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Apr 13, 2012 02:09 AM

Izakaya a step above - The fantastic cuisine of Morinoya [REVIEW + PHOTOS]

As an avid participant in the L.A. dining scene, the closure of a favorite "go-to" restaurant borders on tragic for me. For years, I enjoyed (with alarming regularity) the Osaka-influenced izakaya cuisine of Chef Morishita Noriko (known to his regulars simply as Mori-san) at his restaurant Place Yuu on Sawtelle. Incidentally, it must be mentioned that the high quality sushi served at Place Yuu was as good as any that can be found on Sawtelle Boulevard (if not better), which meant I could get my cooked Japanese food and sushi fix, all at the same joint. To say that I was utterly devastated when Place Yuu closed in 2011 would be sorely understating my grief.

Izakaya is Japanese bar food - Small dishes meant to be enjoyed casually over a glass of beer or wine, much like Spanish tapas. For me, Mori-san elevated izakaya to an artform at Place Yuu. It was where you’d find Japanese expats at 11PM on any given night, drinking, nibbling, and chatting away until closing. Though Mori-san never garnered the media accolades I thought he should have, for selfish reasons, it meant that I could usually get a seat at his restaurant.

Morinoya represents the latest venture for Chef Morishita Noriko. I was happy to see that he had taken over the space previously occupied by noodle house Yashima in the Olympic Collection, just down the street from Place Yuu. Here, in this more intimate dining room, Mori-san is free to focus even more on creating exceptional izakaya and sushi-based dishes. Much to my relief and delight, the essence of the excellent food I enjoyed at Place Yuu is very much alive at Morinoya. Draft Japanese beer, and a good selection of wines and spirits (sake & shochu) give Morinoya a special upscale feel. The ordering is casual and a la carte, and the pacing is leisurely.

Without further adieu, onto the food! We tried a fair cross-section of the menu (forgive my crappy photography):

Pan-fried shishito peppers with konjac & bonito shavings… An izakaya classic, and Morinoya’s version is excellent.

Oden “The Works” with daikon radish, konjac, fish cake, egg, suji niku (beef tendon) & atsu age tofu… Wow. The best oden I’ve had so far in L.A. Nothing fancy; just solid execution of a very traditional Japanese favorite...

Renkon manjyu (yam and lotus root paste, sea salt, scallop & edamame, served with soy-based house sauce)… This was a new dish for me. Those of you who like sweet & savory, with many different textures all in one bite will really enjoy this dish. The addition of the edamame beans really balances the whole thing.

Seared albacore sashimi with onions & garlic ponzu sauce… Mindful of seasonality, and with albacore at its height this time of year, Mori-san prepared us this incredible appetizer.

Mini soymilk hot pot… A clay tabletop furnace lined with hot binchotan coals is brought out. Then, a hot pot with soymilk base and 5 different assorted mushrooms (shiitake, eryngii, enoki, shimeji & maitake) emerges. The resulting soup is phenomenal. The earthiness of the mushrooms is tempered by the lightness of the soymilk. A must-get.

Yakitori: Torimomo (chicken thigh) & teba (chicken wing), served with a green yuzu+wasabi shio (salt)… True beer food. Very glad there was a cold draft beer at our table when this dish came around!

Cold inaniwa udon noodles, with shredded nori, scallions, minced ginger, and dipping sauce… Another izakaya classic.

Buta ara-ni (slowly boiled tender pork)… Richer than your average buta kakuni, it is even more tender than advertised: The meat crumbles before the chopstick, and the stewed au jus is simply porky goodness.

Mini hitsumabushi (freshwater eel filets grilled on charcoal with ponzu over rice)… Even better than a typical unagi don (eel bowl), this comes with shredded scallions, freshly grated wasabi, and a teapot containing a light dashi broth on the side. First you eat some rice & eel, then you add the scallions & wasabi for a different “second dimension”. Finally, you pour the teapot filled with dashi broth into the remaining rice & eel in the bowl, chazuke-style, for a third way to enjoy this dish. The eel is perfectly cooked, by the way.

Cherry stone clam miso soup… The clam was huge! Very satisfying.

