Sunday, November 22, 2009

Izakaya Wasa: 'Tis the season

With the weather getting a bit cooler and the sun going down earlier these days, it's prime izakaya season.

Izakayas - or Japanese pubs - are good any time of year and ubiquitous in Japan, popular with office workers, college students, even casual dates. But with long menus of small bites, ranging from fresh vegetables and fish to fried and home-style comfort foods, izakayas are especially appealing when you crave warmth and solace.

But these Japanese pubs don't seem to have really caught fire among mainstream diners here in Southern California, who still seem to be caught up in sushi as the icon of Japanese cuisine.

There are plenty of izakayas in Japanese-rich areas of Los Angeles, like central L.A., the Sawtelle-Olympic area and the South Bay (Torrance and Gardena, especially), but mostly Asian and foodie diners frequent them.
(I've written about a few of my local favorites.)

A couple of years ago, Takashi Abe of Bluefin fame opened Izakaya Zero in Huntington Beach, and as expected, the talented Abe took the tavern fare up quite a few notches in quality and added modern fusion touches. But just a few months ago came word that Izakaya Zero had closed.

So I hope Izakaya Wasa, the creation of another Orange County gourmet-Japanese pioneer, James Hamamori, can carry on the izakaya education.

I finally made it to Izakaya Wasa, which opened in Irvine Spectrum Center about a year ago.
It's a nice place for mainstream diners to discover the joys of izakaya. The key ingredients for success are here: good food; lovely, modern atmosphere; hip, well-trafficked location.
And while an izakaya traditionally doesn't serve sushi, there is a sushi bar here, providing that Wasa/Hamamori signature quality fish. (Izakaya Zero also had a sushi bar, presumably to attract American diners as well as show off Abe-san's impeccable fresh fare.)

Izakaya Wasa is definitely a place balancing the old and new. One wall is decorated in old-school style, with wooden panels serving as a wall menu listing various dishes. And consider the cocktail one friend enjoyed on my first visit: a lychee shochu martini.
The menu is wide-ranging, as expected at an izakaya, and tries to balance the modern tastes with the traditional. You can get raw or broiled fish, grilled or stewed meats, vegetables cooked in the Japanese way to stay firm and flavorful, and there's even a couple of udon or soba offerings and a ramen bowl.
There also are some salads that sound rather ubiquitous (salmon skin salad, beef salad ...) and some Japanese-style desserts, including one of my favorites: Zanzai, a traditional sweet red bean soup.

Our party of three ravenous women tried different dishes from different parts of the menu.

In this photo, that's the Crispy Calamari at top with yuzu-miso sauce for dipping, and Beef Tataki with Apple Sesame in the foreground: Seared New York steak, raw on inside, apple sesame sauce, daikon & green onion garnish. Yummy, tender beef with a refreshing, slightly sweet-tangy sauce.

All very nicely prepared, with fresh, high-grade ingredients and lovely tastes. But a bit predictable.

We also got some sushi - hard to resist when you're at Wasa. The toro, salmon, albacore, spicy tuna and kanpachi tasted as fresh and lovely as they look in the photo:

I wanted to try more of the classic izakaya grilled fare, so we enjoyed skewers of roasted shishito peppers, meatballs, and asparagus wrapped in bacon (an izakaya staple that everyone loves), and my personal favorite: grilled onigiri - rice balls brushed with teriyaki sauce and grilled to crispy-outside, steamy-inside perfection, with bits of salmon, salty seaweed or sour plum tucked in the middle of the mass of rice.
But the winner at this outing - both for its taste and its surprising uniqueness - was the Crispy Shiitake Mushroom:
I've never tasted anything like this: sliced shiitake mushrooms fried and sprinkled with sea salt, served with a whipped sour cream infused with truffle oil for dipping.
Shiitake is so strong in flavor that it's typically used to add taste to dishes. But when it's fried like this, it becomes very mellow in flavor - almost creamy smooth.
Going by that description alone, you'd think I would find this dish bland.
But no - there's something very addictive and deliciously rich about these fried morsels. I gobbled them up, eating them mostly unadorned but occasionally dabbing some of the cream on the fries.

