I did 17 years of hard time in restaurants before paroling myself. Even these many years later, I still have flashback dreams of missing orders, crazed line cooks, angry guests and shifts that last for an eternity. When friends casually suggest that I should open my own restaurant, I thank them and then ask them if they’re insane. Who in their right mind would want to go back to that kind of pressure-cooker, leg-ruining environment?
It’s funny, then, that I have been having bizarre restaurant yearnings since my recent and downright inspiring meal experience at South Bay newcomer RYLA. If Tom Cruise were to dine there, he’d repeat his famous “you had me at hello” line. From the gracious hostess who walked us around to three different table options to the busser who cheerfully fixed our wobbly table, the welcome and warmth at RYLA are immediately apparent.
My own reaction was “swoon” as I surveyed the luxe, Japanese-inspired room of lush greens, crane-festooned wallpaper and dark woods. The place was bustling but simultaneously serene, which is not easy to achieve. Adult cocktails were ordered, water was poured and Shirley Temples arrived for the kids.
What then to eat at this Japan-meets-Taiwan by way of California fusion concept? The answer is everything. You should eat absolutely everything at RYLA—and then come back and do it again.
Helmed by a husband-and-wife team with serious culinary pedigrees, the food at RYLA for me redeemed the whole sometimes dubious notion of “fusion.” Chef Ray Hayashi draws on his Japanese roots for dishes like the heavenly Hokkaido Milk Bread with Tobiko nori spread, while Chef Cynthia Hetlinger’s Taiwanese heritage gets a nod with the Umeboshi Roast Chicken with baby bok choy and plum chicken jus.
Intertwining cultural cuisines is only one aspect of successful fusion. What I think Ray and Cynthia also fuse quite successfully are cooking techniques refined by years of steady apprenticeship and practice. Chef Ray spent nearly 10 years cooking within the David Lefevre mini-empire (M.B. Post, Fishing With Dynamite, The Arthur J), while Chef Cynthia worked as a sous chef at Providence under Michael Cimarusti.
You don’t work at Providence without learning perfect fish technique along the way, and I think the New Zealand Tai Snapper I ate at RYLA is possibly the most delicious fish dish I have ever eaten—not praise I give lightly. Served with spicy makrut lime coconut broth, mussels, purple daikon and Fresno chiles, that fish dish alone merits your attention.
And you don’t do 10 years in the South Bay’s most successful restaurants without learning how to balance high volume with guest experience. I am privately hopeful that this marriage works as seamlessly behind the scenes as it does professionally onstage at RYLA.
Additional menu highlights included the Hot Chicken Karaage with charred scallion mayo, which reduced my kids to a rugby scrum in search of the last few delicious bits. The Tonkotsu Miso Ramen accented with pork belly, egg, serrano chiles and lime was portioned bigly; it came home as leftovers and reappeared in thermoses for two days straight. And the kitchen was kind enough to send out the Black Truffle Fried Rice with Chinese sausage, egg, scallion and pickled ginger. Black truffle? Pickled ginger? All worries were resolved within a single bite of this odd but very successful fusion dish.
I don’t even like dessert, and when the Matcha Tiramisu arrived, I was compelled to break the “no phones ever at dinner” rule and immediately photograph this stunning dish. It’s modern art on a plate and tastes delicious too. Matcha works in Italy as it turns out, at least when handled by a talented chef. The Nama Chocolate Tart with rice cracker crust, sea salt and whiskey was a similar home run of integrated flavors.
Fusion also rules the beverage program, where top-shelf sakes share space with both French and Californian wines. I felt my glass of Graham Tatomer’s Vandenberg riesling from Santa Barbara was just about the perfect sip with the array of distinct food flavors.
My husband, not much of a drinker even on a good day, opted for the quirky cocktail aptly called Grandma’s Cigarettes—an east-meets-west drink if ever there were one: Penicillin with bancha tea-infused Suntory Toki, Laphroaig 10-year haze, ginger liqueur and a dash of honey. I finished it for him.
Chefs often get all the praise when a great new restaurant opens, and RYLA is just that—easily one of the best new openings in Los Angeles over the last few pandemic-constrained years. I wanted to mention someone else by name, though: general manager David Ruivo. As I said earlier, I worked a long time as a server and as a sommelier under a variety of GMs—some more challenging bosses than others. So I know quality management when I see it.
David’s effortless command of the room and his all-hands-on-deck approach are apparent. A busser was behind a bit, and our table needed to be cleared for new plates. David bussed it quickly and efficiently, and when the busser guiltily came running to take the plates from the boss, he was waved off with a cheerful “I’ve got this” and no break in conversational flow.
The overall feeling of teamwork, collaboration and, frankly, flat-out fun at RYLA made me unexpectedly wistful for my restaurant days. No other industry asks so much nor creates quite the same kind of camaraderie. I might pick up a few sommelier shifts again if they’ll have me, just so I can eat a family meal and share a shift drink with this extraordinary team of talents. But mostly, I just want that truffle fried rice again.