Monday, September 1, 2008

For sake's sake

Remember how I vowed to stay away from RA Sushi, the chain that opened its first Orange County location in Tustin recently?

Well, I actually violated that vow and visited there recently. And I lived to tell about it.

I went with trepidation to a "Sake 101" pairing dinner RA hosted - and was pleasantly surprised how well-educated the managers are.

Read the details here.

Bottom line: I still won't go to RA for sushi. But it's a nice place (with an airy, modern atmosphere) for drinks, and their sake menu is quite respectable.

But note the strange experience that commenter Linda described in that post, being "cut off" from the fine rice wine at RA ... weird. I'll have to check into what this is about. And if anyone out there has had a similiar experience, please let me know.


Saturday, August 30, 2008

Zipangu zealot

I realized after my Ayame post that Zipangu deserves its own quick post here.

When I interviewed the owners for my write-up of Ayame, they described Zipangu perfectly as a "playground" for the younger set, with high-grade sushi and fusion dishes served tapas-style in a modern bar atmosphere.
Zipangu, in fact, reminds me very much of the hip bars and bistros of Tokyo - and The LAB Anti-Mall is the perfect location for it, drawing artistic 20- and 30-somethings as well as older diners who appreciate the reliably good menu of Japanese dishes prepared with French and Mediterranean touches.

As I noted in my Ayame review, one of my favorite dishes at Zipangu are the ravioli-like kabocha dumplings with bits of lobster and pumpkin puree ($6.50), and I'm also a recent fan of the Halibut Carpaccio ($8) pictured at the top of this post: slices of delicate fish topped with pink grapefruit pieces and bitter-citrus yuzu dressing. Refreshingly tasty.

Not all the Zipangu offerings are my cup of green tea. There's the Stuffed Avocado Dynamite ($6.5o), topped with baked scallop, shrimp, asparagus, eel sauce and lit on fire:

A Causasian sushi-novice friend ordered this, so I politely gave it a try. It doesn't taste bad, and the flaming drama of it all is sorta fun, but this is one of those casserole-style dishes that the younger Japanese seem to love because of its "exotic" European and American influences (i.e. mayo and avocado) - and that non-Japanese sushi novices love too, probably because you CAN'T TASTE THE FISH!

I, of course, want to taste the fresh fish, not have it smothered in creamy goo.

But overall, Zipangu is a tasty and fabulously fun place to meet up with friends after work. As if the food and vibe aren't seductive enough, here's another tip: they pour $1.50 Sapporo draft beer (in frosty mugs!) 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. daily:

Finally, as if all that isn't reason enough to love Zipangu: they also serve food until around midnight most nights - very rare around these parts to find such high-quality, yet comfortably casual, late-night dining.

When I interviewed owner Fred Fukushima, I asked him what his favorite Japanese restaurants are in Orange County, aside from his two businesses. Here's what he named:
  • Bluefin in Newport Coast (Natch! And the omakase lunch is the Japanese steal of O.C.)

  • Kitayama in Newport Beach. "I love the tatami private room," said Fukushima. (I agree that Kitayama is a pretty, serene place - complete with zen garden - to dine on good traditional Japanese favorites.)

  • And, to my delight: Koi, my all-time favorite.
"I used to say to my friends with some money, 'Go to Beverly Hills for fine Japanese dining'," Fukushima told me. Now, "you don't have to go up there," as tastes have become more sophisticated in Orange County, he noted.

Locals do appreciate "genuine good food," said Fukushima. "It's about time."

Zipangu, 2930 Bristol St., Costa Mesa, 92626. 714-545-2800

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Friday, August 29, 2008

Ayame: Oh My! Omakase

Yes, I've been a blogger slacker. All I can say is: work got in the way.
But I have been enjoying some amazing raw fishies, and I'll catch you up on my excursions in several posts.

First off: I finally made it to Ayame, a tiny gem of a place in a newer Irvine retail center,
opened by the men behind Zipangu in Costa Mesa, one of my favorite places.
As different in decor and vibe as, well, A to Z. But the food is stellar at both.

You can read the full, formal review I wrote for work (including a bit of detail about Executive Chef Atsushi Yokoyama).

And read here about some small changes coming up on the regular menu.

But I thought I'd share photos of my first amazing visit, when I went purely for personal exploration and fell in love with Master Yokoyama's $75 omakase. Just look at what I got during this leisurely meal ...

It started with a lovely mixed greens salad with slices of snapper sashimi, tossed with a light vinaigrette:

After the salad came the lovely sashimi plate, shown at the top of the post, with toro, snapper and kanpachi, each slice pure buttery goodness.

