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The couple at the next table asked to hold onto the menu. They didn't want to order dinner all at once but instead planned to pick and choose as they went, being guided entirely by whim.

That's probably a wise strategy at Hokusai, a superb Japanese restaurant that opened in the eastern reaches of Beverly Hills this past spring.

The menu is divided into many categories -- "to begin with," cold tastings, salads, tempura, hot appetizers, main courses, sushi/sashimi, desserts. Oh, yes -- and a separate sheet of specials. Assembling dinner from these lists doesn't have to be daunting; in fact, a piecemeal experience can be great fun.

Maybe a shared order of usuzukuri ($14) from the cold-tasting menu. Halibut sashimi is dressed up with a blend of citrus flavors and the contrasting saltiness of fish eggs sprinkled around the rim of the plate. Then perhaps a hot appetizer of soft shell crab spring roll ($16). The wrapper is a lightly fried mixed-seafood wonton, and alongside is a crunchy salad of white and green asparagus.

If you're fortunate, the specials menu will have toro carpaccio ($24), a bluefin tuna from Japan that is organically raised at Kindai University, where the fish's diet is carefully monitored. It's not often that you come across this on a menu in the U.S. It literally melts in the mouth and has a slightly sweet taste, which is offset in this dish by slivers of Maui onions and little rings of red and green pickled peppers. A fantastic offering and, like everything else, artfully presented.

Hokusai bills itself as a Japanese French restaurant.

"When people think of Japanese restaurants, they think that the only thing they can get outside of sushi is teriyaki chicken or tempura," said owner Edward Yoon.

Here, a few French preparations using Japanese ingredients are mixed in with the traditional items. A signature entree, for example, is Kobe cheek stew ($24). The beef cheeks, according to a menu notation, are braised and cooked for more than eight hours in soy sauce, red wine and veal stock. The result is a rich, savory dish, accented with perfectly cooked vegetables (cauliflower, broccoli, a single green bean) and a little dollop of mashed potatoes on top. Set aside the chopsticks for a moment; they'll bring you traditional tableware for this. But you won't need a knife. Or a fork. That beef is so marvelously tender, you can cut it with a spoon!

A French style also comes into play with flash-seared salmon ($15) on the cold-tasting menu. A few thin slices of soft, velvety salmon line up on the plate next to dabs of tofu-chardonnay puree. But what's this up on top? Friseed onions? No, that's friseed ginger, thinly sliced and lightly fried. What a clever twist on a traditional accompaniment, especially since the ginger imparts such a nice zing to the fish.

Among the desserts (all $8), a green-tea tiramisu is creamy and delicious, its sponge cake soaked with rice vodka from Japan. The flavors are nicely balanced and not overly sweet, which also applies to the red-bean cheesecake and an orange wedge injected with Jell-O and surrounded with plump, ripe berries.

Hokusai will serve many of its signature dishes in its omakase (or "trust me") eight-course tasting menu ($100). It includes a sushi array late in the meal, which might be succulent tuna, bluefin, yellowtail, sea urchin and sea bream -- in generous portions, on the outer reaches of bite-size.

Our waiter, Tiger, was gracious to a fault, providing tastes of wines so we didn't have to guess, and pouring half glasses for the tasting-menu portions. He also patiently fielded our flood of questions about unfamiliar seafood and unorthodox preparations.

It's a pleasure to find an upscale Japanese restaurant that is so approachable and reasonably affordable.

At its best: Clever continental twists on some items, traditional Japanese technique for others, all with first-rate ingredients.

Could be better: Serving a classic, rich French onion soup smack in the middle of the tasting menu can weigh the diner down for the delights still to come.


>Rating: Three and one half stars

>Details: 8400 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills. Open nightly for dinner from 5:30to 10 p.m. (sometimes later), for lunch Monday through Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. (323) 782-9718.

>Cost: Appetizers $3 to $22, salads $7 to $15, sushi $4 to $16, sashimi $8 to $32, main courses $18 to $35, desserts $8.

>Noteworthy: Stylish corner building with soaring windows. Romantic interior with dark tablecloths and candles. Sushi bar fronts an open kitchen. Web site still under construction, even after all these months.




The possibilities are many and varied at Hokusai, which mingles Japanese and French styles.
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Title Annotation:LA.COM
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Oct 5, 2007
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