Update: Sawtelle Kitchen has permanently closed.
According to Barry Schwartz, author of The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less, people remember an experience as negative or positive depending on two things: how good or bad the experience was at its peak, and how they felt at the end. This theory does a good job of explaining why I do not have fond memories of my experience at Sawtelle Kitchen, even though it's pretty good at what it does.
The restaurant has one of the nicest atmospheres of any restaurant on Sawtelle. The faux finished peachy beige walls look a bit quaint, but not antique store cheesy. Wooden tables with copper accents contribute further to the warm atmosphere, and the low lighting makes the place conducive to a casual but romantic date. On a serious date, you'd probably want to go to a place where the tables are further apart and the service and food are more consistent.
We arrived around 8:00 on a Saturday, and were surprised to get a table inside right away. Unfortunately, that table was right by the small entrance to the kitchen, second only to the bathroom as far as undesirable locations go. The hungry can't be choosy, though. The restaurant is so small that you can't help but think you're eating in what was once someone's living room, and the layout is a bit puzzling at first. If you want to sit on the patio, you have to go inside and then through another door--you can't just walk up and sit down. It's a bit awkward, but at least you know you'll get served. Patio seating is pretty tight, and if all that body heat isn't enough to keep you warm, there are heaters. Translucent plastic tent flaps lend a bit of privacy to patio diners. Indoors, there is also a nook in the back with what I imagine are better tables.
I love Japanese curry--the recipe seems to have taken my southern favorite, chicken fried steak, and improved it with better gravy and better batter. (I don't know the true origins of the Japanese dish.) The top sirloin curry was hit and miss--within the same dish. Some pieces of meat were tender, while others were tough and quite impossible to chew. I absolutely hate the inconsistency of bad meat. The curry sauce was rich and spicy, and the deep fried breading was flaky and cooked to a perfect brownness, so it was too bad they couldn't get the meat right. I don't know about you, but when I read the term "top sirloin," I expect a really good cut of meat. What I learned at Epicurious, though, is that top sirloin is not the most tender cut. A cut of short loin comes from the most tender part of the muscle. Round is the toughest cut. Sirloin falls in the middle. Within sirloin, there are more divisions, with tenderloin being the most tender, and sirloin falling somewhere in the middle.
Does that mean I shouldn't be complaining about the quality of the meat? Of course not. Who wants to eat chewy meat?
Chilean sea bass
I wasn't in the mood for fish, but for some reason I ordered the Chilean seabass anyway, even though I read that it is going extinct. The bad karma I generated by ordering an endangered species surfaced in the fish's topping, which may have been daikon and tasted like the way a Japanese supermarket smells. I didn't enjoy it at all, even though the fish underneath was flaky, smooth, buttery, and perfectly cooked. The other problem was that the menu description had me anticipating a cream sauce, which was not the case. I was so blinded by hunger while I was ordering that I couldn't tell you if this blunder was the menu's fault or my own.
The spicy potatoes that came on the side were indeed spicy--I would have liked more than three of them, and letting fried potatoes rest in the same very liquidy sauce as the fish was a bad idea. Fortunately, you can order the potatoes as a side dish. I can't really speak for the carrots, since I hate carrots, but my friend thought they were great. The green beans were perfectly cooked--they were bright green and still crunchy (the photo is somewhat deceiving).
So at the peak, the experience was just okay, but at the end, it was bad. We waited forever for our check to come. This seems to be a common practice in LA restaurants, and one that I don't really understand. Shouldn't the place want to get us out so they can turn more tables? I guess that wasn't the case here, since by 9:00 the dinner crowd was dwindling down. My friend and I got so antsy that we were tempted to walk into the kitchen or leave a cash approximation on the table and go. The thing is, Japanese waitresses are almost always so friendly and smiley that you can't be mad at them. That kind of self-presentation really takes talent (or lots of hard work and practice).
I also ordered a side salad and miso soup for an extra $2.50. The salad was excellent--I love miso-based dressings. The miso soup tasted like all other miso soup. My meal also came with a really underwhelming airy roll that was too brown on the outside and got stale rather quickly as it cooled off, leading me to think that it might have been stale to start with. I could have chosen rice, and next time, I will.
Wait, will there be a next time? It's hard to say. The atmosphere is really nice, and if I ordered different dishes and paid more attention to what I was in the mood for, I might end up with something better than what I had on this visit. And we were able to snag a seat inside at 8:00 on a Saturday night, no reservation needed, though the place seemed pretty busy and the patio was half full. Somewhat bad weather may have contributed to our luck.
There are so many other restaurants out there, though.
Short wine list
2024 Sawtelle Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90025