actual conversation. We learned about Kaz’s son, who works alongside him in the kitchen, found out why he prefers American beef to Japanese (it’s virtually impossible to get real Kobe beef in the U.S., he says) and inquired as to why he hasn’t opened a restaurant in Las Vegas despite his frequent trips there (running one is enough work). Whatever the topic, Kaz punctuated his remarks with a sudden, hilarious laugh, the kind that gets everyone else laughing along. We prepared to say our goodbyes; then, before I knew what was happening, Kaz was pressing a white business card into my hand and urging me to come back soon.
Of course, we all knew it was Dave who had done the legwork that night. It was he, not I, who possessed the charm and the social grace and the impeccable taste in Bordeaux. My only contribution was picking the right person to tag along with and cadging a share of the credit. Then again, maybe that was the point. As I said, for me, there’s no such thing as a great meal without great company. I guess that’s how Kaz sees it too. My taste in wines will always be hit or miss, but I have a pretty good nose when it comes to friends.
Jeff bercovici is Inc. magazine’s San Francisco bureau chief. He’s also written for GQ and The New York Times. He likes his wine in a rocks glass (harder to spill).