Next, comfort food with a gourmet touch - chawanmushi, a soothing egg custard, cooked here with bites of eggplant, fois gras and abalone - decadent bliss:

The decadence continued with a lobster and cooked snapper plate:

Then, some perfectly roasted lamb chops served with wasabi sauce reduction, roasted turnips, and a sprinkling of special strong pepper that Master Yokoyama said was from Kyoto:

After that perfect bit of red meat, a lovely miso soup palate-cleanser, complete with amaebi shrimp head:

Just when I thought my meal was done, out came a perfect sushi sampler plate:

And there was DESSERT, too, a slice of cheesecake with fruit and a scoop of silky ice cream:

Ayame, 3923 Portola Parkway (Orchard Hills Village Center), Irvine, CA, 92602. (714) 544-2800

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Tuesday, June 24, 2008

You know you're a Raw Fishy Fiend when ...

... you go to a popular ramen place and get most excited about the ikura bowl in the combo set!

I got this beautiful bowl at Santouka Ramen in the Mitsuwa Marketplace food court in Costa Mesa - a place I've been meaning to try for a long time on the recommendation of ramenista friend Noodle Girl, reinforced by the kingdom of local ramen bloggers.

Even though it was one of the hottest days we've experienced in recent Junes, I was craving the salty flavor of some good ramen. But when I got to the counter and saw that Santouka has combo sets of ramen and rice bowls, with ikura bowl as an option, I couldn't think of anything else (though the natto fermented bean bowl looked good, too).

Don't get me wrong - the ramen is quite good, definitely living up to the ramen-fanatic reviews. For my set, I ordered a small shio (salt broth) ramen with the ikura bowl, and the slightly creamy broth was perfectly salty and porky-flavorful, not oily nor chemical tasting - really well-stewed soup. No wonder it's the crowd favorite among ramenistas.
It was garnished with a just-right amount of green onion and bamboo and - another nice surprise - an umeboshi pickled plum, which always adds a refreshing taste to foods. The piece of pork was almost-melt-in-your-mouth tender.

I also like how the marinated egg is served separately so you can control how you eat it with the ramen - dump it in all at once to make the soup thicker and heartier, or take bite-size pieces of egg and dip in the soup just before slurping.

It's a testament to how good the ramen is that I actually slurped down the whole bowl AFTER chowing down on the ikura bowl first. I couldn't help it - as soon as I got my order and took a second to look at it (and snap a photo), I dove into the ikura and savored every juicy, salty salmon bite. It was a hearty portion of roe, not chintzy at all.

Ikura on top of rice is perhaps my most favorite Japanese comfort food of all time, something I've loved since I was in elementary school. Because it's not cheap, my parents used to joke that I had expensive tastes even as a 10 year old.

Besides always ordering ikura at sushi bars, I occasionally treat myself to a little quarter-pound tray of it while shopping in the fresh fish sections at Japanese markets, taking it home to pour over hot rice.

But now that I know about Santouka's combos, I'll simply get my ikura fix there: the small ramen and ikura bowl set is a bargain for $10, the satisfaction priceless.

Santouka Ramen, 665 Paularino Ave. (inside Mitsuwa supermarket), Costa Mesa, CA 92626 (714) 434-1101


Sunday, June 8, 2008


OK, this post isn't about authentic food, but hey, it is about a uniquely Japanese tradition.
I have to share some photos and observations from the big Sumo Tour that was in Los Angeles Saturday and Sunday, June 7-8.

The Sumo Tour is like an All-Star game in other sports: the top Japanese sumo wrestlers travel to other countries for a cultural and educational exchange that promotes their sport and expands their celebrity. The Sumo Tour has also been to Hawaii, Las Vegas and Europe in years past; during their visits, the wrestlers present exhibition matches so we foreigners can get a taste of the unique traditional sport that is actually pretty challenging to see live in Japan, unless you're wealthy or have connections for tickets.

My 4-foot-9 mom is a huge sumo fan (pun intended) who faithfully watches the real Japanese matches on her Japan TV network feed daily during the 15-day tournaments (the Tokyo tournament was held in May). So when I heard the Sumo Tour was bringing these gigantic stars to Los Angeles, I got online immediately and bought tickets for my parents and me to attend the first day, and I presented them to my mom and dad as their Mother's Day and Father's Day gifts.
"OH!" my elated mom exclaimed, "Your dad and I got so excited about the Sumo Tour but didn't think we could go because of how expensive tickets are!"
This was clearly the best Mother's Day gift I ever got my mom.

