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?


Koi joy in Seal Beach

Boy, do I love Koi in Seal Beach.
This restaurant never fails to satisfy with its impressive list of fresh catches of the day, and to delight me with modern - but appropriate - takes on traditional Japanese dishes.

Open for more than 20 years, Koi seems to keep improving by innovating without going trendy and dropping quality to cater to the masses. Consider what my friend visiting from London and I enjoyed on a recent Sunday night, when we ordered several dishes from the special appetizer menu created to celebrate the greens, flowers and other fresh tastes of Spring:

Spring tempura appetizer ($13), an abundant plate of delicately fried, out-of-the-ordinary tastes: chrysanthemum and turnip leaves, squid, fish wrapped in shiso (often called Japanese mint, but which actually tastes more like plum) leaf, shrimp cake sandwiched between bamboo slices, squid.

Steamed kanpachi wrapped in wakame seaweed, garnished with other types of seaweed, some ikura and subtle beurre blanc ($10). The lightness of the flavors may be too bland for some, but I gobbled up the plate, carefully constructing each bite to include all the ingredients: a slice of wakame blanketing the meaty white fish and salmon roe, all of which was dipped lightly in the citrusy butter sauce. Luxurious.

Steamed tile fish with delicately tart cherry blossoms ($9), served in a fish broth. Very homestyle comfort food.

And, natch, an order of all my favorite fresh-catch sushi (pictured in top photo), including the buttery albacore, lobster-like sweet shrimp, and my must-haves every time I go to Koi: the Spanish and blue mackerel, each distinct in taste.

The fresh Spanish mackerel (the darker, reddish sushi at right in the photo up top) is mild and goes down easy, tasting almost like a fatty tuna. The blue mackerel (far left in the photo) has been marinated in vinegar and is served topped with a thin sliver of kelp, providing a flavorful, not tart or fishy, taste. It's delicate and sublime, enough to make my friend Greg's eyes go round with delight, a "That's amazing!" look on his face as he repeatedly pointed to the now-empty plate, his mouth full of the savory morsel.

The appetizer menu changes regularly, reflecting seasonal ingredients. On the regular menu, all the standards are reliably delicious (try the nabe hot pot when it's cold outside!) but you must also order any of the special dishes they make with kurobuta pork or duck - melt-in-your-mouth bliss.

Koi, 600 Pacific Coast Hwy, #100, Seal Beach, CA 90740 (562) 431-1186

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Thursday, April 3, 2008

Sushi Wazen - Wowza!

I know, I know ... Dopey description, but this new Lake Forest spot was such a pleasant surprise, that's the best I could come up with in one word - that also has a W and Z in it :)

Just look at the fish:

... so fresh and flavorful, it coulda been swimming just minutes before owner-chef Nobu-san expertly sliced it and served it up. This lovely, blushing young thing is the kanpachi, from the yellowtail family - obvious in its mellow, buttery, smooth flavor.

And here's Nobu-san's kohada, a relative of herring and mackerel, seasoned with salt and soaked in vinegar, but oh, so much more light, delicate and refreshing than its strong-flavored cousins:

Nobu-san worked as a sushi chef at Ten restaurant in Newport Beach (of Tentation Ultra Lounge fame) before he opened Sushi Wazen in the strip mall at Muirlands and Lake Forest Drive (behind the Mimi's Cafe) in November 2007.

Not even a full 5 months old, Wazen - and the comically friendly Nobu-san - are already getting 5-star reviews from local Yelpers. This warmed my heart, that even occasional sushi diners recognize the quality here.

The small details confirm the authenticity: the diverse, melt-in-your-mouth cuts of fish that smother the properly thumb-sized nuggets of rice; the Japanese-speaking customers outnumbering the non-Japanese at a rate of 6 to 1; a short but impressive sake list topped by a 720 ml bottle of Dassai Junmai Dai Ginjo for $90; a mouth-watering menu, aside from the sushi, that includes soba, a shabu plate, light and crunchy tempura and a nice selection of broiled fish. (On my next visit, I must try the udon or soba as Nobu-san suggested.)

By the way, the bill for two women enjoying nine orders of mostly premium fish, one order of tempura and four beers was a shockingly reasonable $86.

