Self-taught chef Jon Yao started his cooking career at age twenty-four in the corner of a Sawtelle strip mall, and now he’s showcasing the Taiwanese flavors of his childhood at the ROW DTLA. The tasting menu is seafood-focused, inspired by Jon’s family recipes and the food he ate growing up in the San Gabriel Valley. The maturity of Yao and his team in the past few years is evident – Kato currently has one Michelin star, and we think it’s pushing towards the second. This is one of the most technically precise, unique, and delicious fine dining restaurants in Los Angeles right now. Keep scrolling to read our full review of Kato 2.0.
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KATO Address & Contact Information 777 S. Alameda St, Los Angeles, California, United States Website Instagram Facebook
One of our top priorities on our recent trip to L.A. was visiting Kato at its new location at the ROW DTLA. We fell in love with the original Kato when it was housed in a Sawtelle strip mall, and we were excited to see how the restaurant had evolved in the last few years. Jon Yao and his team have won many awards and have retained their Michelin star – and, in our opinion, they’re just getting started.
Yao told us that the goal is for his food to be even more Taiwanese-focused going forward, to lean into his background, and make his cuisine even more authentic. Recently, he got rid of most of his Kato signatures, although you can still order some of them à la carte at the bar. His next step will be to move away from having any dairy on the menu. Our menu was delicious, and definitely felt more Asian in style than our meal in 2019. Our overall feeling about the new Kato is that it has grown up. Yao was only twenty-four when he opened Kato, and now he is in his early thirties. The evolution of the restaurant in the past years is apparent.
We happened to visit Kato on their one-year anniversary in the new location – February 8th, 2023. Since taking over the venue of M. Georgina (which closed in March 2020), they’ve stripped down the space quite a bit. It has a raw beauty, with lots of concrete, high ceilings, and an open kitchen. There’s also a bar area, where you can book an abbreviated tasting menu of six courses ($170). This is a great option if you wanna dip your toes in the water and experience some of the flavors of Kato without going all in. They also allow walk-ins if you want to order some of the signature dishes à la carte. We are definitely going back in the future for a few uni doughnuts and a drink.
Another great reason to sit at the bar: bartender Austin Hennelly’s cocktails! We tried a couple from the menu and loved what we tasted. One of our favorites was the Lemon Drop, which combines Yoigokochi Yuzushu sake, Suntory Haku vodka, Luxardo bitter bianco, and yuzu soda, shaken on crushed ice with rice milk and lemon. This was so refreshing and tart that we couldn’t taste the alcohol – it just tasted like a freshly-squeezed lemonade. Anders’ favorite was their take on a Bee’s Knees, with milk-washed Ford’s gin shaken with orange blossom honey, sansho pepper, lemon, and bancha (green tea). This was also extremely easy drinking, with a balance of acidity and sweetness, reminiscent of an Arnold Palmer.
Kato’s wine list is extensive, with both natural and classic bottles. The Champagne selection alone will make you drool. For the non-drinkers (me on this evening, since I was driving), they also have plenty of alcohol-free (A/F) options. They even have a flight for $85, which includes some of their non-alcoholic cocktails, tea-based beverages from producers like Unified Ferments, and de-alcoholized wines. My favorite drink of the night was actually the A/F Amazake Swizzle, based on fermented rice, with masala chai, Thai coconut milk, almond syrup, and lime, with a chinotto soda float, served on crushed ice. It tasted like a citrusy iced chai!
We opted for the full Kato experience ($275), so we sat in the main dining room. The meal started with pinpán, a selection of cold bites. Yao explained that these snacks are inspired by the dishes you’d find on a Lazy Susan at a Taiwanese banquet. One of the snacks was yān gélf, geoduck marinated in rice wine, which we thought had more texture than flavor. Another was wü yúzi, preserved radish and preserved mullet roe, which tasted like bottarga. Our favorite bite was the pángxiè, dungeness crab with chrysanthemum and crab vinegar. We also loved the liángban häizhē, jellyfish with black vinegar, which was an incredible jellyfish dish – so fresh and delicious! These snacks came with a dried Hokkaido scallop condiment which was similar to an XO sauce, and a California calamansi citrus to squeeze on top.
The first course on the menu was zhú sün, winter bamboo with cilantro and fermented Chinese vegetables. Kato was very proud to be able to serve fresh bamboo, which is a very rare ingredient and incredibly hard to source outside of Asia. The young bamboo had the texture of artichoke hearts, and a flavor similar to corn. In Taiwan, bamboo is traditionally served fermented, so Kato served it with fermented Chinese vegetables as a nod to that tradition. We loved the garlicky cilantro relish that tied this dish together.
