Chilean sea bass
Nanbankan, located on Santa Monica Boulevard a bit west of Sawtelle, is very easy to miss. The best way to find it is to look for the heavy dark wood door that marks the entrance.
On my first visit, at 6:00 on Wednesday about a year ago, almost every table seemed to be reserved, and the restaurant quickly filled up. That seemed promising. Since we didn't have a reservation, our only seating option was the bar, but I didn't mind since no one else was seated there yet, and no chef would be standing directly on the other side of the bar, watching to see what I thought of each bite.
On my second visit, I was surprised to be able to walk in on a Monday at 8:00, when nearby restaurants like Sasaya and Terried Sake House were closed, and immediately get a table for four. The restaurant did not appear crowded at all.
I didn't enjoy Nanbankan on my first visit. I couldn't figure out how to eat the hunk of lettuce in my salad, the wine was pricey and underwhelming, the sauteed mushrooms were too buttery, and the baby octopus was too chewy. Rows of pre-made maki in the fridge made me doubt the restaurant's commitment to serving good food, and the music was loud, bad, and distracting.
I wanted to give the restaurant another chance, though. It seems to have a loyal following, including some Chowhounds, and plenty of its patrons are Japanese. I thought perhaps I hadn't ordered well, especially since I skipped the yakitori.
Salad is complimentary, and free food always tastes better. The lettuce wedge looks difficult to eat, but is actually rather ingenious--just peel away one layer of lettuce at a time and dip it into the peanuty dipping sauce. Yum. The salad also includes daikon, green pepper, carrot, and celery. The veggies are really just an instrument for eating the sauce, but their crisp texture and mild flavor is perfect for the intensely flavored sauce. Unfortunately, the salad far outshone everything else I tasted.
Fresh Japanese tofu
The dishes are small and range in price from $3 to $13. In spite of their small size, they're meant to be shared. If you really like a dish, it's not a problem to order more mid-meal, and the kitchen is speedy.
The dishes arrived as they were prepared. The first was fresh Japanese tofu. My only other experience with fresh tofu was at Sushi Tenn, where a little ball of the stuff cost a whopping $9. Fresh tofu has a creamier and slightly granier texture than ordinary tofu. It's also more flavorful, but that flavor tastes a lot like Playdough to me. The only reason I finished this dish was because I was hungry. The scallions, shaved bonito, and minced ginger used to garnish the tofu didn't add any meaningful flavor, and they detracted from the texture of the dish.
I ordered a cold sake, the cheapest one on the menu--the price jumps from $6 straight to $11. When the waitress brought a massive bottle to the table, I was alarmed. Not only must I have ordered a terrible sake for it to be so cheap, but now I was going to be stuck with a whole bottle of it! Or so I thought. Instead, the waitress set a small glass (maybe 5 ounces) on top of a small square plate and filled my glass deliberately until the sake overflowed onto the plate. I lowered my head and slurped away, but I'm not sure that was the proper etiquette. I'd never seen sake served this way before. I found no fault in the $6 glass, but sake is not my area of expertise.
It's hard to go wrong when you're sauteeing things in butter, and the mixed seafood dish is no exception and a good, safe bet. Since its most exotic ingredient is clams, this is a good dish to order if you're not feeling terribly adventurous. My friend thought the flavors blended together and that nothing particularly stood out, though by virtue of not being overcooked, this was one of the better dishes we tried.
I considered warning my friend against this dish since I strongly disliked it on my first visit, but in the spirit of giving the restaurant a second chance, I let him order it. The dish was exactly the same as I remembered it: tough, chewy octopus still almost too large to swallow after what feels like minutes of chomping, bathed in a soy sauce broth that adds very little to the flavorless creatures.
Dark meat chicken with scallions (front) and chicken giblets (back)
Many of the yakitori selections are chicken parts that most people won't be accustomed to eating, like hearts, tails, and feet. My friend ordered giblets, and since I didn't know what they were and have been feeling more adventurous about my meat eating lately, I tried one. It was crunchy, like a carrot crossed with a cucumber. In mid-chew, my friend informed me that I was eating kidneys! I know it's a cultural difference, and I respect the concept of not wasting any part of an animal that has been killed for food, but why do I need to eat kidneys? Apparently, well-cooked giblets are crunchy, yet soft and juicy. Nanbankan's were dry and overcooked. Does the guy behind the grill ever taste any of the stuff he cooks?
Most things at Nanbankan seem to be cooked for too long and at too high a temperature, leaving them dried out and tasting like an unidentifiable burnt substance. If you want to try the yakitori, I'd go with the vegetable selections. The grilled asparagus was one of the better things I ate. Most of the vegetable skewers are wrapped in a layer of superthin pork fat (which tastes surprisingly good and isn't disgusting like it might sound), so I wouldn't take your vegetarian friends here.
I thought the nanban-yaki, or top sirloin, also wasn't overcooked--proof that it can be done. The meat was smooth, tender and still pink on the inside, and the sauce added a bit of sweetness. I'm no steak connoisseur though, and my steak-savvy friend thought that the steak, too, was overcooked.
The yakitori may look difficult to share, but if you just pull the pieces of meat off of their skewers with your chopsticks, everyone can have a taste.
I got much more--and much less--than I bargained for with the sweet trout. I got a whole small fish that was very difficult to eat, and the tiny bits of fish I managed to pick free from the bones were too dry and flavorless to be worth the effort of teasing them out. There was so little meat that I wondered if I was supposed to eat the skin. While the skin was edible, it definitely didn't add anything to the dish--it was just burnt and hard to chew. There were tons of tiny bones inside, and picking bones out of my food makes eating more work than fun. I'm pretty sure the ecto-green dipping sauce was a mixture of grated yuzu and vinegar, and though it added moisture to the dry fish, it wasn't tasty enough to redeem it--and fish should be moist on its own. The tail and an upper fin of the fish were encrusted with salt--was I supposed to eat them? I guess I'm too American to try that. I wished I'd stuck with my original plan to order the Chilean sea bass.
The main room of the interior features the same dark wood as the front door. It looked a little dated, but I liked it--it had cozy, cave-like feel to it. There is also a small brighter room on your left when you walk in. The music was still just loud enough to cheapen the experience a bit, but at least the restaurant and the music were quiet enough that we could talk easily.
The best word to sum up my experience at Nanbankan is mediocre. Of about ten dishes, only three were worth eating, and none impressed me. One of the best dishes of the night was the Chilean sea bass, which was flavorful with a thin seared crust on the outside. I also liked the fish tempura we ordered in an attempt to fill up--four large pieces of generously breaded, surprisingly ungreasy deep-fried goodness. Also, Nanbankan is one of the only places I've seen that serves a whole plate of mushroom tempura.
FuRaiBo seems to be comparable to Nanbankan, but better and slightly less expensive (though definitely more crowded). Another peer is Yakitoria, which is also better, but not high on my list.
With my wallet $23 lighter and my stomach still largely empty, only the good company with whom I shared my meal made the evening worthwhile.
If you've been to Nanbankan, how was your experience? Leave a comment!
11330 Santa Monica Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90025