Not just another Asian fusion restaurant in Hermosa

When I heard that a new Asian fusion restaurant was coming to Hermosa Beach, I was a bit disappointed. The Beach Cities have plenty of fusion spots, and if another came with the standard mix of Japanese, Chinese, and Thai flavors, that might be nice, but wouldn’t bring anything unique to the neighborhood. I was most interested when I read the biographies of the chefs, who had previously consulted with the Simms Group and been part of the creative team at The Arthur J. This restaurant set a standard for creativity in the format of a steakhouse , so maybe this new thing called Ryla might be worth it.

Having dined there twice and had some of the best and most challenging meals in recent memory, I can confirm that yes, it is well worth it. The husband-and-wife team of Ray Hayashi and Cynthia Hetlinger kicked off with an ambitious menu that includes Japanese and Taiwanese influences, but is unorthodox and eclectic.

The former Laurel Tavern has been transformed into a clean, sleek space that resembles a modern Japanese Izakaya. After sunset, the interior is dark, intimate, and rather noisy. The bar is very energetic, the low tables on the opposite side are slightly quieter and if you prefer a serene meal you can dine outside. The area is tastefully but minimally decorated with plants, and although not as stylish as the interior, it is my favorite part of the place.

The menu is relatively short but very varied and on several visits we tried three starters: kanpachi sashimi, aged tofu and hot chicken karaage, as well as two salads, a beetroot and their quirky caesar. Wild kanpachi has a distinct texture from the farmed variety typically found in sushi bars, firm rather than soft. The kanpachi is a fatty fish and has a bit of silkiness and richness to it, and this was accentuated by the condiments that came with it: freshly grated wasabi, pickled nasturtium and pickled Washington seaweed. Nasturtiums were less floral than expected and had a pleasant but slightly bitter flavor – they are sometimes on menus like calendula, which a botanist would say is a related species, but that is only important if you dine with a botanist. The seaweed had a drier texture and more flavor than the garden varieties, and the wasabi was very different from the dyed horseradish that is usually advertised as wasabi. It has heat but not much else; this has a vegetal flavor that accentuates every bite. Only a dab is provided, but that’s all you’ll need.

Our server overheard my wife and I debating whether to get the Nashville style chicken karaage because it might be too hot for her, and surprised us by bringing a half portion with the Nashville style batter and the other half with a less seasoned version. My lips were still burning five minutes after I finished my half portion, but it was a good burn.

The only item that needed work was the Agedashi tofu, which we had high expectations for. It arrived looking like jewels, orange salmon roe pearls on bright pink shredded radish flanking a generous serving of uni topped with julienned nori seaweed. Unfortunately, the tofu wasn’t fried long enough to develop a crispy crust, which is essential to this dish. Fried tofu is served partly submerged in broth and when it’s not very crispy, it loses its texture very quickly. It was a near miss, and I would order it again but would ask for it to be fried longer.

The tofu ageshi looked like jewels, with orange salmon roe beads.

The beet salad had an equally ornate presentation, a ring of braised beet chunks alternating with pomelo slices topped with candied walnuts and arugula leaves and flowers. In the center of it was a pool of mascarpone cheese topped with espresso powder, which both complemented the presentation and was a brilliant flavor companion to the beets. Espresso and mascarpone are usually found together in tiramisu, but they’re great with the sweet and tart flavors of beetroot and pomelo. I would recommend ordering bread with this as you will want it to mop up every bit of cheese.

The Caesar had a less flashy presentation but another unlikely flavor combination – there was a little peanut butter in the dressing. I’m a traditionalist when it comes to Caesar salad, but this was a combination that rocked. The fresh anchovies in the vinaigrette, a sprinkle of sesame seeds and the oils from the peanut butter combined to create a slightly nutty richness that complemented the slightly bitter romaine. It was clearly a Caesar, the weirdest I’ve ever had, and the one I still want.

We tried four main dishes: roast chicken with salted plum sauce, New Zealand Tai snapper, beef tongue curry and miso ramen. The ramen was relatively traditional and perfectly executed, with a miso-based broth that had a tangy richness to it. The noodles were what a Japanese restaurant would call medium hard and an Italian would call al dente, and the pork belly had an intense flavor. The only unusual touches were the sweet touch of serrano pepper and a bit of tangy lime juice, which subtly enhanced the meaty flavors of the broth.

Ryla’s Beef Tongue Curry has the slight sweetness and lighter texture of a Japanese curry, but the more complex flavor of the Indian original.

The beef tongue curry was not at all what I expected as it was a fusion of Japanese and Indian ideas. Curry was introduced to Japan by the British, who had modified the recipe to make it bland, and the Japanese changed it to something almost unrecognizable. At Ryla, the thick sauce had the slight sweetness and lighter texture of a Japanese curry, but the more complex flavor of the Indian original. Along with the tongue, which had been slowly braised until tender, there were wild mushrooms, chopped pickles, and apple chunks. I’ve never had anything like it, but I still want it.

The salted plum chicken was almost conventional compared to the rest of our meal. The rambling half-chicken had been rubbed with spices and marinated in salted plum wine, and more of that sauce had been added to the table with panache. The savory and fruity flavors worked, although I might have preferred the sauce to be a bit thicker so it clings to the meat rather than run down. It was served with baby bok choy with bits of Japanese pickle, but no rice or other starch.

The snapper, called Tai in Japanese, was roasted and served on a Thai-influenced sauce made with coconut milk, basil oil and sweet peppers. A pair of grilled mussels and a small serving of vegetables were on the side, and you’ll want something to mop up that sauce. We chose their sweet potato rice, and it was such a good match that I would suggest including it with this dish.

The drinks at Ryla were just as creative as the food, the standout being one called Mind Your Peas and Q’s. It only had three ingredients, vodka, aloe liqueur and pea juice, but it was a delicious food pairing thanks to the sweet pea flavors. We also liked the Wind Up Bird Chronicle, a pisco punch with tiki accents, and the Sichuan opera, a mezcal sour with pomegranate and subtle chilli. They also have wines and beer, but you can get them anywhere, unlike these cocktails.

We tried two desserts, a thin, dense dark chocolate tart on a rice cracker crust, and a tiramisu topped with matcha tea rather than espresso. It was quite different from any tiramisu I’ve had before, and I think I prefer the coffee flavor as the regular thing, but I found the innovation very enjoyable.

Ryla has a wide range of prices, from this $20 big bowl of ramen to $54 snapper and a $65 New York Strip. For the ingenuity of the dishes and the skill of the preparation, the prices are modest. It’s a brilliant addition to the South Bay dining scene, and you should go while there’s a chance of getting a no-notice reservation.

Ryla is at 1220 Hermosa Ave. Hermosa. Open daily at 5:00 p.m. Closed 10:00 p.m. Sun — Tue. 10:30 p.m. Wed. – Sat. Valet parking or parking meters. Some vegetarian dishes and a flexible kitchen. Full bar. Reservations suggested, (424) 247-9881. Emergency room

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