So we headed to the L.A. Sports Arena Saturday afternoon and arrived just after the gates opened at 4 p.m.
After standing in line to get in - and our purses given a cursory search by arena staff - we were pleased to find our seats in the middle loge level had a perfect view of the sumo ring, which allowed us to see all the moves clearly, plus even the occasional dramatic tumble off the ring by the giants.

Before the matches officially started around 6 p.m., there were some educational demonstrations of illegal moves, and the stretching and warmup exercises, which demonstrated how tremendously limber those huge wrestlers actually are. Check them out doing the SPLITS:
Because I'm not a faithful sumo follower like my parents, I didn't realize that the lifting of each leg before the match is a stretching move. This is one of the two Yokozunas (sumo champions), Asashoryu, in his ceremonial introduction:
Seeing these giants do this live made me realize how muscular and nimble they really are. (Have you tried lifting your leg to the side that high?)

More scenes from the pageantry...

The entrance procession: In the photo below, the move on the left is a "tsukidashi" or "thrust out," where the attacker uses his hands in repetitive motion to push his competitor; it almost looks like slapping or punching:
More moves, which I'm too uneducated to identify:
There were some theatrics during the matches -- some obvious staredowns between wrestlers and even some overly dramatic posturing by Takamisakari during the ceremonial faceoff before a match -- that my Mom said are never done in the real matches, and were clearly for entertaining Americans.
Entertain they did: the crowd ate it up, hooting and hollering and encouraging more.
Of course, all of the rituals in the real matches in Japan are very serious and characteristically honorific, with the faceoff actually being a moment for the wrestlers to greet each other with a modicum of respect -- not an in-your-face, "I'm gonna bring you down" moment.

The champion of Sumo Tour Day 1, not surprisingly, was Yokozuna Asashoryu, a consistent winner, originally from Mongolia, whose aggressive tactics elicit either strong love or hate among sumo wrestlers and watchers.
Here he walks out for the trophy presentation:
And I was lucky enough to snap this shot of the Yokozuna as he was walking out of the arena after the tournament:
My parents and I literally stumbled onto the exit where the sumo wrestlers were coming out to big buses that would take them to their hotel (The Wilshire Grand). We were looking for the parking lot where our car was when we saw a small crowd kept at bay by yellow tape, and the buses lined up nearby.

I was taken by how regal these large Japanese men looked in their beautiful kimonos:

I came away with a newfound respect and admiration for these impressive athletes. Sumo had always seemed somewhat comical to me, more entertainment than sport. But by allowing me to see these grand gentlemen up close, the Sumo Tour succeeded in educating and drawing me into this unusual sport.


Echizen comfort food

At long last ... I went, I enjoyed, I'll return to Echizen.

First, a MAJOR correction from my earlier mention: Echizen is NOT a sushi place; in fact, they don't serve sushi at all, though they serve high-grade fish, both cooked and raw, as you can see in the above photo of the gorgeous sashimi plate we ordered.

Echizen is closer to an izakaya (Japanese pub) in its fare and cozy size of the restaurant, but really, it's simply an excellent homestyle Japanese restaurant - like what Mitsuyoshi in Stanton used to be (before change in ownership about a year or two ago), serving authentic dishes that haven't been Americanized.

Like yamakake, white yam grated into a slippery, poi-like (but lighter) consistency and served with fresh cuts of maguro, garnished with wasabi and nori:
As you can see from the photo, Echizen also added some of my favorite shiso leaf as a garnish on the right, adding another refreshing taste to the dish. (I also like to drizzle a bit of soy sauce over it all.)
Echizen serves yamakake in the typical way, the yam grated completely to slurping consistency; a few months ago, I was delighted by Murasaki's fresh-tasting version with slivers of the starchy-gooey yam intact for a mix of textures:
My lovely new foodie friends - Hector, Erika and Ric - and my ever-so-tasteful friend Susan joined me for this Echizen excursion and left me in charge of ordering from the several-pages-long menu. So I got to order all my favorites - which was actually a difficult task because nearly everything on the menu is a favorite, from the small bites and sides to the udon - all nostalgic foods that my parents cooked for us while growing up, or that I've enjoyed home made by family and friends in Japan.

