If Bruce Lee Had Been a Restaurant

5 September 2020

Tucked in a corner of a garden-variety strip mall, Kato looks like an unremarkable restaurant from the outside. A door with the name of the establishment in pink cursive—think the color of Pepto-Bismol—opens to a small space of less than 1,000 square feet and just twenty-seven seats. Perhaps fewer. Several steps to the back, directly behind the curtains, reveals an even tinier kitchen with just one refrigerator. Named after the 1960s television character played by the revered martial artist Bruce Lee in The Green Hornet, a restaurant with such physical limitations would seem to make a poor namesake. But misjudging Kato by its size would be a mistake. Despite its constraints, this west Los Angeles spot, helmed by the young and highly capable Chef Jon Yao, produces some of the best fine-dining cuisine in all of California.

I first experienced Kato’s food in June of last year while on a week-long culinary trip. A foodie friend had recommended the restaurant, so it became my dinner stop for the second day. Coincidentally, just the evening prior, the Michelin Guide had announced the recipients of its much coveted stars for California. Kato had won one Michelin star, a recognition afforded to only eighteen other LA restaurants. At the conclusion of my meal that evening, I understood why Kato’s award was so well earned.

Some fine-dining restaurants that aspire to Michelin fame sometimes attempt to duplicate the food of previous winners. Done clumsily, they become a caricature of the original by retreading well-worn culinary tropes. The food at Kato was nothing like that. In fact, it was strikingly different from many tasting menus I had eaten up to that point. For one, I noticed Chef Yao’s cuisine leaned heavily on seafood and vegetables. Additionally, he executed his dishes with light sauces and dressings and only when necessary to enhance the intrinsic flavors of the main ingredients.

The further I advanced into the meal, the more I found myself smiling from recognizing certain flavors, dormant memories of pleasurable eating I had long forgotten. I clearly tasted familiar notes of savory soy sauce, tangy vinegar, and some addictive combination of onions, chile, and dried seafood, a concoction I later learned was called shacha sauce. I discovered unexpected textural surprises as well such as the final dessert composed of starchy balls that were toothy and sweet. I would later come to understand that Chef Yao’s cuisine is a nostalgic reflection of his Taiwanese heritage as expressed through his California upbringing in the San Gabriel Valley.

Jon Yao’s rise as a chef could be described as somewhat meteoric. After college, he was prepping, if not earnestly then perhaps begrudgingly, for law school. With no formal culinary training, he began staging at the now-closed Alma before moving to San Francisco to gain further experience at fine-dining stalwarts like Benu and Coi. That endeavor spanned two years of his young adult life. Though he loved to cook, how could he tell his immigrant parents, who wanted him to be a desk jockey, that his predilection veered towards standing in a kitchen vice sitting in an office?

Fortunately, unforeseen circumstances with the family’s nascent catering business would turn professional cooking into a viable career. When Jon returned to LA, he learned that his parents wanted to launch a lunchbox service out of a casual café they had just leased. The idea seemed rather simple. Take advantage of a dearth of Chinese restaurants in the surrounding area and feed hungry UCLA students with Mom’s home cooking. The theory was logically sound though the business quickly ran into logistical problems, mostly due to a space issue. However, the commitment of a five-year lease on the space meant the family simply could not abandon the café without an alternative plan.

During this time, Jon Yao was already executing informal prix-fixe meals for friends. After a short month of trying to make the café business model work, both parents and son made the decision to pivot from the burdensome lunchbox idea to a restaurant serving dinner nightly. And that was how Kato was born.

While Chef Yao admits to grasping at different ideas in search of a feasible identity when the restaurant first opened, borrowing elements liberally from several different Asian cuisines, he’s now entirely focused on showcasing Taiwanese cuisine in all its glory. This means focusing on seafood, from childhood memories of family meals that centered around aquatic proteins as well as his own preferences for eating. Through the cuisine at Kato, he’s referencing his culture, both as a way to understand it better and concurrently, to represent it for other Asian Americans. Jon Yao is taking the culinary elements most representative of Chinese and Taiwanese cuisines and modernizing them through the lens of current fine dining. At its core, Kato’s cuisine is meant to invoke Asian-American nostalgia where meals usually involved eating with friends and family, where kith could become kin and in time, often did.