The next bite was the showstopper of the meal: Yao’s yóutiao, a Chinese doughnut filled with sea urchin, brown butter emulsion, topped with a slice of jamón, and seasoned with kelp salt. This dish was somehow even better than it sounds, light as air, warm, and not at all fishy tasting – the uni was just a buttery center. I became Meg Ryan in When Harry Met Sally when I put this dish in my mouth. (Apologies to the neighboring tables for the moans and groans.) Obviously, we begged for another, which they kindly proffered – and they also informed us that this dish is always available à la carte at the bar for $20 a pop. Score! Hearing that was like finding out you can walk up to Alchemist’s back door and slip them a $20 for an Airy Bread, a bikini, or a Perfect Omelette. (Why don’t more restaurants do this?! It’s brilliant!) On our second serving, we asked if it was possible to have it topped with a little caviar. (That certainly didn’t make it worse!) You guessed it – this doughnut is short-listed for our best bites of 2023.
A more traditional dish followed: yúdù gêng, a crab fat custard topped with fish maw and Astrea caviar. The flavors in this dish instantly transported us back to Macau. The custard is based on a traditional Taiwanese soup, dànhuātāng, which is similar to egg drop soup. It was served with vinegar on the side so we could adjust the acidity to our liking, and there was lots of fresh ginger which balanced out the fatty custard.
For the fish course, jiùcéngtà chão géli, Kato served grilled Japanese thorny head (otherwise known as rockfish or kinki fish). The fish was perfectly cooked, using the hot oil technique that cooks the scales and crisps them up, while leaving the filet soft and tender. It was served with an incredibly aromatic sauce of Thai basil and clams. This was one of the best kinki fish dishes we’ve had – so juicy, tender, and flaky, with the perfect crisp of the skin adding a fun texture.
The meat course on the tasting menu was kãoya, duck breast topped with a crispy perilla leaf, served with black trumpet mushrooms, and a sausage of the duck legs. The breast was dry-aged for about two weeks and roasted, and the skin was crusted in what Yao called “Chinese barbecue spices.” It was a mix of lots of cumin, crunchy seeds, and spices, traditionally used on grilled skewers. We absolutely adored the crunchy fat cap on the breast, crusted with those crispy spices. This was an exceptional dish and, without a doubt, one of the top duck dishes we’ve had. The main course previously came with Japanese milk bread, but they recently swapped the milk bread for a mantou, a fluffy steam bun. (You can still find the milk bread on the bar menu.) We only wished there was even more sauce on the plate to sop up with that bao – it was the perfect scarpetta vessel!
We are suckers for wagyu, so we couldn’t resist adding on the supplemental beef course for $45. Niúròumiàn, Miyazaki A5 wagyu strip loin, is cooked on the binchotan, served with an onion filled with oxtail farce, and black garlic purée. This was downright delicious. Yao said he was trying to replicate the flavors of Taiwanese beef noodle soup in this dish, so the meat was served with a reduced beef noodle soup. The wagyu was so tender and delicious, and the flavors did indeed remind Anders of eating noodle soup in Taiwan.
As if we weren’t full enough, a final rice dish arrived to fill in every last crack in our stomachs. The last savory course was lù ròu fän, braised heritage pork jowl with rice, fermented Chinese mustard, Napa cabbage, soy-preserved Korean cucumbers, and bok choy flowers. This was a delicious sweet and savory rice dish – we just wish we had left more space to enjoy it!
An excellent and refreshing palate cleanser followed: suânnãi – cara cara grapefruit with jasmine tea, yogurt ice cream, and yuzu zest. This dish had a really bright acidity, thanks to the fresh California citrus. We also loved the richness of temperatures and textures in this bowl, from chewy tapioca balls to popping kernels of grapefruit to silky ice cream.
The only course we didn’t love on this menu was the final dessert, qiáomai. A mille feuille was filled with flavors of sobacha (buckwheat) tea cream, brûléed kindernut squash, orange, and honey caramel. The layered presentation was beautiful, but we didn’t love the flavor combinations here – we felt that the citrus and squash didn’t harmonize well together. The flavors of this mille feuille change seasonally, however, so maybe the next version will be more to our palate.
Of course, we couldn’t leave without ordering Yao’s signature boba dessert, with bonito yam tapioca balls, cheese foam, and shaved brown butter sablé. Although this dish has left the tasting menu, it’s still available at the bar. This one’s a classic for a reason – we had to have it again, even though we were absolutely stuffed at this point. Is there anything better than brown butter melting on your tongue?
But there was still one last sweet left for us to savor: a salted egg cream puff, inspired by the iconic dim sum dessert, the “lava bun.” This one-biter was filled with a creamy egg center and topped with grated egg yolk; it was a playful finish to a wonderful meal.
It wasn’t only the food that had improved since our last visit. The service, led by Nikki Reginaldo and Ryan Bailey, was even warmer and more attentive than at the previous venue. Kato has expanded its team quite a bit to put an emphasis on high-quality hospitality – they still serve the same amount of guests (65) as in their old space. Now, there’s more staff attending to each guest, and it’s clear that the level has been lifted. One example: Bailey saw us eyeing the Japanese milk bread that is no longer on the tasting menu, and so he packaged up some of the leftovers from service and sent us home with a loaf of bread and clarified butter for our breakfast the next day. Now that’s unreasonable hospitality! This is a team that goes above and beyond to satisfy their guests. We can’t wait to keep following the next chapter of Kato.
Have you been to Kato 2.0? Leave a comment below.