Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Izakaya Zero (Huntington Beach, CA)

Izakaya Zero
412 Walnut Ave, Huntington Beach, CA 92648
Tue 08/21/2007, 07:05p-09:30p

Izakaya Zero is the newest creation of Takashi Abe, of Bluefin Newport Beach fame, and partner Ted Lee. Their aim, at the site of the old Red Pearl Kitchen, was to create an izakaya, or Japanese neighborhood pub, serving tapas-style small plates. I've been a fan of Abe ever since eating at his eponymous restaurant on the Newport peninsula (which has since been sold), so trying out this latest venture was a no-brainer.

Izakaya Zero is located in downtown Huntington Beach, which means parking is horrendous. I think we ended up three or four blocks away. Note the red and black sign, a reference to the practice of hanging red lanterns outside izakayas in Japan.

Half of the restaurant is dedicated to the bar, while the other half contains a small sushi bar and some cramped booths and tables. The decor is nice enough, though I'm not sure how much they changed from the old tenants.

The menu lists a small selection of beer, sake, and wine before moving on to the myriad of food selections. The sheer number of items is a bit overwhelming, and I'd like to see some rationalization of the menu. I'd also prefer some more typical izakaya dishes instead of the many Bluefin-lite entries (such as the halibut carpaccio and scallop/uni ravioli). Note the signature of Abe-san on the front cover. He and Ted were actually sitting at the bar when we were leaving and we got to chat with them a while. They informed us that they were opening up a new family-oriented Japanese restaurant called Sea Smoke in San Clemente. I gave Abe my card, saving that we'd love to come on opening night.

We started out with some of Izakaya Zero's special mixed drinks (first photo, left to right):
  • Sake Spark / Stoli peach, Midori, splash sweet and sour, sparkling sake float
  • Lychee Margarita / salt rim, tequila, lychee liquor, lime, and sweet and sour
  • Tuaca Drop / Tuaca, triple sec, Grand Marnier, sweet and sour, splash 7-Up, splash orange juice, and squeeze of lemon
We then had a sake flight (just like at Bluefin) in the middle of the meal (second photo, right to left):
  • Junmai: Akitabare "Koshiki Junzukuri" - from Akita / pleasingly dry and quite mild, a well-crafted traditional sake
  • Ginjo: Dewazakura "Oka" - from Yamagata / delightful, flowery bouquet with a touch of pear and melon (the card was incorrect)
  • Daiginjo: Hoyo "Kura no Hana" - from Miyagi / a truly light sake with sweetness, delicacy and finesse
We also had bottles of Kirin Light and Sapporo Reserve (not pictured).

Mixed Sashimi Ceviche
Assorted seafood sashimi, tossed with red onions, tomatoes, and with yuzu-citrus dressing. If I recall correctly, this had salmon, yellowtail, and octopus. Very nice and fresh, with the sashimi playing well with the tart yuzu sauce. A great way to start the meal.

Albacore (shiro maguro) Tataki
Lightly seared albacore topped with our roasted herbs and vegetable sauce. Seared albacore is nearly omnipresent on menus these days, but the dollops of vegetable sauce added a great twist to this old standard.

Yellowtail (hamachi) Jalapeño
Yellowtail sashimi topped with jalapeño slices, cilantro, goji berries and yuzu sauce. I liked how the mildness of the sashimi was augmented by the spice of the peppers and the acidity of the yuzu. Reminds me of a dish I had at Matsuhisa, but not quite as good.

Zero Stuffed Quail
Deep-fried quail, stuffed with seasoned chicken and topped with star anise sauce. This was a very "Asian-style" preparation compared to some of the other birds I've had. The quail meat itself was quite tasty, but I wasn't a huge fan of the stuffing.

Mexican Style Crab & Lobster Gratin
Stuffed lobster with avocado and tomato salsa, topped with crab and melted mozzarella cheese. This dish was a bit of a mess. There was precious little lobster meat to go around, the cheese didn't fit well with the other flavors, and the stuffing was rather nondescript.