In just a few years of Kato’s existence, Chef Yao has already been showered with several accolades, including Best New Chef from Food & Wine Magazine in 2018 and as a selectee of the “30 Under 30” list by Forbes Magazine in 2019. He has also been thrice nominated by the James Beard Foundation for the Rising Star Chef of the Year award for 2018 through 2020 and chosen as a finalist for 2019 and 2020.

The end of last year concluded with a special recognition. Kato landed the #1 spot on the “101 Best Restaurants for 2019”, an annual list put out by the Los Angeles Times. While the Michelin star garnered the restaurant increased recognition and traffic, propelling Kato onto the national stage, winning the #1 spot felt like the best validation from the people who know LA and its culinary landscape most intimately:  Angelenos.

Though he is grateful for the attention so far, Chef Yao will be the first to concede there is still much work ahead. The current size of the restaurant is inadequate for executing all the ideas he wants to convey. In print and social media, he has spoken about moving Kato to a larger space once the current lease expires. He has also mentioned opening a more spacious, eponymous restaurant in the future. Whenever and wherever the namesake Yao finds a home, it should be the consummate modern interpretation of Chinese and Taiwanese cuisines and the fulfillment of how Kato was originally envisioned.

When I first dined at Kato in 2019, I confessed to Chef my ignorance of Taiwanese cuisine. I really did not know anything about it at that point.

“Nobody does,” he replied without surprise.

At the time, I sensed a tinge of exasperation in his voice, as though he was somewhat impatient with a desire to share more of Taiwan’s offerings with not just LA diners but the US populace in general.

My return visit this past January, after eating another stellar and even longer tasting menu, reaffirmed my belief that knowledge of Taiwanese cuisine is about to change fundamentally for the better. I simply cannot wait to see what Chef Jon Yao is capable of given a larger canvas to accommodate the full range of his culinary desires. Is two Michelin stars possible in the near future? Perhaps three to follow eventually? Given his trajectory to date, anything is possible.

When Jon Yao receives greater recognition in the coming years (and I have no compunctions that he will, deservingly), it will strike with the quickness and ferocity of a devastating punch to the sternum or a swift kick to the head. But it will be his deliciously competent cooking, not the accolades themselves, that will deliver the sharpest blow:  sudden, incisive, and with the guttural utterance of a classic Bruce Lee yell.

“WATAAAAAH!”

Courses

Opening Bites: Three delicious snacks opened the tasting menu. The tapioca bite topped with sea urchin reminded me of Saison’s famous uni toast with its contrasting temperatures and textures. This version is Chef’s homage. Years ago when Jon Yao was staging in San Francisco, he ate at Saison one fateful evening. He found the meal so revelatory that it cemented his desire to pursue cooking professionally.

Course 1: Japanese seafood paired with California citrus (Meyer lemon, sudachi, and yuzu). The fish was first cured in salt and then a second time in kombu before being brushed with Meyer lemon to produce a dish with very clean and pure flavors. The final touch was a morsel of freshly grated wasabi placed on top. A reverence for Japanese fish is one of the hallmarks of Kato’s cuisine and exemplifies the restaurant’s focus on aquatic-based proteins. Chef believes seafood is generally so flavorful already that very little alterations are needed, if at all.

sea bream, Meyer lemon

Course 2:  Sweet lobster meat very lightly poached in Chinese rice wine and dashi, additionally flavored with the fatty essence of the head, and topped by a roasted sesame dressing imparting a pleasant nuttiness. The poor pictures do not do this seasonal dish justice. I felt lucky to have come at the appropriate time as this specific lobster was only available for a few short weeks.

Course 3:  This dish was an upscale interpretation of a traditional Taiwanese corn soup that is thick and hearty and typically eaten for breakfast. A dollop of smoked onion cream forms part of the base. Luxurious Chinese caviar and a bright egg yolk are placed on top of a satiny-smooth corn velouté doubly richened, once with whole milk and then a second time with butter. This delicious potage was as soul satisfying to eat as it was satiating. This is the type of food nostalgia Chef Yao wishes to evoke by recreating a memory in a contemporary and refined manner.

caviar, corn

Course 4:  An à la minute chawanmushi filled with egg-white soup, Shaoxing wine, and sweet Dungeness crab meat. This wonderful three-part combination alone would have sufficed. But the custard was also gloriously punctuated with the addition of crab-head fat. The texture of the chawanmushi, smooth as silk, practically dissolved upon contact with my tongue, leaving behind only the essence of the oceanic flavor of crab. A truly stunning dish!

