Jun Yao, who grew up in the San Gabriel Valley, remembers the exhilaration he felt eating Song Shu Yu, or “squirrel fish,” a masterpiece dish known by the technique as a playful illusion.
The recipe includes fortified perch or carp fillets and criss-cross shading patterns that rise during deep-frying. Next comes a crust of sweet and sour sauce; Yao remembers ketchup as a claw ingredient that made its way into his parents’ Taiwanese-American kitchen. Traditionally, the fish arrives at the table full front with its head and tail, although the bulbous appearance of the central stage slide is said to resemble a bushy squirrel. Often pine nuts scattered on top enhance the impression; Squirrels love pinecones, right?
Yao was brainstorming new dishes for Kato, his once small restaurant Sawtelle that had grown in every possible way since moving in February to the arts district, and wanted to evoke the flavors of Song shu yu. But that memory also intertwined with another childhood favorite: his mother’s fragrant fish sauce, an aromatic base of strong stir-fried meat or vegetables with garlic, ginger, and dobanjiang (Sichuan Chilean bean paste).
He inoculates and turns its essence into the seventh course of Kato’s current tasting menu, a culminating moment in a 10-course meal or so. One Hokkaido scallop is squat and very fresh sitting in a shallow bowl. They are wrapped in the thinnest dough and fried long enough to extract maximum sweetness. External crackle produces rich intensity; It may have disappeared in two batches, but it is enough for the brain to imprint the tissue, to remember the effect on the teeth at will. Chili’s heat sparks from the sauce beneath, and finely chopped scallions give the teeth something to grind. But mostly, the aroma of garlic and ginger combine to lengthen the scallops. If an ultimate flavor combination could be dedicated to the concept of harmony, I would recommend this dish for the honor.
Is the tangled aura of herbs, slices of Fresno Chili, and cilantro sprouts atop a scallop like an exceptionally handsome squirrel’s nest? Perhaps this is overthinking things.
But the pretentious mind comes with the excitement of dining in what could be called Kato 2.0, a stunning reimagining of what was already one of Los Angeles’ lively restaurants.
Layers of translation have always been present in Yao’s cooking. If you are looking to analyze the almost clinical anatomy of nostalgia, pride of identity and redefine luxury in his food, the intellectual fodder is right there. If you simply want to savor a beautiful and thoughtful series of dishes, it can leave you feeling nourished on many levels.
This became especially true around 2018, two years after Kato opened in an empty and cozy spot on the corner of a corner mall. At first, Yao would pull ideas from Japanese, Korean, and Vietnamese references, as well as from his mother’s kitchen. He was not yet twenty-five then, and when he settled himself as a chef, he felt more drawn to the framing of Taiwanese cuisine; Its food culture contains many traditions, including indigenous traditions and the absorption of fingerprints from immigration and colonial occupation (Spanish, Dutch, Chinese and Japanese) over the centuries.
He was never overly dogmatic about focus, but by choosing Taiwanese cuisine, he reached his greatness. To spice up his menus, he condensed the spirit of Taiwan’s beloved beef noodle soup into a sticky broth topped with chile. Plate three cups of chicken—soy sauce, sesame oil, and rice wine—in elegant basil-scented studies that include octopus, tuna, or abalone.
Have pineapple muffins filled with custard, steamed fish in clouds of ginger and green onions, and boba milk tea for dessert. The ambitions of Yao and his storied crew, personal narrative cooking and connected setting are recorded in the name of LA. Cato earned a lot of recognition. On The Times’ list of the 101 Best Restaurants of 2019, Patricia Escarciga and I ranked it #1.
However, despite all the well-deserved tribute, an aura of anticipation always clung to the restaurant. Liquor licensing on site was not permitted; The team can stretch and only dream so far in the spare places. Yao and partner Nikki Reginaldo have been searching for the right new environment for years. Reginaldo would take down the mono-covered tapioca pie and she would ask her how the search was going. She was saying, “Still looking,” an optimistic look in her eyes.
Convenience came last: the airy, wood-and-concrete space in Row DTLA vacated by short-lived M. Georgina by Melissa Perello. On the dining side, the isolated Row complex stagnated during the COVID-19 pandemic. Kato’s arrival is a sure return to life.
If you’ve visited a restaurant in Sawtelle before, the vastness of Kato 2.0 can fill your senses: plenty of servers who are very down-to-earth. Lots of cooks in the open kitchen. Yao is always present near the wood-burning stove, the head is usually bent over a plate or huddled with a colleague. Reginaldo is omnipresent in the dining room once; She notes that she makes a definite effort to describe the scallops over a fish-scented sauce on each table, noting that it might be her favorite dish.