Scallop & Uni Ravioli
Thinly sliced scallop sashimi stuffed with sea urchin and garnished with caviar and goji berries. This was almost an exact copy of a dish I had at Bluefin (minus the gold leaf). The scallop and uni make for an interesting pair.

Spanish Mackerel (aji) Tataki
Spanish mackerel diced and tossed with shiso, caper, and onion, served with baguettes. The natural fishiness of the mackerel here was tempered a bit by a very tart sauce. Nice, though the baguettes were a bit redundant.

Sizzling Mixed Mushroom - "Toban Yaki"
Sizzling shinoki, enoki, and shiitaki mushrooms on hotplate with sake, soy, yuzu-butter sauce. I've never had a bad mushroom tobanyaki, and this was no exception. However, it wasn't up to the level of the tobanyaki at the original Abe.

Grilled Jumo Black Tiger Shrimp
Jumbo black tiger shrimp halved, grilled and seasoned with spicy lemon garlic sauce. Excellent texture and expertly flavored. One of my favorites of the night.

Filet Mignon Cube Steak - "Koro Koro"
Filet mignon cubes, sautéed in cognac and served on a bed of sautéed sweet onion. A waste of filet mignon in my opinion. This was cooked too well though and lacked any type of flavor; the only thing I tasted was sweet onion.

Kobe Carpaccio
Japanese kobe beef thinly sliced with yuzu-soy sauce and truffle oil. The sauce wasn't nearly as overpowering here as with the Bluefin version. Good enough, but I doubt this was Kobe beef.

Marinated Lamb Chop Sumiyaki
Japanese marinated lamb chop served with tomato purée and basil sauce. These "lollipops" were nicely done and tender, though I've had many better preparations.

Zero Style Beef Cheek Cabbage Wrap
Braised beef cheek wrapped in cabbage topped with Port wine sauce. I liked the super-tender and flavorful braised beef but didn't care for the odd cabbage wrapper or the Port sauce.

Duck Leg Confit
Duck leg confit finished with star anise sauce accompanied with pan-seared crispy boc choy. I enjoyed the duck (confit is hard to mess up for me), but the boc choy was unnecessary.

Crunchy Roll
Tempura shrimp and asparagus, topped with tempura flakes and tobiko. Unfortunately, this couldn't hold a candle to the crunchy roll at Sushi Wave; the various components just did mesh well with me. Sushi Wave is where I first discovered my love of sushi and I've yet to find a place that matches its crunchy roll.

Crab Cigar
Crab, shrimp and scallop hand rolled and deep-fried served with spicy mango salsa. It was too bad this came deep-fried. I'm sure the flavors would have been much sharper and less muddled had the ingredients came simply chilled.

Popcorn Shrimp
Fried shrimp with truffle-butter ponzu sauce. I usually expect "popcorn" shrimp to be small little things, but these were quality pieces of shrimp expertly fried and accompanied by a perfect dipping sauce. Very nice.

Salmon (sake) Ponzu
Thinly sliced salmon with diced white onions, ponzu sauce, bonito flakes and drizzled with basil-chive oil. The salmon was fresh, and I liked the sauce and various accoutrements, but could've done without the bonito here.

Coconut Orange Crème Brûlée
Crème brûlée flavored with a hint of orange zest and a caramelized sugar crust. For me, the orange notes overpowered an otherwise classic preparation of crème brûlée.

Chocolate Soufflé
Bitter sweet molten chocolate cake with crème anglaise. A fairly standard molten cake, it's hard to go wrong with this.

Izakaya Zero didn't quite live up to the high expectations I had come to expect from Abe and company. There is definitely potential here however, I just think that they need to focus their menu a bit more, and try to incorporate more authentic izakaya-style dishes. Bluefin had similar teething problems, so I'm confident things will work out here given time.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Shiro (Pasadena, CA)

Restaurant Shiro
1505 Mission St, South Pasadena, CA 91030
Sat 08/18/2007, 05:55p-08:10p

I had actually known about Shiro for many years, ever since I was a foodie-in-training actually. A few people I knew spoke pretty highly of it, but we never got around to going. However, a couple years ago, we did go to Shiro's other restaurant, Orris, in Santa Monica (on trendy Sawtelle Blvd, in the midst of a row of Japanese eateries). We thought it was quite good, especially for a new restaurant (we went shortly after it opened). Would the same sentiment hold for the original?

