Before dining at Hinoki & the Bird, a swanky new restaurant that recently opened in Los Angeles, I’d have thought a culinary journey along the Silk Road was outdated by about, oh…400 years.
After all, by the mid-1600s, most explorers in Asia started calling it a day and sailing back home to Europe.
But after a spin around the menu at this paean to Far East ingredients, I’m happy to report that the spice-laden dream of the 17th century is still alive.
David Myers is arguably one of L.A.’s most influential chefs: a simple hamburger at his West Hollywood bistro, Comme Ça, commands an $18 price tag and a loyal following (which includes me). And at his Michelin-starred Sona, the light-but-chewy green tea bread and dishes styled like woodland scenes fairly knocked off my socks. I had meant to go back someday to recreate the magic, but before I could, Sona closed its doors.
Now it’s Myers who’s trying to recreate the magic, this time with Hinoki & the Bird. He’s succeeded on a few levels, one of them being the romance factor.
Not that this is immediately obvious: it takes a minute to get on Hinoki’s wavelength. Set back from a main drag in Century City, a district of glassy high-rises, the restaurant is located in the far side of an office tower. It’s dark when you walk in, the kind of dimness that fairly begs for a penlight, but pause and let your eyes adjust. Keep in mind that you’re out for a nice evening, and for once, you’re in no rush.
A hinoki is a Japanese cypress tree, and there’s a definite nature vibe here, with an indoor-outdoor space full of wood, fire and greenery. Reserve a seat on the patio if you can, as it features a streamlined partition aglow with candles and trippy globe lights trailing real vines. Try to snag a table with dark wooden chairs — they’ll feel great on your back.
My pal Eric was my dinner companion, and we started our evening with some truly delightful cocktails. From the “Negroni & the like” portion of the menu, he chose the whiskey-focused Harajuku — largely because neither of us had ever heard of Maurin Quina or chocolate bitters. It was smoky and smooth, and made us both smile. But it was my white-rum Tangerine Caipirissima which won the day with a light, bright kiss of brown-sugar sweetness. Pairing these tipples with the addictive spice scented nuts was a clever play.
We moved right on to the lobster roll, which was our favorite thing on the menu. Perfectly poached Maine lobster (there is no 100-Mile Diet here), a hint of curry and just the right hit of salt, all on a dense, chewy slab of almost-black pumpernickel that was clearly baked with love. Getting a bite with a Thai basil leaf might not change your whole life, but it’ll definitely improve that moment.
I also chose the chili crab toast (chili crab being the national dish of Singapore, a country I’d like to eat my way across someday) which should not be attempted without a knife and fork. The spicy cucumber gets a little lost sometimes, but when you do find it, it’s beautiful.
Worrying we’d go overboard with three proteins, we were relieved to find these small-plate portions sized just right for two. Our favorite was the drunken duck breast, which (the lucky thing) is marinated in sake; usually served with persimmons, ours was served with more season-appropriate poached pears. We also enjoyed the apple marinated shortrib, served on a skillet-plate-pan and topped with impossibly wide ribbons of raw apple goodness which taste delicious but make the dish a special challenge to cut and eat.
Rounding out our trio was the scented black cod, paired with mashed sweet potato and a sprinkling of pistachio — three of my most beloved foods. This dish came to the table topped with a flaming triangle of cedar (flaming as in “on fire”), but that was about the last time it wowed us. The sweet potatoes were gorgeous, and the whole dish smelled like a forest, but I’m not convinced that this was an ideal association with fish.
Dessert was a big decision, as the menu is small but staggering in its complexity. We eventually settled on: miso mochi with butterscotch and togarashi, which was salty, sweet, surprising and worth your while; the chocolate-praline with malt sponge cake, milk chocolate jelly and cocoa nibs (I don’t make this stuff up, people), which cheered me with its Sona-like fantasy arrangement…but actually just tastes like dry cake with ice cream; and the tiny little matcha ice cream, which cleansed our palates with a powder-dusting of roasted green tea.
Should I return for a real live date, I might sample the raw-bar scallops with grapefruit and lime; take a stab at the pumpkin toast with miso jam and goat cheese; or give the coconut-curried mussels, sausage and cauliflower a whirl. I’d certainly try an apple-yuzu cocktail called the Nakitomi Plaza, a glittery Century City building that’s just about a block away.
The crowd here is a surprising mix of 20-70 somethings (surprising mostly because this place isn’t cheap), attracting couples, friends and work colleagues, and the mood is relaxed, glowy and sometimes quiet enough for meaningful conversation. It provides a sense that you’re getting away from daily life, and with ingredients that span the Asian continent, dip into India and graze North Africa, you might also feel like you’re getting out of the country.
Hinoki & the Bird
10 Century Drive, Los Angeles, CA 90067
Tuesday–Saturday, 5:30-10 pm
My dinner was provided courtesy of Hinoki & the Bird,
but all opinions and observations are my own