After a good 20 minutes or so of going back and forth through the menu, I finally bit the bullet and ordered a bunch of different things, all of them "old-school" comfort foods for me, but very new to even my foodie friends because very few of your run-of-the-mill Japanese-American restaurants offer them, stuff like korokke ("croquette"), this one a creamy version inside the crispy panko-fried outer skin because they were out of the more rustic potato-ground-beef version; gomae spinach (spinach tossed in a sesame-sugar-shoyu paste - the only proven way to get even finicky kids to gobble up this nutritious green veggie!); even an unagi bowl, with long strips of perfectly broiled unagi spread over a bowl of rice (one of my favorite "fast food" eats in Japan, where there are small eateries specializing in the freshwater eel).

We also had the aspara beef (asparagus wrapped in marinated beef):
And my must-order at any izakaya or yakitori place - grilled onigiri (rice balls):
Echizen offers the grilled onigiri with your choice of taste treat nestled in the middle: broiled salmon or shake (pronounced "sha-keh" in Japanese); umeboshi (pickled plum); or kobu (salted seaweed). I ordered one of each so we could all nibble off each hockey-puck-sized onigiri and taste the variety.
The pickled plum was too tart for some at the table, but is a personal favorite of mine (perfect with the rice!), and Ric enjoyed it too, likening it to the sour and salted fruits offered in Mexico - a brilliant comparison.

And the yellow pickled radish served on the side is another homestyle favorite, even among kids, because it's sweet - more like sweet pickles than tart.

Speaking of comparisons, if you ever go to Izakaya Zero, an upscale, modernized izakaya opened in Huntington Beach last year by renowned sushi chef Takashi Abe of Abe and Bluefin fame, try the grilled onigiri. Zero's version is definitely more refined, brought to you in smaller, mini sizes and with a more sophisticated flavor (subtle hints of fish stock in the rice) rather than the hearty teriyaki grilling sauce that provides most of the flavor in traditional grilled onigiri.

The total bill for all these dishes at Echizen (including the stellar sashimi plate, beers and a small bottle of premium sake): $170. Which means each of us in our party of five spent $40 total, which included the tip.
While I think that's an incredibly reasonable price for all that perfectly prepared food and drink (compared to the $70 meals I've enjoyed at fine-dining spots), my parents would actually think I'm a bit crazy to spend even $40 on a meal like this, since you can make all these dishes at home - or just go to my parents' to enjoy it for free.

But Echizen will become my nearby home away from home, when I crave those comfort foods that I don't have the time to make myself. And knowing I can get those dishes executed perfectly with high-quality ingredients, and order whatever I want, is all priceless.

Echizen Japanese Restaurant, 9111 Valley View St., Ste 113, Cypress, CA, 90630.
(714) 828-2155


Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Sushi Rules

I've slacked off on my Sushi Enforcement Task Force duties and failed to post much about sushi etiquette and traditions, which were part of the original raison d'etre for this blog.

I was reminded of this over the weekend, when I met up with some new friends for brunch and met one of their friends, a funny, smart (white) gal named Brooke who had lived in Japan for several years.
I'm always impressed by Caucasians who live in Japan and adapt to a language and culture that can be so 180 degrees different from the American way of thinking and living.

Anyway, Brooke shared some entertaining tales of living in Tokyo, and how she did observe chefs at some Japanese eateries publicly scold hakujin (foreigner) diners who "ruined" their food by doing things like:
* Ordering udon to go.
This is a HUGE no-no among purists: Noodle soups are meant to be consumed when the broth is hot and the noodles fresh; any time spent in transport causes the noodles to stretch and even disintegrate, and the broth flavor can be affected.
* Dousing katsu (breaded pork cutlet) with tonkatsu sauce, a yummy condiment that blends ketchup and Worcestershire Sauce.
You're supposed to put the sauce on the side and dip bites of tonkatsu in it.
* Drowning your nigiri sushi in soy sauce, rice-side down.
First of all, you're not supposed to doctor a piece of sushi handed to you from a sushi chef at all; you're supposed to trust that the chef carefully crafted this morsel and seasoned it perfectly - the concept of "omakase."
Of course, most places, even in Japan, will offer up the little plates for pouring a bit of soy sauce and maybe an extra dab of wasabi for you to lightly dip your nigiri - but FISH-SIDE DOWN.
The vinegar-ed sushi rice doesn't need to be further overwhelmed with soy sauce, and of course, this also causes the perfect little bundle of food to crumble.

To be honest, I've slacked off a bit on sharing "The Rules" like this because I've found some other excellent "sushi guides" on the web that do a good job:

* This is an awesome site, with all sorts of credible info, covering everything from tips for beginners to this "etiquette" page, which covers a lot, including the aforementioned dipping nigiri in shoyu.

