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RBTA Brings The Tradition Of The Izakaya Grill To Highland Park

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The first impression of Highland Park's RBTA, the neighborhood's new izakaya, is that it's a tad narrow. The space is akin to a railroad apartment, in which you have to pass through the separate compartments to get to where you need to be. "Cozy" isn't quite the right word for it, however, what with the industrial bulbs hanging over head, and the file of passersby at the front window, some of whom will glance at you expectantly as if hoping for some sign of your opinion on the place (FYI, we're having a perfectly good time).

The prevailing atmosphere here is one of a tucked-away stand in Tokyo’s famed Shoube Yokochou Alley, also affectionately known as "piss alley" (we doubt the tourism board was responsible for this one). The vibe at RBTA is a little frenetic, a little boozy, and the mindset is one of instant gratification.

RBTA, named for the robata grill that exists in the heart of the kitchen, is the brainchild of chef Justin Baey, a Singaporean national who's seen his share of kitchens. In L.A. he'd serve stints at both Ricardo Zarate's Mo-Chica and Picca—the latter spot being the restaurant where he got acquainted with the robata. Later, after linking up with restaurateur David Tewasart, Baey would work on the menus for both Sticky Rice (the Grand Central Market staple) and Side Chick (the much talked-about purveyor of Hainan chicken).

As such, Baey has a long history of being a side-player (the kitchen's George Harrison, if you will), but RBTA shines the spotlight exclusively on the chef. "Justin's been kind of a hired gun for me," Tewasart told LAist. "But this is all him. We didn't have to think too hard about the concept. It just came together so fast."

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As Baey explained to LAist, the idea was for a pan-Asian menu that centered around the Japanese izakaya. "It's based on my experiences in my travels. There's a heavy Japanese influence, of course, but it's not entirely traditional; I wanted to bring a fun take," Baey told LAist. While the thesis covers a wide range, there's a kind of singular spirit to the menu at RBTA. For one thing, the grilled small plates are suffused with the smokey scent of the charcoal (the charcoal was imported from Japan, we're informed), and the non-grilled items are exceedingly fresh and fragrant. Both sides of the menu espouse a sense of simplicity, but are also imbued with Baey's many whims.

During our visit, one of our favorites was the hamachi (yellowtail) sashimi that rested on a bed of blood orange ponzu—the hint of citrus played well with the savory draw of the sauce. While the hamachi starred on its own, the blue prawn sashimi was dressed with uni and slices of cucumber, giving us a bite that was at once light and substantial. And if you're in the market for even more gonads, the plate of uni pasta reaches an apex of richness that almost feels illicit.

Of course, we were also treated to the wonders of the robata grill. For a classic yakitori take, you can turn to the negi ma (chicken skewers), which are rendered moist and tender. The savory coating is cooked to a point where it's almost a second skin. The ribeye skewers are also wonderfully supple, attesting to the slow and meditated burn of the grill, and the king oyster mushrooms are meaty and formidable. It's worth mentioning that, while the plates may be small, the grilled dishes don't skimp on the portions; the meats come in sizable chunks, which not only sates your hunger, but also highlights the balance between the grilled exteriors and the soft bounty that's found inside.

Also, if your throat's a little parched from all the indulging, RBTA has a small-but-focused roster of sake, shochu, and crisp beers to complete the experience.

RBTA seems to be part of a recent of wave of new izakayas in L.A. Tsubaki opened in Echo Park earlier this year, and Osen Izakaya followed in its wake in Silver Lake. Also, there are rumblings that a kind of izakaya fortress may be erected in the Arts District by the end of 2017. What's with the izakaya fever these days? "I think the explanation may be simple. It's beer. It's drinks. And you have all this different food coming out," said Tewasart, speaking on the popularity of the izakaya. "It's pretty straight-forward."

The sentiment is echoed at RBTA; while Baey bestows the restaurant with character (and it's a welcomed touch), RBTA is at its best when it fixates on the steady burn of the grill and the superlative quality of its ingredients.

RBTA is at 5629 N Figueroa St, Highland Park. (323) 259-6474.