Saturday, May 16, 2009

Sankai: A simply satisfying sushi lunch

A dear friend of mine, Tony, recently reminded me of a decent little Japanese eatery that I used to stop by occasionally.
I hadn't been to Sankai (across the street from South Coast Plaza, on the Santa Ana side of the street) for years, mostly because so many other good Japanese joints had opened up in the area in recent years.
But when Tony commented (on my Facebook Wall, natch) about Sankai, letting me know how much he and his wife like the place, it made me remorseful about neglecting it.

I was also happy to hear Sankai is still in business after at least 10 years - and still run by Japanese owners, with Japanese chefs.

It's a small, airy restaurant located in retail center at the corner of Bristol Street and Sunflower Avenue, which houses a number of casual-but-not-quite-fast-food, sit-down eateries serving up decent "ethnic" fare, like Vietnamese, Mexican and Greek food.
Sankai's food - including the sushi - is not phenomenal, but it's definitely above average, and it's definitely the highest quality among its neighbors.

It's the perfect place to enjoy a lunch break, or a light, refreshing but satisfying meal after hours of shopping.

So when I had a shopping errand at South Coast Plaza recently, I decided to pay a visit to this reliable old friend.

The restaurant has undergone a subtle redesign that incorporates soft, peaceful colors and blond wood, creating a refined ambience that makes it ideal for business lunches.
The lunch menu is also restrained, offering only about a dozen choices, ranging from a sushi plate to noodle soups.
Tony had especially raved about the chicken udon soup, and indeed, I was tempted to try one of the noodle soups.
But I was in the mood for sushi at the time - just some simple, clean tastes, and Sankai delivered.

First came the standard salad - a staple at Japanese restaurants.
But this one offered you a choice of tofu or chicken to provide a bit of protein, and the shredded chicken I chose tasted freshly made.
The typical Japanese dressing - a tart mix of rice vinegar, soy sauce and sugar, sometimes made creamy with the addition of mayo, ketchup and ground sesame seeds - was also better than I'd tasted at many a Japanese place.
This one was refreshing - not too tart, nor too sweet and cloying.

Then came the sushi plate. And as you can see from the photo at top, it was simple and satisfying.
The fish all tasted clean and fresh, but none of it had that out-of-this-world, melt-in-your-mouth goodness like some other places just up the road.

This lunch came to about $12 and also included miso soup.

I'll definitely stop by again.
It's a pleasant place to get a quick - but unrushed - meal, a standout among the many "fast-casual" chain eateries that serve mediocre food.
And next time, I'm going for the udon.

Sushi Sankai
3940 S. Bristol St. #112
Santa Ana, CA 92704

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Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Koi redux: Reliably delicious

I've mentioned my favorite Seal Beach sushi place,
, many a time on this blog, one of my Top-10 sushi spots in Southern California, easily rating 5 stars for its total package of highest quality, prices (not cheap, but not outrageous) and casual, friendly atmosphere.

But I hadn't been in a coupla months, and was just starting to crave it when my friend Susan invited me to join her and new friend Mike there.
Mike's a globe-trotting (from Mississippi to Japan to Nigeria, with lots of countries and U.S. cities in between), Zen-Buddhist-Kabbala kinda guy & Asian food fan, who recently settled in Long Beach.
Susan had told him that Koi serves up the best REAL sushi in this area, and she suggested he read Rawfishionado to study up.
Mike doesn't have a lot of sushi experience, but what he's had has been good. He's a yellowtail sashimi fan, but is also very enthusiastic about trying new things.

Plus, he did read Rawfishy before our meal!

So we enjoyed a nice time sitting at the sushi bar, where we chatted with fellow diners & made a new friend (another Rawfishionado and Koi regular named Susan!), and I introduced Mike to some fish that promise to be new favorites for him.

I didn't take a lot of photos on this outing, but just look at the few I took and you'll understand why I love Koi so much.

Koi's long daily list of fresh fish reflects the exceptional quality and variety you get when you've been in business for close to three decades - which means you have great fish-monger connections.
So on this outing, we only ordered simple nigiri sushi, which really allowed the Koi Quality to shine:
Bluefin tuna

Albacore - just look at how buttery these cuts are. I think the angle makes this photo look like the pieces are swimming in citrus soy sauce, but actually, this was a very light-tasting ponzu, not overwhelming at all.

