Gonpachi: Nice food until they messed it up
Disclaimer: I am normally not this snobby, I love shoving an Al pastor burrito in my face fresh off a food truck or eating dumplings in a groady Chinese alley. However, when I go to a place that presents itself as fine dining my expectations and standards shoot up. Especially when they charge you fine dining prices.
So last night I went to Gonpachi, and came home not impressed. My overall impression is that the food is good but not the great food you would expect for the price, and definitely not up to the standard they market themselves as having.
The appearance of the restaurant is beautiful. They attempted to recreate Japanese architecture in the middle of La Cienega. You are even greeted by the head chef preparing fresh Soba right infront of you as you walk in the front door. They then kill the atmosphere with terrible modern music. This is pretty much the theme for this restaurant, take high quality traditions and mask them with crap modern compromises to appeal to a broad audience.
They have two tasting menu's a $38 and a $58. I opted for the latter. It began with three small cold appetizers which was served in a great little cabinet. There was a generic seaweed salad, two pieces of duck, and a few slices of seared tuna. The duck was nice, not fatty at all, though a little dry. The tuna was great, except they covered it in their house spicy orange sauce which completely overwhelmed the taste of the fish. It was depressing.
After that came nicely steamed vegetables covered in an inedible bastardization of tonkatsu sauce, and a fried croquette covered in an orange peel sauce. The croquette was actually very nice and was fried perfectly, to where it was not greasy and the insides were not overcooked. Fried food should not be the best dish at a fine dining restaurant.
The next plate was contained three sumiyaki sticks. One was chicken breast, one was tsukune, and the last was grilled peppers. The tsukune was pretty good, but then again this is a pretty simple meat wad on a stick. The chicken breast chunks were dry.
The next plate was a plate of three Nigiri pieces. There was a piece of Maguro, Hamachi, and Salmon. This was damn disapointing. There was no fugly sauces or anything, but the fish quality was just medium at best. This is the kind of quality you would see at a hyaku yen kaiten sushi in Japan. I might have been spoiled by places like Hide, where the fish is really fresh.
After this was taken away, we were delivered a choice between crab or Kobe beef. Since they had on the menu that the beef was Kobe, I am assuming they imported the beef and it is not just Wisconsin Wagyu or something. This is where I really got disappointed. The most tender meat in the world came out overcooked and chewy. It is just wrong to cook Kobe beef anything passed rare. It was not bad and the sauce they served it with was quite nice but it was just disappointing to be chomping down on Kobe beef like it was big league chew.
The second to last course was cold Soba. This was course was a relief. The Soba was actually really great. The noodles were firm and delicious, and a great breath of fresh traditional air.
The last course was a mochi laden custard which was chalky in texture but pleasant in flavor.
During this meal I also tasted the Kobe beef carpacio which was drowned in dressing. I had a Gyu-tan which was very overcooked. A spicy tuna tartare salad, which they named taru taru as an attempt to japanize up the menu. This was also drowned in an overly spicy sauce killing the flavor of the nice tuna.
The service was not even up to standard. Twice we were delivered items we did not order and once we had an order screwed up. The staff was friendly and knowledgeable, but they had to sit through people bastardizing the Japanese romanji menu. They should either stick to English titles or put the Kanji/Hiragana down. If a person can't read the Kanji/Hiragana, they probably don't know how to pronounce the romanji anyways and it just is a mess for both the waitstaff and the customers.
Overall the meal was good but disappointing. It should have been great, and it could have been great if they focused a little more on simplifying the food and taking a little more effort to regulate how they cooked the meats.
I do agree their music selection is really off. I'd rather they play traditional Japanese music or even J-pop to match up with the atmosphere. As for the price of food, I don't find it overly expensive. If you take into consideration of the $8 million (I think that's what they say) they invest in moving the 300-yr-old building from Japan and re-assemble it piece by piece, I think it's a steal. It really beats flying to Japan. I dined there several times, and rather liked the food. I mean it's not in the same league as Urasawa, Asanebo or Matsuhisa, but you are also not paying their price.
I'll say it again and again... Here are instructions for a great meal at Gonpachi:
Arrive & admire their decor.
Order their soba. Enjoy said soba.
Imbibe from their vast sake selection.
STOP ordering anything else.
Pay the tab (make sure they don't make any mistakes, as they did with mine on all 3 occasions).
If you should stray from above instructions and be tempted to order anything else, your enjoyment level may deteriorate quickly.
You guys are so right on with Gonpachi. It looks good but it's not a good place to eat Japanese or food period. Their soba has even gone down hill since early days. It seems like their food & service is getting worse everyday. It's too expensive for quality of food & service you get and I think they won't be around too long as I have never seen it busy except for weekends (even then it's short lived)