Like many starry-eyed L.A. transplants, Yoya Takahashi moved to the city with dreams of becoming an actor just like his grandfather. Luckily for Angeleno foodies, his Hollywood aspirations didn’t work out and he pursued a different art form: sushi making. Starting out behind a humble counter in Little Tokyo, the Kyoto-bred chef honed his craft and in 2008 jumped on an opportunity to helm the kitchen at Makoto Okuwa’s Sashi in Manhattan Beach. He eventually landed at Brentwood’s acclaimed Hamasaku, where his star began to rise thanks to his exuberant spirit and a celebrated omakase highlighted by amadai, a popular white fish in his hometown.
At Kodo, the sushi maestro is expanding his ambitions. Situated in a former firehouse part of the soon-to-open Kensho Rykn hotel, the sleek restaurant is a serene refuge in the energetic Arts District. Local firmM Royce Architecture washed the indoor-outdoor space in stone and calming gray tones. On the terrace, earthy Japanese textiles called kakishibu rustle in the breeze above sculptural tables. Despite its meditative scheme, the concept is actually modeled after Japan’s izakayas, the boisterous no-frills drinking dens. Yes, there is omakase. But at Kodo, Takahashi expands his scope to include robata-grill favorites, bar bites like Japanese omelets and Jidori chicken, and shime (the final dish to finish a long meal with drinks).
Below, we visit Takahashi and chef de cuisine Jaehee Lee inside Kodo to discuss the restaurant’s Kyoto influence, rowdy vibe, and artful presentation. This interview is part of Surface‘s new series, Designing Delicious, presented by Dorsia. The first installment features the pasta-obsessed chef Evan Funke of L.A.’s Mother Wolf.
There are so many sushi restaurants in L.A. What makes Kodo distinctive?
Takahashi: I don’t want to say just only one thing. Sushi is so many things. I’ve been doing restaurants like eight, nine years. I tried to be halfway California style. Also omakase is getting super popular here. So I’m getting a little tired of this. I want to introduce Kyoto where I’m from to the American consumer. Now everybody talking about visiting Japan, but why don’t you take an Uber 10 or 20 minutes away and come sit down at my restaurant? But it’s not too traditional. I want to make fun food here. Like my younger age when I was drinking, eating, and hanging with friends. It’s about the experience too. I feel a Japanese motivation to take care of the customer. Some people say it’s only about the food or all about the texture. But it’s more than that.
Giving people an experience, not just the food. The design and atmosphere of Kodo are very distinctive and different from a typical sushi restaurant. What do you want people to feel when they come to the space?
Takahashi: Inside, there’s a kind of darkness and calm from the iron, steel, stone, and wood. But Kodo means heartbeat, so I want [the energy] to be the opposite way. Stay in the cool, but I enjoy more feelings.
The art of sushi is very traditional but you’re a very playful person. How do you balance that? How is that interpreted at Kodo?
Takahashi: For a long time, I’ve been fighting with that! Even 10 years ago, I liked to make French-Japanese kinds of things. Now I just flipped back again. Not many people have experienced Kyoto Kyoto way. One dish is just white Japanese cabbage with salt, the traditional way. For me, it’s not too crazy, but I see people looking at it in a more interesting way. In Japan, it’s normal. Here it’s new. But if a Japanese person came here and tried the Anaheim chili that we use, maybe they never tried that. I try to make dishes that are simple but special.
Lee: The flavors are coming from his region and his childhood. Everything from the starters to the sushi comes from Yoya’s palette. Interpreting his vision is definitely a challenge, but it’s a good challenge. It can even be difficult for someone like head sushi chef Alex Kohsuke Suzuki whose roots are Japanese because he’s not from that region. It’s constant research and development. We make a recipe countless times. Like the albacore dish, which is ground up and stuffed into a tofu skin, took probably ten different iterations before it got to chef’s taste. Going through each flavor, going through each plate, going through each note that chef gives us. We adjust and correct and hope for the best.
Our menu is constantly evolving and changing. We hope that everyone experiences it and comes back months down the line for a different experience. It’s really fun here and our food is also reflective of that.
The way you design your plates is very artistic. Do you look at the presentation like an art form?
Takahashi: One hundred percent. My mentor was an old Japanese man who taught me everything. You have black, yellow, black, red, white, blue, green—six colors to play with. Then I make a cross (quadrant on the plate) to balance the pre-presentation. We have a saying, cut the apple, which means styles. But the focus is keeping it simple.
You’ve always imported a lot of fish from Japan that you ate during your childhood. Are you doing that at Kodo as well?
Takahashi: When I started in the restaurant industry 23 years ago, I couldn’t get fish from Japan. A couple but not a lot like now. I can get it in 12 hours. Not only us, other restaurants too. But I’m still interested in local fishing. America has such great fish everywhere, but we don’t have [as many] relationships with the fisherman. I can get sardines or albacore. But it’s usually easier for me to get it from Japan.
What are some of the standout dishes for people to try when they visit Kodo for the first time?
Takahashi: Definitely the Katsuobushi Silk Tofu. The deep-fried tofu stuffed with chopped albacore tuna. The deep-fried skin inside makes a gyoza flavor. The hand roll is good. I mean that’s everything. The Hakusai maki, spicy cod caviar wrapped in pickled cabbage. It’s beautiful. The spare ribs with shiro-dare, tokyo negi, and mustard. What else? I can say anything. I can’t choose just one or two.
Lee: So the number one [one the hot side] is definitely the Tsukune. That is our version of chicken meatball [topped with egg yolk and yakitori sauce], which is every implement of the dish traditionally but put into one. There’s also the daizu salad, which is based on a Japanese snack you can get at the store in a little packet. We turned it into more of a composed dish with burrata, fresh veggies, and fava beans. One of the hitters is definitely the Japanese ribeye right off the charcoal grill.
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