Kanpachi. Look at this slender, exquisite beauty - like a leggy supermodel, except with fresh, unvarnished taste. No wonder Mike fell in love.
(And hey Mike, if you forget the name on your next sushi outing,
just look up this post on your iPhone!)

Snapper (with a dab of yuzu on top)

Blue mackerel
I think I was the only one who ordered this one. I just love Koi's saba: it's marinated in vinegar but it's a very balanced flavor, not overwhelming. And the paper-thin slivers of kelp on top provide a subtle, refreshing touch.

We also enjoyed some perfectly broiled unagi (with a light touch of sauce - yes!) and amaebi (sweet shrimp) - though Mike wasn't too enthusiastic about the fried heads. That was fine with Susan and me - that just left more crunchy goodness for us!

And on Chef Taka's recommendation, Susan and I ordered a couple of Kushi oysters - walnut-sized, sweet and clean-tasting, tender morsels topped with a light ponzu and delicate smattering of scallions and a tiny dollop of grated radish.
(I'm really sorry I didn't get a photo of them, but I scarfed them down!)

We also enjoyed this bottle of sake:
The bill came to about $70 each (that's including tip). My stomach and soul confirmed it was worth every penny. Another satisfying Koi evening.

600 Pacific Coast Hwy, #100
Seal Beach, CA 90740

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Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Tokyo: a gaijin's gastronomic tour

About a month ago, I posted about a friend who was preparing to go to Tokyo on a business trip.

Well, Deron Richens went, ate and conquered.
He learned that you'll never go hungry in Tokyo.

Deron kindly agreed to be a guest blogger on RawFishionado, to share his food experiences, in particular, with us.

His delightful account, in text and photos, follows.
Reading it may inspire you to book the next flight out to Japan.
Don't say I didn't warn you!

By Deron Richens

When I was asked to go to Tokyo by my company for meetings with our joint-venture partner, I honestly did not think of Tokyo as a Top-10 world destination for me.
I planned on flying out, doing the meeting, then coming home.

However, my wife made me book a couple of extra days to sightsee, even though it would keep me away from the family for a week.

I am very glad she nagged me to stay longer.

To give you the short and skinny about Tokyo: it’s New York times 10, except cleaner, more efficient, less smelly and more courteous.
New Yorkers don’t fret - I still love NYC.

What follows is a gaijin’s culinary tour of a great city.

Our Japanese hosts catered to our western palates by taking us to American, French and Italian restaurants.
Here we are at a French place for lunch:

What I found was that most restaurants have set menus, and you can choose between a couple of items for each course.
Here, I started with a nice salad of greens, tomato and cheese; then the local sole prepared over creamed cauliflower, followed by this "Cherry Blossom Dessert":

Excellent! There was much pride and skill displayed by the chefs at this and all the restaurants I visited.

After the Italian dinner that night, I told my English-speaking host that although I had been in Japan for two days, I hadn’t had sushi or seen the world-famous cherry blossoms, which only appear for a short time during the year.

Off to the 24-hour sushi bar!

Late-night snack of tuna, snapper, sweet shrimp and mackerel.

My host told me that he likes to order the egg sushi when trying a new sushi bar.
He told me it’s like ordering the minestrone and the carbonara to make sure an Italian chef knows the basics.

Good times!
The next night I was on my own, and headed over to the Ginza Corridor, which became my favorite street. It's right behind the Imperial Hotel and is loaded with all kinds of bars and restaurants.

A side note about Tokyo: if you don’t like sushi or raw things, no worries - there are so many choices, even the pickiest American can eat well here.

Above is the Shabu Shabu restaurant I went to.
Mmmm ... meats. All-you-can-eat for 2,800 yen ($28) - meats, noodles, vegetables, etc.

After a slow, steady gorging at Shabu Shabu, I wandered the streets of Ginza, taking pictures and basically being a tourist.

Then I stumbled upon drinking heaven.