* Orange County Register Food Editor Cathy Thomas' well-researched and articulated guide to enjoying sushi.
Cathy is one of my idols, a true food expert who has traveled the world and tried all sorts of cuisine; knows the best markets in Asia and how to cook authentic dishes; loves to teach others; and is simply charming, warm, embracing and still curious - not at all a snobby, know-it-all gourmand.

* There's an interesting article on sushi history (though I'm not sure about its source and can't tell how credible the information is), and this site boasts a sushi bar locator that is robust (lists places across the country, and is quite thorough in its Orange County listing), though not necessarily discriminating. It's a Yellow Pages-style directory with location info on each place, but no reviews or details.

Meanwhile, I learned there's a longtime authentic sushi bar right near my home that is so good that sushi chefs go there in their off hours! I'll be checking out Echizen in the coming week with my new dining friends mentioned above.
You'll see from Yelpers' reports that Echizen was recommended by the owner-chef of my new favorite south-county place, Wazen, and I was especially tickled by Florabelle's review that confirmed this is the type of place where Japanese Food Rules are enforced.
Needless to say, I'm very excited about visiting Echizen. Stay tuned for my report, and/or if you've been already, let me know your thoughts.


Monday, May 26, 2008

Sushi in a Can(nery)

Went to The Cannery in Newport Beach recently, and actually enjoyed some good raw fishies there!

Back in the day (i.e. some 15-20 years ago), The Cannery wasn't known for great food; the restaurant in a former fish cannery building served up standard seafood in a cool, historic harbor location and was better known as a great nightlife spot, with an upstairs bar where sun-kissed young folk went to dance to a live band that played fun, Top-40s music.
Spent many a glorious, drunken Saturday night there ...

But in recent years, new ownership has changed The Cannery into a lovely dining spot with excellent seafood and wine list, and the upstairs bar has become a sushi bar and lounge.

Of course, I was skeptical of the sushi bar part. Knowing its location and its history, I figured the restaurant was serving up overpriced, average-quality raw fish for a wealthy, non-discriminating crowd. So I hadn't patronized "The Can" for a long time, still having the "average quality" idea stuck in my head.

Once again, I shouldn't have assumed.

I met some friends there for dinner recently in the downstairs dining room. The menu was nicely diverse (Pistachio Baked Brie Salad; aged, bone-in ribeye; an Angus beef cheesburger), without trying to do too much, and offered some out-of-the-ordinary fresh fish choices (including Pike Place Fish Market Wild Salmon, flown in daily) and options for its preparation.
There was also some raw fish offered as appetizers: oysters and sashimi from the sushi bar.

The prices, as expected, were on the high side. But the quality was also high enough that I felt I got my money's worth.

The Blackened Spice Albacore Tataki (pictured above) was a big portion for $12, with 7-8 meaty slices that had a just-right amount of spice that didn't overwhelm the natural fish flavor. The papaya relish and yuzu dressing was refreshing, too.

The yellowtail nigiri, for $5.75 an order, was definitely overpriced, but the cuts of fish were superb, buttery and flavorful, and served as nigiri should, with a generous piece of fish blanketing the rice, rather than topping it.

My friend Courtney ordered a roll - but this Ultimate Albacore roll ($14) was one I could endorse 100%, chock full of good fish, as you can see, both inside and outside. Delicious, refreshing and worth the price.
(Apologies for the imperfect quality of the photos; I was using someone else's camera so didn't know how to adjust for the low lighting ...)

The upstairs sushi bar and lounge, by the way, is really pretty, with some cool, jellyfish-shaped colored-glass hanging lamps, a firepit and comfy couches and chairs that encourage lingering over drinks and good conversation. Definitely a sophisticated makeover from the former beer hall-esque dance floor that used to occupy the upstairs.

The Cannery isn't a destination sushi place for me, but it's a nice place to keep in mind for meeting up with friends with diverse food tastes. Everyone from the Rawfishionado to non-seafood eaters will find something to satisfy them.


Tuesday, May 13, 2008

What's in a name? Part 2: Sushi Saurus rocks!

**UPDATE (April 2009): Sushi Saurus was closed for several months as it underwent new ownership and remodeling. It's now open again. To read a new review, click here. **
I'm willing to admit when I made a mistake. And in this case, I was definitely wrong in judging by the name.

I checked out Sushi Saurus, and it was VERY good - much better than Sushi Island in quality. Just look at the seabass sashimi in the photo above - beautiful, isn't it? And the flavor and cut were sublime.

