There is nothing sexy about the name, “Torrance.” Few ears would perk up the way mine did when my friend L. said she had to drive there on an errand yesterday. But you see, I’ve been longing to try one of the confections at Patisserie Chantilly for more than three years.
“So you want to come along?” she asked rhetorically.
The next day L. picked me up and we headed down the 405. Torrance is about as far south as you can go in the South Bay. It’s on the other side of the Palos Verdes Penninsula from my old stomping grounds of San Pedro, where I lived for a year, on and off my grandfather’s sailboat. So I had done my research. Chantilly wasn’t the only stop I wanted to make.
“Exciting,” said L., “I love being a tourist in my own city.”
Indeed, going to Torrance is like going to another world. What Wikipedia calls a “large-scale Asian immigration” has taken place here in the last few decades – possibly attributable to the fact that both Honda and Toyota have their U.S. headquarters here. As of 2010, Asians represented 34.% of the population in Torrance. There are dozens of sushi restaurants serving both traditional (like Restaurant Miura) and modern (like Sushi Gone Wild). There are places like Gaja, which specializes in Japanese pancakes (called okonomiyaki). There are Japanese noodle houses, some known for udon, some for ramen. There are yakitori joints and places like Musha that specialize in izakaya (small plates). I think you catch my drift. If you’re looking for Asian food – especially Japanese food – you will find it here.
Although Chantilly isn’t technically in Torrance (it’s in neighboring Lomita), I’ve been wanting to try their black sesame cream puffs since Jonathan Gold put them on his 99 Things to Eat list in 2010. After grabbing our sweets at Chantilly to go, we headed to Daiso Japan – it’s essentially a Japanese dollar store. Presumably everything here comes from Asia, mostly Japan, and costs only $1.50. Before we knew it, we’d spent more than an hour and a half wandering the aisles of this discount fantasy land.
We played with pink and white pinwheels and tried on funny plastic masks that made us look like characters from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. There were decorative papers to put inside your sushi lunch box; hundreds of varieties of chopsticks; plastic containers galore in bright pinks, oranges and yellows. In the food aisle I found “milk candy,” some sort of ramen “crackers” which listed MSG at the fourth ingredient yet boasted “No artificial flavor” on the package. Both L. and I were drawn to the “Butter and Salt Candies” whose wrapper stated, “I am sorry that I cannot tell this deliciousness in a single word.” I came home with a little glass-bobbled wind-chime, wrapping paper, bubble-blowers in the shape of swords, a wind-up fan and my purchase-of-the-day: a pink mini-mandolin that I plan to add to my chef’s kit. (For an amusing photo tour of our 1.5 hours at Daiso Japan, see the bottom of this page.)
Afterwards, starving, we searched for a place to eat. Craving noodles, I googled “udon” and although the udon connection is faint at best, we landed at a Korean-Japanese-Hawaiian fusion place called Asian Bento Kitchen. We were looking for something on our way home, so the restaurant is technically in Redondo Beach. I will have a hard time not stopping in here every time I’m in the South Bay from now on.
We both ordered their signature Bento Bowls, I got pork belly and L. got the spicy chicken. Much like Bibimbap, but served in a regular bowl instead of an iron cauldron, it contained a bed of rice, dressed in cream (that’s what the menu said, though it tasted like mayo to me) and a sweet hot sauce that tasted like gochujang. The rice was topped with broccoli rabe, pickled radishes, a fried egg, toasted almond slivers and parmesan cheese. It also contained a large portion of pork belly: crispy on the outside, fatty-dissolving goodness on the inside. It sounds so weird. But I can actually tell this deliciousness in a single word: yum.
Oh, the places you’ll go
Back at home, I opened the neat paper box from Patisserie Chantilly. I haven’t really latched on to the idea of Japanese bakeries. So Japanese pastry chefs can make French pastries. What’s the catch? And I’ve never been wowed by Japanese confections – as Gold says, they are often, “squishy, gummy things that look a lot better than they taste.” But here I was, about to eat a very French pastry with a French name: Choux aux Sésames Pâte. What about it exactly was so special?
Since I’d been waiting years to try this little confection, I was worried about being disappointed. On the outside, it looked like it might have a dry, scone-like consistency. I was afraid the black sesame filling would taste overly sweet and frosting-like. I took a bite. The puff pastry collapsed, imploding with a gush of sesame-flavored whipped cream. The filling was earthy: the texture reminded me of Swedish semla, when they add cardamom to the cream. But it tasted exotic, almost smoky. I closed my eyes and, for a moment, was in Tokyo.