More photo highlights from our meal ...

The snapper and the salmon

Toro! Toro! Toro! (like buttah)Tuna on Crispy Rice

This last offering is a somewhat gimmicky sushi that I've seen pop up in recent years at local sushi bars, but it's sure tasty, an untraditional guilty indulgence. The rice is quickly fried, providing a nice crunchy base for the minced tuna; Nobu-san's exceptional version is topped with a paper-thin slice of jalapeno. The crispy rice is similar to my favorite rustic-style rice crackers from Japan.

Sushi Wazen: 22641 Lake Forest Dr, Lake Forest, CA 92630 (949) 855-5330

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Tuesday, April 1, 2008


So I was hoping in this blog to focus only on where you should go for great sushi, but unfortunately, because of the sheer numbers of mediocre places these days, I feel I must also occasionally mention where NOT to go, if you want quality and authenticity.

I won't go into a long list, but will simply offer these "advisory" posts as I come across places and information.

Some friends and colleagues recently checked out the new Ra Sushi restaurant in Orange County, part of a growing chain that seems to cater to the clubbin' crowd. Since I work in the media, I'd received plenty of pitches from the restaurant's PR folks, encouraging me to come dine there and write about it.

But with "Signature Sushi" offerings like the "Viva Las Vegas Roll" and cocktails named "Me Luv U Long Time" and "Screaming Ninja," I just could not get motivated to check it out.

So I was relieved when I heard some of my young but sophisticated-in-taste friends were going to try it. They would be my sushi scouts.

I'm afraid they confirmed my fears. The food is more of the drive-by, cater-to-the-masses variety, filling and perfect for absorbing alcohol. But it does sound like a lovely setting for drinks with friends, and the sake menu does offer a couple of decent offerings (Kizakura, Otokoyama labels). Read their report and let me know what you think.


Ode to Ochazuke (and Sushi Murasaki)

No, this isn't sushi, but I'll get to that in a minute. First, let's take a moment to pay homage to ochazuke, the ultimate in Japanese comfort food: a simple, heart- and stomach-warming rice soup.

In the typical Japanese home, ochazuke is a way to finish a meal, or to enjoy leftover rice the next day: you simply throw rice and whatever else you want for garnish and flavor (typically nori seaweed flakes, sesame seeds and pickled plum; ideally pieces of broiled salted salmon, too) into a medium-sized bowl. Then you pour tea over it, give it a light stir, and slurp.

Ahhhhhh ... warm and yet sorta refreshing.

The ochazuke pictured here, however, is a more "upscale" version, served at Sushi Murasaki, a true gem of a Japanese eatery in Santa Ana, just up the street from where I grew up. The ochazuke here is made with a light fish broth, and as you can see, topped with high-grade salmon and some delicate greens. All this for only about $5.

Comparatively, a typical homemade version costs less than $1, but the Murasaki ochazuke is a steal when you consider the quality of ingredients and the satisfaction you get from consuming it.

Overall, Murasaki ("purple" in Japanese) is a true gourmet bargain. The prices aren't exactly cheap, but it's not overpriced like other places that offer far inferior sushi and sashimi. The sashimi here is varied and presented beautifully, with unusual garnishes (including yuzu and truffle oil) applied with a subtle, perfect touch.
(By the way, that's Murasaki's sushi in my first post, photographed by Cindy Yamanaka, one of the many brilliant photogs at the OC Register.)

The restaurant is a cozy place, located in an office complex, with maybe 10 tables max, plus a handful of seats at the sushi bar. It's genuine Japanese style and mood, quiet and minimalist in decor, with a mostly Japanese clientele (many of whom were regulars at Inaba, which formerly occupied the space and specialized in handmade soba noodles).

Read my friend and fellow foodie Kat's review of Murasaki at Food Frenzy. I was with her on this visit, and I introduced her and another friend, Jenn, to the joys of lesser-known foods like yamakake (grated mountain potato) and ochazuke. You'll see they were instantly hooked.

And now, I'm off to scrounge around for ochazuke fixin's in my kitchen ...

Sushi Murasaki, 2901 W. MacArthur Blvd., Santa Ana, CA, 92704 (714) 241-1000

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