As Yelpers indicated, Sushi Saurus is an authentic place and more focused on the traditional basics than I thought. Yes, there's a long list of rolls, too (including a couple with strange names like Dr. Seuss, and Stinky Roll, which utilizes a gelato-sized scoop of garlic butter - yikes!), but the sushi chefs are Japanese and the nigiri and sashimi I enjoyed confirm the quality of the fish.
It's a basic sushi place, still not on the same level as the exquisite places I've raved about in earlier posts, but the quality is very good for the reasonable prices (about $4 for a typical nigiri order).

Exhibit B: The lovely, buttery yellowtail:

And compare the unagi with the eel nuggets we got at overpriced 242 in Laguna:
Plus, the small place in busy Belmont Shore is fairly quiet, not a "rock 'n' roll sushi" kinda place, and the sake menu is good, too.

To top it off, here's what the sushi chef told us about the name: The owner's young son (elementary-school age, according to our chef), commented on how the sloped shape of nigiri sushi looks like a dinosaur's back.

How cute is that?

So I'm literally eating my words - and enjoying it, happy to have found a reasonable, quality, comfortable place near home.

Sushi Saurus is proof, once again, that I should never assume - a motto I try to live by, but occasionally slip on - and judge anything or anyone by the name.

Thanks, Dan, for the additional encouragement to give Sushi Saurus a chance!

And Lisa, I'm even willing to try Sushi Plantation ... though I'm not as encouraged by the Yelp reviews; all the 5-star raves remind me of those for Tuna Town (which I still have no desire - or need! - to try) and for Sushi Studio, praising the rolls and not commenting knowledgably about the fish itself.

Stay tuned ...

Sushi Saurus, 5260 E. 2nd St., Long Beach, CA 90803. (562) 439-1950


Wednesday, May 7, 2008

What's in a name?

Bad sushi bar names:

  • Sushi Saurus (In Belmont Shore, Long Beach)

  • Tuna Town (In downtown Huntington Beach)

  • View-shi (now-defunct sushi bar that was in the View Lounge atop the Marriott Hotel across from Fashion Island in Newport Beach)
The awful names actually kept me from even entering the premises. I refuse to step into a place called Tuna Town, especially, and besides, it was opened by a rock musician, clearly to cater to the party crowd, not RawFishionados.

But then, there's Sushi Island in Costa Mesa.
I never would have stepped into this place myself, but friends who live near by and have good taste took me there a couple of years ago, and I was pleasantly surprised at the decent quality of the fish, and the very affordable prices.
Sure, there's the gimmicky tropical/surfer theme, there are plenty of rolls to keep sushi novices satisfied, and some of the "fusion" efforts don't quite work. But the prices make it palatable.
The place reminds me of Wahoo's Fish Tacos in numerous ways, from the decor and laid-back vibe to the reliably good - though not exceptional - food.

Sushi Island is not in the same realm as Murasaki, Koi and Wazen, but it's a comfortable place with Japanese chefs - a good drive-by, fast-food-sushi kind of place, which is why I stopped in the other night. I was hungry, craving some sushi, but didn't want to go through the whole leisurely experience. It was already half past 8 p.m. after all, and I just wanted a basic tuna roll (tekka maki) for comfort-food takeout, to purely satisfy my hunger.
Adorable sushi chefs Shogo and Hiro were behind the bar, starting to clean and clear things up with closing time just minutes away. But they smilingly crafted my order of tekka maki plus 3 orders of nigiri sushi, one each of yellowtail, Spanish mackerel and unagi.
The fish was all decently tasty, what you'd expect for about $3 an order.
This is not where I think of going when I really want to treat myself to some melt-in-your mouth raw fish and traditional favorites done right. But it's made me think perhaps I need to give Sushi Saurus a try; at the very least, it could become a reliable spot, close to home, for a quick, light meal after a long work day.

In fact, I just checked Yelp for Sushi Island and comparatively, Sushi Saurus seems to rate better! I'll definitely give the jurassic sushi spot a try and report back.


Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Gourmet seaweed

My mom, sister and niece recently went on a week visit to Japan, and returned with all sorts of gourmet foodstuffs as souvenirs. Among my favorite souvenirs is high-quality dried, seasoned seaweed, or nori.

This is the same type of seaweed used to wrap hand and cut rolls at sushi bars. It's dried and subtly seasoned with flavors like plum or fish, or simply salted, and can come in sheets of different sizes. The "gourmet" version I got as a souvenir gift from friends comes in convenient individual packets stored in lovely tin canisters like this.