Course 5:  The famous three-cup chicken dish (san bei ji) is an iconic Taiwanese recipe made with soy sauce, sesame oil, and rice wine in equal ratios. The substitution of abalone elevated a common Chinese dish to fine-dining status and provided a different texture as well. The abalone meat, tender from a long braise on a low simmer, was highlighted by a sauce made from the liver of the mollusk and kelp broth. A topping of basil and cilantro completed the dish. A classic made classy and elegant…and impresses!

3 cup abalone

Course 6:  This is a course I really loved during my first visit for the delicate, supple flesh of the fish as well as a sauce with lightness, balance, and nuance. I was heartened to see that it remained on the menu. A ginger-scallion relish covered the steamed Spanish turbot which was then topped with ribbons of tender kohlrabi. The dish was finished with a savory broth fortified from the bones of the fish and enhanced with a mixture of soy sauces and an herb oil.

This dish is quintessentially Taiwanese. As such, it is a Kato signature dish that is forever striving to reach its full potential. The kitchen staff continues to refine it with every new rendition, making small but precise refinements in a never-ending quest to perfect it. Chef Yao refers to this course as the restaurant’s most important dish.

Course 7:  NY Wagyu strip grilled on red-hot binchotan charcoal, then placed on top of Tokyo negi, and capped by shiitake mushrooms. The succulent meat was drizzled with a red-braised oxtail jus (containing soy and sugar) accented with black pepper. This is Chef Yao’s fine-dining interpretation of a sizzling steak dish often served in the Chinese and Cantonese cafes he frequented growing up. It is another play on Asian-American food memories but with higher-quality ingredients. It was a very savory dish comprised of several layers of umami.

Wagyu, mushrooms

Course 8:  Soy-marinated sablefish grilled on binchotan and served on a bed of expertly cooked, Shacha-seasoned rice. Shacha is a Chinese condiment made with soybean oil, garlic, shallots, chile, and dried shrimp. It imparts a very pleasing and savory, though slightly, spicy kick to any dish.

This was one of my favorite dishes of the evening. At first, I was skeptical it would measure up to the fantastic rice-and-octopus course served last year. But any doubts were swept immediately away when the first bite made my eyes roll back with pleasure.

Course 9:  A new variation on a dessert I ate last year when it was served with sorrel. Still a wonderful treat! Very cold and refreshing.

yogurt, elderflower

Course 10:  This second-to-last course was simply one of the most unique desserts I’ve ever eaten in a restaurant. If you find the appearance somewhat bizarre, just trust that the façade is merely a clever disguise for its deliciousness.

The “sweet potato” part of the name comes from boniato, a yam-like vegetable that is cooked, mashed, and mixed with tapioca starch. Chef Yao forms the mixture into small balls before cooking them. They then get bathed in a sweet syrup made from muscovado sugar.

For the second component of the dish, a fresh ricotta cheese is blended with cream, milk, and sugar. The fluffy cheese is layered on top of the sweet potato balls.

The final topping is made from Sablé cookies which have been pulverized, compacted, frozen, and then shaved over the dessert before serving. The shaving process creates thin layers that roll up and form shapes reminiscent of tiny waffle cones.

This dessert course has distinct temperatures and textures. First, the contrasting temperatures come from the frozen-cookie topping and the warm starchy balls drenched in a brown-butter sauce. While the cookie curls melt easily in the mouth, the texture of the potato orbs requires more jaw muscle. The boba-like consistency of these slightly oleaginous balls has a springy chewiness that offers a really pleasing resistance. You can say, the texture is Taiwanese to a “T”. Or more accurately, to a “Q”.

Course 11:  The final dessert was made with jasmine-flavored ice cream sandwiched between two home-made tuiles and filled with sweet koji caramel. Eating this was utterly delightful!

jasmine, koji

Staff

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