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."

Indeed.

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.

1 comment:

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