Ama ebi (sweet shrimp)… Three pristine, jewel-like Santa Barbara spot prawn are presented with the tail sashimi style and the shrimp heads fried to perfection.

Albacore sushi… The first round of seared albacore appetizer was so gloriously fresh, we had to get some albacore nigiri!

Ikura (salmon roe) sushi… Marinated, with proper texture, the quality of these salmon eggs is undisputed.

Mini chirashi don (sashimi over rice)… Akami (lean tuna), hamachi (yellowtail), sake (salmon), tamago (egg), ikura (salmon roe), over a fluffy bed of rice. Super good. Again, the sushi selection here, while not particularly extensive, is all of high quality.

Think of Morinoya as a very upscale izakaya, with great quality sushi and reasonable prices. The atmosphere may be cozy and casual, but the food is definitely meticulously conceived and prepared – Izakaya fare worth lingering over. Just please save me a seat, Mori-san.

11301 W. Olympic Blvd. Suite 210
Los Angeles, CA 90064

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  1. J.L. -- Hey, if you call this your "crappy" photography, I would really like to see your good photography. Your photos are very good, and your descriptions of the food are truly first-rate. Curious that you say Morishita-san's first name is Noriko -- which is usually a female name. Wouldn't be "Norio" by any chance? Anyway, the site has no information about him, so I can only guess.
    The Renkon Manju sounds fantastic and inspired. And so do most of the other dishes. You are certainly lucky to have Morinoya nearby. I am impressed.

    1 Reply
    1. re: Tripeler

      You are absloutely right, Tripeler. I made a mistake in Chef Mori-san's name. His name is actually Morishita Takayuki, not Noriko (that's his wife's name). This is what happens when you write a review in the middle of the night.... My apologies to the chef and to the 'Hounds...

      1. Amazing review... never bothered to check out Place Yuu but I feel compelled to visit. Just curious but how much did your bill run you?

        5 Replies
        1. re: Johnny L

          This a la carte meal ran me about $85pp before alcohol & tip, if memory serves. Stuffed to the gills - I didn't even have space for dessert.

          1. re: J.L.

            sorry, these 15 dishes cost $85 or $170? (not sure how many people ate 15 dishes)
            that's way too expensive for izakaya food if $170 for 15 dishes. Should be in the $6-$10 range max. I'd rather go to Wakasan and get a 10 course big meal for $45 (or whatever the price is nowadays)

            1. re: dharmathug

              My bad. $85 total for my entire party, not per person. No it's not Urasawa-level pricing.

              1. re: J.L.

                ok well that is quite reasonable then. I'll check it out.

                1. re: J.L.

                  Wow very reasonable indeed then.

          2. Thanks for the early review.

            It's too bad about Yashima, a place I'd named to my "been there 100 times list" back in 2010 but which had recently shown serious signs of neglect (we had to leave without eating the last time we went, because they started using some horrendously acrid cleaning solution on the tables that made it impossible to taste the soba). Finding another convenient udon/soba specialist may be tough.

            We'll go try Morinoya expeditiously, although I would also be concerned if they're really planning to operate at a high price point. But maybe that was just a function of ordering so much. Here's a link to their menu, with prices.


            21 Replies
            1. re: PayOrPlay

              I'm curious to hear more reports too. The two times I went to Place Yuu (also in 2010) I found
              it totally mediocre.

              1. re: epop

                I believe that one of the reasons Mori-san shut Place Yuu down was because he felt he had to serve entry-level food to satisfy the foot traffic in that mini-mall, just to pay the exorbitant corner unit rent. This was something he philosophically didn't really want to do. The smaller venue at Morinoya allows him to showcase his true passion: upper end izakaya in a more intimate setting.

                1. re: J.L.

                  How many seats are in the place? Their homepage shows a bar, like a sushi place (I know they serve sushi, as you mentioned), but is there any benefit to sitting at the sushi bar in a izakaya restaurant?

                  I've been to Sasaya and Furaibo and I didn't love either, even though I expected to. Maybe it's because I don't drink (much), and the food needs to be enjoyed with alcohol? If I liked the cooked dishes at Shunji, do you think I'd like Morinoya?

                  These kinds of places aren't really my wife's cup of tea (she's more straight-up sushi), so I was going to take the next opportunity that she felt in the mood for something like this to try Nanbankan. It may not be an apples-to-oranges comparison, but if I could just pick one place to try next, between those two places, which would you go?

                  Also, your "crappy photography" comment (I swear, if I make up a L.A. Chowhound drinking game for myself, it's one shot each time J.L. references his "crappy photography"... heh) would indicate that these are photographs you actually took. If that's the case, did they get permission to use your photos, because they look identical to the ones in their gallery:

                  1. re: PeterCC

                    Hi PeterCC, thanks for your kind words. I actually take all my own photos.

                    Yes, the restaurant got wind of this Chowhound review and asked me if they could use my Chowhound photos for their site, and I said yes (free of charge, no strings attached). I'm pleased to have moved out of my "crappy" phase in my photography, it seems.

                    To answer your food questions: As I recall, Morinoya has about 20+ seats (at tables) and about 6-8 additional seats at the bar. There is no particular advantage in sitting at the bar (unless you're a solo diner/drinker), as the chef himself usually cooks in the kitchen at the rear of the restaurant.

                    The food there easily stands on its own, with or without booze. Although I have to say those chicken wings certainly go well with cold draft beer!

                    Mori-san's sushi is nothing to scoff at. His selection of fish is more limited than your local sushi-ya, but what he does serve is focused and top-notch. Also, his Osaka-style battera is the best in town. Your wife will probably not be disappointed with the sushi at Morinoya.

                    I'm also a big fan of Nanbankan (I just went a few nights ago myself), and like you say, it's apples & oranges. Both excel at what they do. We're lucky to have all these great Japanese styles so close at hand: Tsujita LA for tsukemen, Nanbankan for yakitori, Morinoya for izakaya, and Wakasan for washoku.

                    1. re: J.L.

                      Wow, I just read some reviews of Wakasan and it looks amazing, and affordable too. That might be the next place we have to try. Do you know what their omakase tiers are currently? The reviews I've read all mention it starting at $35 but are all from several years ago.

                      EDIT: I found their Facebook page: Looks like they start at $45 now, which is still a great deal, and they started offering $10 off their omakase on Mondays just this week! Cool.

                      1. re: PeterCC

                        Let me know if you go to Wakasan. I've actually never been and am curious too. But I did try Mincha a la Japanaise, which was located in the Wakasan spot back in the day.

                        1. re: kevin

                          I will, I didn't even know it was there even though I've eaten at Sushi Masu nearby.

                        2. re: PeterCC

                          Yeah, Wakasan is a jewel. Let them feed you.

                          1. re: J.L.

                            Don't mean to take your thread on a tangent of other restauarants, but have you been to The Backhouse near Gyu-Kaku by the Westside Pavilion? Can't find anything on it on CH. Just realized my wife tried it a months ago with some friends and the first thing she said to me when she got home is "I just went to a place that you would love." Heh.

                            1. re: PeterCC

                              I noticed that new joint on my way to Starbucks. But I have no clue as to whether it is any good.

                              1. re: PeterCC

                                Backhouse: I thought it was meh.
                                Gyu-Kaku: Meh also. Seems popular with the college budget crowd.

                                In that particular neighborhood, Totoraku, Marty's, Steingarten LA, John O'Groats, Westside Tavern, Torafuku, & Island's are my "go-to" eateries.

                                1. re: J.L.

                                  Oh, I know Gyu-Kaku is not the greatest, I was just using it as a landmark. I hear Tokyo Kalbi semi-nearby is pretty good.

                                  That's quite a range from Totoraku to Islands. :-) Of course I've been to the latter. Don't know how to score an invite to the former. And my budget is somewhat closer to the college crowd, so might rather go to Morinoya AND Wakasan AND maybe someplace else for the price at Totoraku. :-)

                                  1. re: PeterCC

                                    I think he mentioned Torafuku which is directly adjacent to the westside pavillion. But I have been to Tokyo Kalbi on Gateway (if we are also talking about the same place and it was quite good, I enjoyed it much more than my one visit to Manpuku).

                                    1. re: kevin

                                      Well, he mentions both Totoraku (first on his list), and Torafuku (right before Islands), so that is quite a range.

                                      (I might be misunderstanding you. I thought you were thinking I had confused Totoraku and Torafuku, but you might have just been referencing Torafuku in relation to restaurants right near Westside Pavilion like the aforementioned Gyu-Kaku and The Backhouse.)

                                      1. re: PeterCC

                                        sorry my bad. i can't believe i missed that.

                                        my apologies.

                                        Anyhow, the expensive, somewhaat secret Totoraku is pretty darn good when I went a few years back. I'm pretty sure by now it's about 175 per with a couple of beers including tax and tip. Once you gain entrance, the chef is so nice and details his methodology. At the very least, it's worth a once in a lifetime visit. And on a side not, they procure some of the best white chocolate rasberry gelato I have ever had in a restaurant. I had to go back for a second if not third scoop.

                                        1. re: kevin

                                          Oh, I'd love to try it, don't get me wrong, but I figure I'd work up to it and try the other awesome-sounding-but-more-affordable places mentioned in this thread and elsewhere. Eventually I'd love to try Urasawa too, but probably after I tried Mori or Zo first.

                                          1. re: PeterCC

                                            Sounds good.

                                            Sadly, I no longer have his business card with the direct number on it. But that number is displayed all over the Internet so it's no biggey. I think if I wanted to go there again, I'd still have some problems with garnering a reservation due to the fact that he probably does not remember me and my friend who visited with me and introduced and referred me to the joint no longer lives in LA.

                                            Anyhow, it's definitely great stuff but I do always prefer an omakase meal of seafood rather than an omakase meal of beef and other meat dishes.

                                            But that's just me.

                                  2. re: J.L.


                                    I haven't been to O' Groats in ages? Worth a trek type visit for breakfast?

                                    1. re: kevin

                                      Yes, I actually like Island's every now and then.

                                      And yes, you should have brekkies at John O'Groats at least once.

                                      1. re: J.L.

                                        I get them to make a Hula (their mushroom and swiss burger) but with the patty prepared like the Kilauea (jalapeño and black pepper crusted burger). That and a cola lime ice is a good meal at Islands.

                        3. re: J.L.

                          that wouldn't surprise me. the first time i went to place yuu a number of years ago, as i was sitting i down i saw him serving battera to a fellow patron and mori actually smiled when i immediately asked for battera as well. the kohada was also first rate.

                    2. I love morinoya, I went twice this week, the only place I've found deliciously prepared chicken cartilage, amazing cured squid steak that reminded me of Nara, and a hot/cold omakase combination was a lot of fun with some incredible dishes! I can't stop, this article makes me want to go again today!

                      8 Replies
                      1. re: eatinginbed

                        Twice, wow,

                        I thought it was good though not exceptional.

                        1. re: kevin

                          I really like their oden. Other stuff was good too. I agree on the good-but-not-exceptional, which almost sounds like I'm putting it down, but I'm not.

                          1. re: PeterCC

                            When you have kiriko essentially right next door and it's before 10pm,

                            Then for me it's a no-brainer.

                            I know I might be preaching to the choir on this one.

                            Though I have to say if it's nearing midnight on a weekday, Morinoya is the place to go, and I do really like it, but it's no contest compared to kiriko.

                            And I enjoy Torihei for the oden and skewers and other dishes better than Noya, but Noya does make a mean pressed makcerel sushi which now I'm forgetting the name of.

                            1. re: kevin

                              If it's after Kiriko has closed but not quite as late, you should check out Tsujita's dinner menu. Gyutan was excellent. Their new spring menu looks really interesting too.

                              1. re: PeterCC


                                But usu if it's after 10pm, I'll end up at plan checks.

                                1. re: PeterCC

                                  What would happen if Kiriko was open past midnight ?

                                  Now that surely would be something.

                              2. re: PeterCC

                                My bad it's called:


                                It slipped my old, feeble, decrepit antiquarian mind for a spell.