The Best Thing We Ate This Week: Caesar Salad at kodo

It was another good food week in LA, and this dish was our favorite thing about it.

Photo courtesy of gry space via kodō

Caesar Salad is not Japanese. It’s a Mexican dish, invented by an Italian immigrant in a Tijuana hotel restaurant in the 1920s that has grown to dominate the Classic American Salad canon. It is a steakhouse mainstay and a go-to at checkered tablecloth Italian joints, the salad that sits in a plastic clamshell at every grab-n-go kiosk at LAX.

So you would be forgiven for letting your eye skip over the version at kodō, the pristine new Arts District izakaya from David Wynn’s Kensho Group. The sake flows, sushi and robatayaki skewers emerge from the kitchen, and overhead a shock of white fabric flutters in the breeze, strung between brick and black cement walls under darkening skies; it seems an odd place for a Caesar. But in executive chef Yoya Takahashi’s hands it fits effortlessly in with the Saba Bozushi, the Sakamushi Clams, and the crisp whiskey highball.

Part of that is its focus, just lettuce and dressing under a heavy snow of pecorino and pepper, a take that sounds austere though it is anything but. In fact it runs sharp and intense, a punch of salty sheep’s milk cheese and pepper, lettuce leaves left large to create a multiple-bite effect similar to the one Julia Child described in her original recipe. The other part of that is the dressing, run through not with anchovy but with the roasted bonito flakes called katsuobushi, which gives the whole thing a savory, smoky base note.

It is unmistakably a Caesar Salad, creamy and salty, an umami bomb on a pile of firm greens. But it is also something else, oceanic and intense and new. It is not the first time chef Takahashi has toyed with a Japanese Caesar—a version appeared on the menu during his reign at the now-closed Umi by Hamasaku, and he wrote up an intimidating recipe for that dish for VICE. A recipe for the one at kodō would read quite different, not necessarily easier or more achievable but certainly less ornate.

It stands also as a good representation of what they’re doing at kodō in general, creating a space that is understated, with a quiet clarity of purpose that extends through the dinner menu, the attached cafe, and the forthcoming hotel. It’s a soft spoken place, an ethos that runs counter to the recent local trend towards big and bold celebratory restaurants, palatial dining rooms with a soundtrack of popping champagne corks and the crackle of flashbulbs.

That’s not to say that dinner at kodō is anything less than thrilling; it’s just more like the Caesar Salad—it looks simple but packs a big punch.

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Ben Mesirow is an Echo Park native who writes TV, fiction, food, and sports. At one time or another, his writing has appeared in The LA TimesLitroMcSweeney’s Internet TendencyLos Angeles Magazine, and scratched into dozens of desks at Walter Reed Middle School.