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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