Restaurant: Your Personal Road Map to the Katsu-ya Empire

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Did you ever get Katsu-ya in Studio City mixed up with KIWAMI just a few blocks to the west? Or some of the other Katsuya restaurants (note no dash).

Salmon sashimi with truffle salt. Photos: Karen Young

I have. Like so many other customers, I landed first at one Katsu-ya while my dining companion was already at the nearby Kiwami by Katsu-ya. But, not to worry. The valet signaled me to go in to Katsu-ya and check. And valet parking is free at lunchtime!

Hostesses and valets happily straighten out this kind of mix-up at the original classic Katsu-ya, newer, cutting-edge, experimental Kiwami by Katsu-ya, The recently remodeled Katsu-ya in Encino, too is fast becoming part of the mix.

The one thing to remember foremost is that all-important “dash” in all in Katsuya Uechi’s restaurants. It distinguishes the Katsu-yas from the SBE-backed Katsuya’s, which have different dishes.

Yellowtail sashimi with jalapeno

Celebrity and neighborhood “regulars” fill up the original every lunch and dinner, ranging from Miley Cyrus to Leonardo de Caprio and Cameron Diaz. Katsu-ya also feeds the crews of many CBS-TV shows. An order to-go was on the hostess stand being picked up.

So even at lunchtime, the parking lot at Kiwami by Katsu-ya (the former Tama sushi restaurant) is as busy as LAX just before Thanksgiving. “We call it “Katsu-ya traffic,” laughs Corporate Vice President, Tmonori Ueno, affectionately known as Tomo.

The Studio City sushi restaurants are the most popular with dedicated followers, but it turns out it’s just as hard to get a table during peak hours at the Izaka-ya by Katsu-ya in West Hollywood and in Manhattan Beach, which feature pub grub and drinks.

Salmon with caviar.

The festive feeling permeates to the parking lot driveway, we see full tables through big picture windows and every seat filled outside on the open, covered patio, kept cool with misters in warm weather.

Inside, the buzz of conversation fills the room, where staffers pay attention to every detail, and every meal becomes a lovely ritual, including being presented with a little wicker basket was produced to hold purses. We are told that it’s bad energy to have a purse on the floor!

Engrossed in conversation, huddled over sushi dishes, ladies in little “black dresses” and men in suits or jeans only stop long enough to pause and sigh with pleasure when runners bring new dishes to them.

Lobster tempura

More cutting-edge and experimental, Katsuya himself presides over omakase (chef’’s choice meals) at this location. It’s so popular that customers phone to reserve this experience, and Chef Katsuya lets them know available dates.

The reason is fish- so fresh it’s like butter – and seafood – so lush it’s like silk — and the finest natural ingredients of the season on a six-page menu the size of a small book. And every dish is so appetizing you could just go from top to bottom.

It turns out that regulars have their favorites, even with so many choices to try new things on the huge menus. On the list is about every kind of Tempura; Sushi, Sushi Rolls and Bento boxes; Appetizers; Creative dishes; Meat, Vegetables and Vegetable Sushi, Entrees and rotating Omakase meals. And in case you still cannot make up your mind, the top ten are listed on a separate sheet.

Kiwami Tray

Lunch time specials are quite the deal — try the popular bento box for ($12 or $18), and a KIWAMI tray ($20) is practically priced for the amount and the colorful lacquer dish is in front of a lot of the diners.

The Kiwami Tray is a slightly bigger, more festive version. It’s has also earned the reputation as the “perfect lunch.” Colorful Spicy Albacore with Crispy Onion starts off the astonishing combinations of flesh and crunch. Tender and succulent Crab & Avocado is wrapped with Halibut. The Yellowtail Jalapeno is firm, raw and melting; the Baked Crab Hand Roll turns out to be rich and elegant.

Fried lotus root for an earthy-forest look and taste tops Calamari Soba Pasta, with earthy, wheat based noodles mixed with calamari, shitake mushrooms and chives.

For diners wanting something, there is the sophisticated and decadent Kobe Style Beef Filet draped royally rests on a plum wine reduction.

Banana crepe

And star for us was the simple, glistening Ocean Trout New Style Sashimi and the Yellowtail tasting. Chef Jeffrey Kim told that there are no less than four types of yellowtail at all times.

And finally, in the finest Japanese presentation style, the meal was finished off with Banana Crepe filled with fresh bananas and vanilla ice cream and drizzled with chocolate sauce.

I’m not sure about the rest of the crowd, but I wished I could just stay and relax on my window seat bench for the rest of the afternoon – but no room! When we did leave mid-afternoon, every chair was filled, and probably would be until Happy Hour, known also as “the best” in the valley.

KIWAMI by KATSU-YA, 818.763.3910, 11920 Ventura Blvd, Studio City, CA 91604; KATSU-YA, 818. 985.6976, 11680 Ventura Blvd, Studio City, CA 91604; 818,788.2396, 16542 Ventura blvd, Encino, CA 91436.

Gerry Furth-Sides is a photojournalist, with a specialty in food and cultural diversity. Her experience ranges from Newsweek editorial and television broadcasting to to west coast radio-TV tours, representing the California food growers, and co-hosting the TV show, “To Your Health,” with Dr. Bradley Frederick. Writing credits include American Institute of Wine and Food Newspaper (AIWF); Frommer Guidebook series, America on Wheels; LA Family Magazine (“Kids in the Kitchen” column).

About Karen Young

Karen Young is the founder of My Daily Find.