In a typical Japanese home, you eat this individual-sized seaweed at all meals with rice, creating mini-rolls by using the nori to wrap rice and pieces of fish, pickled plum, vegetables or other types of seaweed, like salted kobu. Here's a photo 1-2-3:

You can also shred or cut the seasoned seaweed into confetti-like pieces that you can sprinkle over rice and other food, or to flavor soups like the ochazuke I blogged about earlier.
This type of premium seaweed is sold in little specialty shops in Japan, just as high-grade teas, pickled plums, pastries and other delicacies are sold.

My family has never had to buy Japanese tea, seaweed or other specialty food items here in California because our friends and family always send, or bring on visits, these beautifully packaged, premium-quality foodstuffs.

We've indeed been lucky and spoiled with the highest-grade green tea leaves from specialty tea boutiques, gourmet seaweed of all varieties and premium sake.


Thursday, April 24, 2008

Why 242 is 2 over the top 4 me

Nice cuts of fish, a fine sake menu, a female sushi chef who experiments, yet enforces a "no soy sauce" rule, a prime coastal location ...

So why do I have no interest in returning to 242 Cafe in Laguna Beach?

Let me count the ways ...

1. You get sauced here - and not in a good way.

The fish here is high quality, but the fresh taste is repeatedly sabotaged by an over-dousing of sauces (including a lot of oil!) and condiments.
All the fish (tuna, salmon, albacore) in the specialty sashimi plate we ordered, called "Purple Ginger," was thinly sliced and buttery in texture. But the entire plate was doused with what tasted like balsamic vinaigrette, and each slice was topped with a large dollop of minced ginger - which I thought was tasty, but my "gringo" friend thought was too much:

But what really alarmed and offended us was how the chefs botched the two orders of toro we ordered.

The waitress had asked us if we wanted the toro raw or seared. We opted for 1 order of each.
When the order arrived, we noticed a slick, oily puddle on the plate. But we tried to ignore that and just dug in, anticipating the buttery taste of the fatty tuna.

We were sorely disappointed.

The seared tuna was cooked to almost a shriveled state and had such a strong barbecue-smokey taste (liquid smoke?) that none of the natural toro flavor came through. And the raw toro's natural fatty goodness was completely overwhelmed by the slick of oil that was drizzled over the plate.
We could have lubed the car with the oil:
Why pour oil over fatty tuna? "It's like adding a stick of butter to oil," declared my shocked friend.

She took a swig of her beer and added: "It's not good when you have to wash down a small piece of sushi with beer."


To add insult to injury: each order of toro was $11. We ended up paying $22 for a total waste of premium fish.

2. The prices are absurd for what you get.

Besides that toro fiasco, consider the 2 orders of unagi we ordered ($4 each order). The unagi itself was good and tasty - perfectly grilled, and moist on the inside with just the right touch of sauce.

But the size of the unagi slices was chintzy: 2 of the pieces were not much longer than an inch, like they'd split one piece of regular nigiri-size unagi to create 2 pieces:

3. No engagement by the sushi chefs - the antithesis of sushi bar tradition.

Sushi originated as a way for a chef, usually working in a small stand, to create custom food for each customer. Focus on the customer and creating individualized food is a traditional aspect of sushi bars.

We went to 242 on a Tuesday night, and the owner-chef, Miki-san, who's built a reputation as one of the few female sushi chefs around, wasn't on duty that night. The two male sushi chefs and the hostess on duty this Tuesday seemed more intent on churning out the food, and took no time to provide individual customer attention.

Yet the tiny place was packed. Clearly this is a locals' favorite, and I can see how it'd be a favorite for neighborhood residents who find it convenient to stroll down the hill or up Pacific Coast Highway to this eatery across the highway from Laguna Art Museum.

But it's obvious the clientele (all Caucasian) don't know any better and haven't had high-quality sushi that's not overdone and overpriced. This is trendy sushi to the hilt.
I don't mind experimentation, and commend and support Miki-san's efforts as a female sushi chef in such a male-dominated society/industry.
But experimentation doesn't work when the merits of the natural ingredients aren't allowed to shine.
There's plenty of great modern fusion served up at places like Zipangu in Costa Mesa and Murasaki in Santa Ana.

To be fair, it wasn't all bad at 242. A couple of highlights:

  • The plain nigiri sushi. Finally, after all that oily, saucy stuff, I needed a palate cleanser. I requested one order of yellowtail and specified "PLAIN, please, with no sauce." The order came without even any wasabi. But that was fine with me by then - I could finally enjoy the lovely mellow flavor of the fish itself, without all sorts of condiments and oils obstructing the natural taste.