After this first experience, I found myself still wanting - I hadn't really tasted enough rustic, traditional fare.
So I returned another night with another friend and a mission of ordering a few more traditional stewed dishes.

The Kakuni - slow-cooked pork belly in sweet soy sauce, served with steamed spinach & Japanese mustard garnish - epitomized comfort food: fatty, moist, flavorful.

But I was disappointed in the Agedashi Tofu, another izakaya staple, featuring fried tofu that's usually served in a shallow pool of broth that's been poured over it.
At Wasa, the fried tofu came out dry and tasted bland (see left photo below). I guess I should have heeded the description: "Starched then fried bite size tofu, bonito flake garnish, green onion & ginger tempura sauce for dipping."
A dipping sauce just doesn't cut it. The tofu needs to bathe in the broth and soak up some of that subtle fish-stock flavor!
The tuna poke pictured at right was also rather "meh" in flavor, though made with high-grade, crimson-colored chunks of fish. Perhaps my taste buds have gotten bored by all the tuna/ahi pokes out there.

On the far other side of the taste spectrum was the refreshingly delicious Takowasa ("Octopus Wasa") - raw chopped octopus marinated in wasabi sauce.
Not as spicy-hot as you'd expect - just a very pleasant horseradish-y tang giving the mild octopus a flavor punch, while pieces of wasabi stalk provided a subtle crunch (almost like celery with mild heat).

And, of course I ordered ochazuke (rice soup) with salmon (another favorite you'll see mentioned throughout my blog), and Wasa didn't disappoint.

Here's how it looked when it arrived, with those yummy BB-sized rice crackers sprinkled on top:
Here's how it looked after I mixed it up, right before I dug in for the slurp:
Overall, Izakaya Wasa is quite satisfying on all levels.
But some of the menu is quite predictable. It's best to try the less familiar, traditional dishes that epitomize the nuanced flavors of Japan - and, of course, those addictive shiitake fries!

Don't let the "small plates" concept lull you into thinking this is inexpensive fare. Most of the dishes run around $4-$8 each, which can add up as your party orders various plates to taste and share.
And of course, the sushi is in a separate price range of its own!

Still, it's worth the time and money, especially during these fall-winter months.

Izakaya Wasa
59 Fortune Dr. #340 (Irvine Spectrum, next to Edwards Cinema)
Irvine,CA 92618

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Thursday, November 19, 2009

Thanksgiving feast, Japanese vegan style!

How's this for a yummy, healthy alternative to the same ol' turkey dinner?

Shojin, the classy, tasty AND affordable vegan Japanese eatery in Little Tokyo that I wrote about recently, is serving up a vegan Thanksgiving meal Nov. 25 through 28 that makes even this turkey lover's mouth water:

* Creamy Pumpkin Soup
* Oven Roasted Vegetables
* Marinated Green Beans
* Candied Sweet Potatoes
* Homemade Vegan Turkey with Herb Stuffing
* Mixed Mushroom Gravy
* Cranberry Sauce
* Spiced Pumpkin Tart

And all for just $34.95 per person!

More details (including a reservation requirement, and restaurant hours) are on the Shojin blog as well as on the main Shojin web site.

As I noted in my earlier post, Shojin's food is super tasty and made with fresh organic ingredients.
And the vegan "turkey" (billed as "sooooo soft and moist :) Yum yum!!!") is made with seitan (wheat gluten), which is high in protein but doesn't have the sleep-inducing tryptophan that turkey does.

So perhaps even non-vegans will feel energized - and their stomachs very thankful! - after this meal.

In fact, the menu and photo are tempting me to treat myself to a second Thanksgiving Day meal at Shojin ... Anyone wanna join me?