Keiichi Kurobe is making some of L.A.’s most creative and surprising dishes.
Blackship, which opened in December, serves Japanese-Italian food that simultaneously tastes familiar and brand-new. Kurobe makes karaage tortellini, a mindblowing dish that involves putting Japanese fried chicken next to and also inside tortellini en brodo. The end result is bite-size pieces of crispy, juicy Jidori chicken (sourced directly from Dennis Mao of Mao Foods) alongside tortellini that are filled with chopped fried chicken, ricotta, parmesan, Pecorino, and housemade herb salt. It all rests atop a little Jidori chicken broth. This dish is pure comfort, with umami to spare.
‘I’m not trying to push the envelope,” Kurobe says. “I’m doing food that I would like to eat in a sense.”
But the flavor-packed dishes he wants to eat happen to be some of the most creative and surprising food in L.A. Blackship serves hamachi Bolognese and makes the delicate fish resemble ground meat in a rich tomato sauce. Kurobe riffs on arancini. He creates resplendent shungiku (chrysanthemum greens) gnocchi that tastes as green as it looks. He’s got a swordfish dish that might remind you of puttanesca, but what looks like olives are actually shelling beans. The swordfish comes with both guanciale and saffron dashi because Blackship is all about delightful mash-ups.
The inspiration for Blackship’s karaage goes back to Kurobe’s childhood in Roosevelt Island, New York, and Yokohama, Japan. Both sides of his family had recipes for karaage. And Kurobe, who moved to Japan when was 12, remembers his mom asking for help in the kitchen because she had a big family to feed. He was a middle child, with three sisters and a brother, but he often stepped up to assist.
“Karaage was something very close to me, very comforting,” he says. “The flavors always stuck in my head. As I started cooking and learning how to make pasta, I kind of wanted to fuse both together.”
Kurobe credits an important mentor, Daniel Humm, with helping him understand how to put flavors together. Kurobe was 18 and had moved to San Francisco in 2004 with plans to attend culinary school. He needed a job, walked around the city, and stumbled upon Humm at Campton Place. Kurobe started staging at Campton Place a day later and then got a job there.
Humm “was the one who stopped me from going to culinary school and took me under his wing,” Kurobe says. “He was the one who told me that the flavors are already there from past generations. People know these flavors. They’re ingrained in people’s cultures. It’s how you interpret that on a plate. That stuck with me forever. You know these flavors in your childhood or whatever, but it’s how you present it on a plate, which is the daily challenge.”
Humm, of course, would later move to New York and establish himself as one of the world’s foremost chefs at Eleven Madison Park. Humm wasn’t the only rising star Kurobe worked under at Campton Place: Christopher Kostow, who later became a fine-dining luminary at The Restaurant at Meadowood, was the sous chef.
Kurobe would go on to become executive sous chef at L.A.’s Hinoki & the Bird, a restaurant that’s known for serving CAA agents and Hollywood stars things like a lobster roll with green curry and Thai basil on a deeply black Japanese-charcoal bun. The first time I visited this restaurant, back in 2013 when David Myers and Kuniko Yagi ran the kitchen, I ate chili crab toast and clam chowder that reminded me of Singapore laksa. Robert Downey Jr. and Stacy Keibler were in the dining room.
Since then, executive chef Brandon Kida has taken Hinoki & the Bird to new heights by serving wonderful uncompromising dishes like wild boar ribs with Sichuan peppercorns. Yagi, meanwhile, recently opened Pikunico, which specializes in exemplary karaage at Row DTLA. Hinoki & the Bird is a restaurant with a legacy.
Hinoki & the Bird’s impact is huge when you consider that the restaurant group behind it, Culinary Lab, went on to open Rosaliné with dominant Peruvian chef Ricardo Zarate in West Hollywood before launching Blackship. This is a company that gives its chefs tremendous creative freedom, especially when you consider the sceney, celebrity-laden locations of its restaurants.
“I’m very blessed to be able to do what I want,” Kurobe says. “There’s no pushback.”
Before Kurobe opened Blackship, he did some pop-ups with Top Chef winner Mei Lin. The idea was to preview both Blackship and Lin’s Nightshade. Now both restaurants are open, and Lin is serving dishes like Koshihikari rice congee and mapo tofu lasagna that are nods to food she grew up eating but also feel like the future.
Kurobe, of course, is very much a part of this delicious future as he takes popular dishes to unexpected places. Blackship isn’t one of those Japanese-Italian restaurants with mentaiko pasta. At Blackship, cutting into an umami-bomb arancini means seeing a bright, oozing egg yolk. Of course, there’s carbonara ramen to remind you that pork, eggs, and noodles are beloved parts of both Japanese and Italian food.
“We have many similarities in our cultures that kind of bind together,” Kurobe says.
Blackship, 8512 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood, 310-734-7553