  • A good sake menu. We enjoyed a 180 ml bottle of a dry, medium-body Jitsuraku from Hyogo, Japan that was so easy to drink. The menu also boasts a couple of good sakes from Niigata, where the rice and water are considered especially quality.


Sunday, April 20, 2008

Noodling around

I've been fighting a cold over the past week, so all I can think about is soup instead of sushi.

I'm not usually a huge ramen fiend, but a sore throat, the erratic weather (below 70 degrees here in So Cal? What?!) and the opening of L.A. ramen mecca Daikokuya's first outpost in Orange County have inspired cravings.

I usually prefer udon or soba (the Japanese traditionalist in me), and I certainly don't think much of the instant version of ramen (junk food!). But I'm definitely not immune to the seductive pleasures of a steaming bowl of the egg noodles in a savory, carefully cooked broth, with tender chasu pork and wakame seaweed topping it all - it's an indulgence, all the rich flavors of pork and sesame oil filling the stomach and soul. (Ramen is originally Chinese - another food the Japanese adopted and made their own, with various regions of the island creating customized versions.)

I'm not an expert on ramen by any means, but there are plenty of Ramenistas in the blogosphere to expertly lead you to the best joints: Go Ramen, The Ramen Blog, Journey into the World of Ramen ...
Gluttonista-Noodle Girl pal Kat also happens to be an expert, and she's the one who hipped me to the new Daikokuya in Costa Mesa. We enjoyed a very satisfying lunch there.

That kicked off my ramen cravings - and made me realize how oblivious I'd been to all the ramen places that have popped up in Orange County in recent years. I found myself craving some for lunch again a few days ago, and rather than go back to Daikokuya (which I'll do some other time, for sure), I did a little ramen research to diversify, and to find a spot closer to work.

Thanks to Keizo and his Go Ramen Map, I realized Kairakutei, popular on ramen blogs, was minutes away. I rushed over, my mouth watering, and enjoyed a very satisfying, flavorful bowl of the tonkotsu-miso ramen: rich, thick, salty goodness with decently tender chasu pork slices and plenty of my favorite wakame.

The soup was a bit oilier than I would have liked, but I figured my cold-weakened body could use all the fat and salt it could get.

I must say I prefer the Daikokuya ramen for its more subtle flavors and that yummy marinated egg, but it's nice to know there's a decent runner-up right by the office. I'll have to return to Kairakutei to try another flavor.


Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Blah-gging: Partying with bad fish and warm sake

My friend Greg's recent visit back to Southern California (he's lived in London for some years now) triggered a fun flashback: we reminisced about our crazy party days, and the name "Daemon" came up.
Now I haven't been to this Sunset Beach spot in 20 years or so, but that's because this is not a place to eat good Japanese food; it's a place to party with sun worshippers and beer guzzlers.

Perhaps the food has changed over the years, but let me tell you what it was like in the old days:
Oaf-ish fraternity guys and peroxide-blonde bimbos sucking down warm sake like it's sophisticated, catching shrimp flung from the knives of Latino teppan chefs, who also stir fry chow mein noodles in butter and douse them with grated parmesan cheese from a can.

Yep, refined dining this isn't. And sushi isn't what you have in mind if you go there.

A couple of other so-called Japanese restaurants that have given Japanese cuisine a bad name:

  • Sushi Studio in Long Beach. Don't let all the 5-star reviews on Yelp fool you; you'll see an occasional thumbs-down review, by obvious RawFishionados, flashing like a beacon to us sushi-snob bretheren. No offense meant to the Thai chefs there, but as I've said before, I want Thai food from Thai chefs, not Japanese food from Thai chefs. The 5-star reviewers sound like college students who don't have much of a clue, proving this place is closer to Daemon than to Koi.

    One friend of mine loves this place ... but then, he's a white guy who's originally from Florida, schooled in Kentucky. So what would he know about sushi, right? Don't they eat squirrel out there?

  • Mosun in Laguna Beach. Another trendy nightlife place that pretends to know something about sushi. But the mushy, low-grade tuna is a dead giveaway. Recent Yelpers confirm this.

  • There's a new place in Orange County that threatens to join the "party sushi" list: Irezumi, which just opened up in Costa Mesa near South Coast Plaza. Early reports from my reliable Sushi Scouts indicate this will be more of a nightclub than a respectable sushi place, though the fish served up at the opening party looks pretty decent.
    But then, this was the opening party - only time will tell if quality of fish will be a consistent priority.

This reminds me of all that talk about the Japanese government wanting to implement a "sushi certification" program; when I first heard this, I was ready to organize a Sushi Enforcement Task Force right here in California.

Anyone ready to be recruited?