Shiro is located in a quaint section of South Pasadena, near the terminal point of the 110 freeway and not too far from the Rose Bowl. Self-parking is available in the adjacent bank parking lot.

Awash in soft shades of color, Shiro's main dining room holds about two dozen tables. We were the first diners in the restaurant.

The menu is brief, a lot shorter than you'd expect given the vast listing of dishes on the website. Always present is Shiro's signature sizzling catfish. The dessert menu is fairly pedestrian, with only the wonton skins really catching my eye. We tried to get Shiro to sign the menus, but alas, he wasn't there. We were told that he only cooks on Thursdays, preferring to spend the rest of the week at Orris. Click for larger versions.

The cocktail, beer, and spirits list was rather ordinary. Naturally, I ordered my signature mojito, which was quite decent. Click for larger versions.

The California-centric wine list contains some interesting selections. Prices are reasonable. Click for larger versions.

The bread was rather nondescript.

Chinese Ravioli
Filled with Shrimp Mousse & served with Shiitake Mushroom Sauce. This is one of Shiro's signature appetizers. I didn't think the dumplings were very ravioli-like or very Chinese, though they were pretty tasty. Came out a bit too hot though.

Filled with Sea Bass, Scallops, Lobster, with Spicy Yuzu Sauce. I didn't think this would come deep-fried. As a result, the rolls were very heavy and the flavors of the various filling just blended together and became muddled. I couldn't discern the scallops from the sea bass.

Special: Squash Blossom
Filled with Shrimp Mousse in a Light Herb Sauce. My first experience with squash blossom. The stems were similar to asparagus in texture and taste while the bulbs were filled with a light, subtle mousse. Better than I thought they'd be.

Whole Sizzling Catfish
With Ponzu Sauce and Fresh Cilantro. This is the signature dish at Shiro, something that seems to be present at nearly every table in the restaurant. I'm not a big fan of catfish, but enjoyed this. I liked the contrast of the crispy outer with the soft inner, and how the ginger complemented the cilantro.

Alaskan King Crab Legs
Charbroiled with Garlic and Olive Oil. Good texture, nice flavor, but far too salty.

Veal Sweetbreads
With Shimeji Mushrooms and Pearl Onions. Compared to the other preparations of sweetbread I've had, this was very strongly flavored and very heavy. I gave the bulk of the dish away, since most of the other members of my party hadn't tried it before. It was a good thing, since I don't think I could've finished the whole dish.

Special: Ceviche
With Octopus, Shrimp, and Scallops. Can't go too wrong with ceviche. This was a decent example, with good interplay between the seafood and the accoutrements, though the individual components lacked the crispness and freshness that a really great ceviche has.

New Zealand Venison Chops
With Red Wine Sauce. I only got to try a small piece of this (right). I found it fairly tender, flavorful, and not particular gamy.

Chocolate Tart Souffle
With Coffee Ice Cream. Good, though probably not made in-house.

Crispy Wonton Skins
With Orange Custard, Strawberries, and Caramelized Poached Pear. Shiro's signature dessert. I've never had anything quite like it. The menu said "strawberries" but these were most definitely blueberries.

Crème Brûlée
With Assorted Fresh Fruit. A classic interpretation of crème brûlée in my opinion, though others said it was too sweet.

One of my fellow diners summed up Shiro succinctly: a bit disappointing. The menu reads very well, but execution was flawed in many cases. With all the apparent emphasis placed on quality ingredients, I found many of them to lack the freshness, crispness, and boldness that I look for. Perhaps Shiro has shifted his attention toward Orris. If that's the case, then perhaps we should pay another visit to Santa Monica.