This sign and a dark staircase was all I saw at street level - so I headed down.

This amazing little 10-seat bar had the largest collection of scotch whiskey this side of Zanzibar - close to 8,000 bottles.

And the precision and effort that these two craftsmen put into a drink was remarkable!

God bless bourbon. And yes, that is an ice-cube ball, the best part of the drink. What a beautiful thing.
(RawFish editor's note: Ice cubes would melt too fast and dilute the liquor. My people hate to taint good liquor!)

On to the Imperial Bar, which is a redo of the original bar designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, way back when.
Mr. Wright designed the original hotel, which was quite the place to see royalty, celebrities and the well heeled.

Fun fact: The woman who created the Barbie doll lived at the Imperial for a year in 1957, when she was brainstorming the idea for the doll.
She basically hung out in the lobby, watching the hoi polloi go about their business, to get clothing ideas for Barbie.

On to the drink!

Now this is a late-night snack and beverage. What you have here is mixed dried fruit with a Manhattan. I feel like royalty.

The next day was spent exploring the city, in particular the Meiji-jingu Shrine in the Shibuya section of town.
Then I needed a snack.

Mmmm ... meat on a stick.

Gotta wash it all down. I love that you can buy a beer out of vending machines in the park.

After a great morning in the park, I needed to eat again - imagine that!

One thing I loved about Tokyo is that all the major department stores have restaurants. I’m not talking about American franchise fast-food crap that we all love over here, but real, sit-down restaurants that rock.

This quant little place was at the top of the Takashimaya department store. Great food and a view.

I love meals like this that have a bunch of different tastes. While I couldn’t read a thing on the menu, pointing and nodding did me well.
I enjoyed delicate tempura, cold soba noodles, pickled cucumbers and some unknown vegetable.
The waitress told me the sauce in the cup is for the soba.

Later in the day, the snack monster attacked, so I stopped by a bakery on the Ginza Corridor.

Don’t know what these were, but they were good and sweet!
Because almost all signs are in Japanese, I sometimes didn’t know what I was eating. But I wanted to be adventurous and try different things, so I dove right in.

That night, I stopped by a Spanish tapas bar I had seen the night before. Good choice, Deron-san.
Have you ever wondered where prosciutto came from? That is the hind quarter of a pig that has been salt-cured into prosciutto.
When a request came in, my friend would slice your ham to order.

Next on the menu: a selection of cheeses with a fine sherry.

I love my cheese.

But the best dish was a well done, sizzling garlic and shrimp plate:

I was sopping up the oil with a biscuit!

I had a great time at this place. He didn’t speak English that well and my Spanglish needs work, but we had a fine time chatting about this and that.

On my last night in Tokyo, I had already done so much walking during the day that I didn’t want to go far.
So I stopped at the diner within the Imperial Hotel, and enjoyed the fried prawn sandwich - so good!

You can’t believe how a simple sandwich like this can taste so good.

At this place, I came to realize something about the Japanese people. I was observing my waiter put together an ice cream sundae.
At my seat was a little picture of what he was making, so I knew what the result should look like.
He spent 10-15 minutes, painstakingly putting together this treat. The sauce was ladled on just so, the cookies were placed in the correct areas, the chocolate straw inserted perfectly, the strawberry placed at a 45-degree angle.
The attention to detail and the pursuit of perfection really hit home for me.

Oh and when he was done, it looked like the promotional picture at my seat.

Whether it was this waiter, the bellhop, the guy raking leaves at the park, or the bartender, I realized that no matter what the job, whatever level the person, the only thing on their mind is doing that job at the highest level possible, with the highest level of professionalism and pride.
I appreciated this and really think Americans can learn from this work ethic and pride in their work.

My last day, I had a snack at the Imperial Hotel lobby bar: Champagne, scones and finger sandwiches.
There's nothing better than a cucumber sandwich on white with the crusts cut off.

This was a great trip.
I met some really nice people, ate great food, shopped at some fine stores and saw amazing art, shrines and temples.

If you ever get a chance, go to Tokyo. It’s expensive, but worth every yen.

And by the way, I finally found my cherry blossoms - I’m happy!