With bigger digs, a longer tasting menu and overall greater visibility, comes the price hike: the cost is $225 per person, up from $150 before moving in. If you’re celebrating a special occasion – if you want to experience a victorious expression of fine dining unique to Los Angeles – this is something to splurge on.
With the expansion comes an extensive beverage program run by new Kato partner Ryan Bailey. If you have any interest in cocktails, start with one of Pub director Austin Henley’s liquid puzzles. It looks ridiculously complex but it lands very cleanly. Cognac, bourbon and rum with brown butter and bonato, two ingredients that symbolize the yao dessert served in the old place, turn into a delicious clear milk mixture. ‘Bamboo,’ a martini-like blend of sake and vermouth mixed with tomato and soy brandy, nicely prepares the palate for a future dinner.
In addition to a 57-page wine list covering all regions and levels, and wine pairings at two price tiers ($125 and $175), Hennelly composes the most exceptional non-alcoholic beverage trip I’ve tasted. Non-alcoholic cocktails – for example, a refreshing mixture of cucumber, bitter melon and white peony – are mixed with juices of Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir and other grapes from France, Germany and Austria. It stands alone as a wonderful pairing with food, revealing the contrasts and similarities alongside wine.
Yao’s Kitchen, amid promotions and debuts of drinks and the support of a group of chefs, is still in a poetic evolution. The menu changes dramatically with the seasons every three months, although there is no stagnation; A new dish or two can appear at any time.
For now, the opening bite is kampachi sashimi wrapped around a savory plant-package that includes preserved sesame leaves, muuja, tokyo negi (a thick and light green onion), raw radish, and cilantro. Two slices in black vinaigrette and soy-based preservation liquid. Marvel at the precision of its cylindrical construction as you pick it up with chopsticks. It takes more than two people in the morning to make up enough of them to serve each day.
Some dishes still evoke Yao’s childhood. Golden snapper, burnt to the point of smoky, comes surrounded by fermented cabbage and Chinese mustard greens; Over the counter, the server pours the enriched fish broth enriched with rice wine. This combination reminds Yao of Suan Kai Yu, the hot and sour fish soup with vegetables that he still loves to order in Sichuan restaurants. Aged duck breast coated in powdered cumin, coriander, fennel, and Sichuan peppers is a nod to the lamb skewed in Chinese barbecue restaurants in Roland Highlands favored by his parents.
The kitchen also sends out intoxicating pleasures: a hot brown butter donut stuffed with mono and topped with Ibérico ham; A third-course dish of Dungeness crab and spinach in a wild butter sauce that contains mussel liquor, fermented cream, and smoked onions. Of course, there is caviar on top. Comes with a golden loaf of fluffy, chewy milk bread. Yao had previously made the caviar dish using a geodoc, and the clams were drowned in creamy extravagance. Crab can take it.
Away from the drinks, one makes a few blessed decisions at Kato, but I have one piece of advice: skip the optional beef tendon course near the end. Unless you really want a meat fix at an extra cost of $45, that’s an unnecessary indulgence, and worst of all, it may reduce your appetite for dessert. Want to save even a slice from hunger for sweets: Eat strawberry-piled bingsu, chantilly cream and delicious rice cake, and an end of jujube sorbet hidden under slices of castella (Taiwanese sponge cake) and muscovado sugar.
Kato is usually reserved weeks in advance, with scattered hatches to pounce here and there; If you can’t score a reservation, you can try showing up at the unreserved seven-seat bar early in the evening. Hennelly will make for a charming drink, alcoholic or not, and a short bar menu might include a bright sashimi plate or crab fried rice served in the shell—a few bites that don’t add to the meal.
You’ll listen to Aaliyah, Hope Tala, and Frank Ocean’s Reginaldo playlist loud enough. You’ll watch the influx of diners flow steadily through the door, and you may notice Yao shaking his head in greeting from atop the kitchen counter. I took this route, a seductive glimpse of what Kato was all about, but soon became jealous of what I imagined everyone in the dining room was enjoying.
777 Alameda Street, Building 1, katorestaurant.com
the prices: The tasting menu is $225 per person. wine pairings start at $125; Alcohol-Free Journey $75.
details: Open from 5 to 8:15 p.m. (last reservation) from Tuesday to Saturday. Bar Hours: 5 to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday.