Saturday, October 29th. Dinner.
528 S Western Ave
Los Angeles, CA 90020
We kept driving past this place on our way to dance practice. It looked super nice from the outside, all modern decor and clean lines. Plus, the building had the words “Oyster Bar” in big letters. So when we were free one night (and realized we hadn’t had a date night since Brü), our minds jumped to Horse’s Mouth.
But first, we looked it up on Yelp.
4 stars. 2 dollar signs. Seafood. Breakfast and Brunch. Asian Fusion.
This gave us some pause. We read through the reviews and saw that they offered omakase on their menu. What the hey. We went to go check it out.
It was surprisingly empty for a Saturday, though our young and overly friendly waiter assured us that this wasn’t usually the case. We ordered omakase for each of us and the crisp-with-a-hint-of-cocoa-nib house sake for me (Sean was driving), and were almost immediately deluged with food.
Oysters dressed Japanese-style with ponzu and wasabi were followed by hamachi and salmon sashimi just as we set down the empty shells. The man bringing the food introduced himself as Chris, the sous chef. “The clams are coming up next,” he told us. Sean and I expressed our approval at the pacing of the meal to each other as we ate our thinly sliced fish. And then, we were left there, waiting.
More salmon sashimi arrived, drizzled with chili oil and red pepper threads. Then yellow curry with extremely tender mussels. Then soft-shell crab tempura. Each time our server told us that clams would be the next dish. Were they covering up some screw-up in the kitchen? We were confused, but had we been paying less attention, it wouldn’t have affected our experience much.
We understand that running a restaurant is not easy. As the chef, you don’t have control over everything, and managing screw-ups is part of the job. Horse’s Mouth had only been open 4 months when we went. For a team that’s no doubt still learning to work together, they performed admirably.
The manila clams arrived in their green curry. Then fried shimeji mushroom salad with parmesan, garlic aioli, and goat cheese foam. With each course, Chris would ask us how we liked the food, and we would mutter “it’s great!” around the full mouth of food, as you do. And it was pretty great, until the salad course arrived. The past 4 courses had all been extremely strong flavors – two curries, a spicy salmon, and fried crab. Even the seasoning on the oysters was on the heavy-handed side. I’d been excited about the salad, but it completely failed to cleanse the palate. The garlic aioli and parmesan overwhelmed the greens, and the mushrooms, which the salad had been named after, were almost unnoticeable.
These mushrooms have a very light flavor and have a great texture when used in soup. They are sometimes stir-fried in meat dishes where they absorb tons of soy sauce and meat flavor. The way they were used here seemed like a shame to me. Fried, they shriveled up and became tough, and their unadorned flavor couldn’t compete with the red wine vinegar and other sauces in the salad.
I mentioned a little of this to Chris the next time he stopped by our table, this time with hoisin-covered barbecue ribs, feeling a bit self-conscious. He accepted the feedback graciously.
At this point we were feeling pretty full. It had been eight courses. But we were just getting into the entree section of the menu, it seemed. Peking duck wraps brightened with green onion arrived at our table, followed a platter each of steak, lobster, green beans, and baffling squid ink covered fries. (Squid ink is, again, such a mild flavor. Fry it and the texture and color combination becomes reminiscent of charcoal.)
At this point I was stuffed (and that was before the dessert). We had tried ten of the twenty items on the menu, and two of the specials. The word “omakase” means “I leave it up to you.” Even more than the prix fixe menu, omakase expresses a trust that the chef will craft an experience for the customer. By ceding control to the chef, omakase is also a chance for the chef to express himself or herself and to make a bold statement. The “omakase” at Horse’s Mouth makes me wonder whether the chef ever subjected himself to this series of courses all in one sitting. All but one of the courses was a meat dish, and each dish was just a smaller portion of an item off the menu. This was not an omakase. It was a tasting menu, and a poorly planned one at that.
We asked Chris why they decided to open an Asian Fusion restaurant, and in the middle of Koreatown no less. Wasn’t it a risky endeavor? He told us that the chef owner, Charlie, loved cooking all kinds of cuisines, and that they were thinking of starting a ramen bar with French influences, richer than Japanese ramen was. I profess feeling skeptical of the very idea.
There is a reason Asian Fusion is so hard to get right. Asian food culture has a long history. The flavors have evolved over centuries. To make good Asian food, it’s not enough to love cooking all kinds of cuisines. You have to understand each cuisine for the complex ecosystem that it is. You have to understand the rules. Only then can you break them to make your Asian fusion statement – and it must be a statement. Hoisin-based BBQ sauce is not enough.
We think Horse’s Mouth has potential. It was clear that the chefs have a strong grip on their technical chops. The texture on the mussels, steak, lobster – it was all exceptional. We want to see creative and ambitious chefs succeed, especially chefs who are willing to take criticism from a couple of young diners. I look forward to seeing where Horse’s Mouth goes from here.