Sunday, April 13, 2008

Wakasan (Los Angeles, CA)

1929 Westwood Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90025
310.446.5241 (Yelp, restaurant has no web site)
Sun 04/13/2008, 06:00p-08:35p

Previously unknown to me, Wakasan is billed as an izakaya-style restaurant serving home-style Japanese cuisine. What could be better on a Sunday evening after a concert at Santa Monica High School?

When we arrived at 6:00, there were already about a half dozen or so people waiting outside for Wakasan to open. That was definitely a good sign. Speaking of signs, the posted warning tells you that this is not your typical Japanese restaurant.

The decor is a bit rustic, but quaint and inviting, with swaths of light wood everywhere. The dining room holds about three- to four-dozen people I'd wager.

We started with some draft Sapporo beer. This was superb, much better than the Sapporo you typically get in the States (which is brewed in Canada). We then moved on to sake. The first we tried was Jozen Mizunogotoshi, while the second was Kurosawa. Both junmais were quite delicious though, with smooth, crisp, and refreshing fruit and floral notes. The sake menu, in Japanese, didn't provide much help. Click for a larger version.

Speaking of not providing much help, the à la carte menu is shown above. Thank goodness we were going omakase! Click for a larger version.

1: Sansai
Sansai literally means "mountain vegetables" in Japanese, though many varieties have been successfully cultivated. In any case, I'm not sure what the selection was here, but whatever it was, it came mixed with shiitake and topped with katsuobushi (dried bonito shavings).

2: Kani Miso Tofu
This was my first time having kani miso. A lot of people think this is crab brain, but quite simply, kani miso is whatever is left after all the white meat is taken out of a crab, basically the guts. To solidify the viscera, kuzu flour is used (kuzu is a legume whose starch is used as a thickening agent). It had an interesting flavor, not offensive as you might think, but sort of like crab but with a twist.

3: Cha Soba
Soba is type of thin noodle made from buckwheat flour, typically served cold, as it was here. This particular variety was flavored with green tea, which gave it a slightly different flavor than what I'm used to. It was quite nice, though not as good as the soba I've had in Japan.

4: Chikuwa
Another first for me. Chikuwa, which means "bamboo ring," is basically a fish cake that's wrapped around a core of bamboo. It's usually broiled or steamed, but in this case it was deep fried in a batter. I liked this quite a bit, but would've preferred it if the sauce (ponzu I believe) was provided separately, as it tended to make the pieces a bit soggy after a while.

5: Sake Kasu-Zuke Yaki
This was a great grilled salmon, with a smoky, yet sweet flavor. The fish was done kasu-zuke style, which means it was marinated in sake lees. I usually don't eat the skin of salmon, but ths skin here was quite delicious. The fish came with some sort of beet-like vegetable, which I'm told is grown in a mold to attain the desired shape.

6: Kani Sanbaizu
Crab legs marinated in a sweet vinegar sauce. This gave the crab a fantastic sweet flesh, which, together with the great texture and freshness, made this one of the strongest dishes of the night. I thought this was better than the similar dish I had at Little Hokkaido in Japan. If nothing else, it was much easier to get at the meat, though wet naps were still required!

7: Sashimi
Three varieties were on offer: kanpachi (amberjack, good but unmemorable), maguro (tuna, fattier and more flavorful than many I've had), and hotate (scallop, soft and subtly sweet). Overall these were solid cuts of sashimi, though not up to the level of a top sushi restaurant.

8: Oden
Oden is traditionally a winter dish consisting of ingredients stewed in a soy-dashi broth. Here, the ingredients were daikon, gobomaki (burdock wrapped in surimi), and atsuage (deep fried tofu), along with a mustard-like sauce. Very light and mild.

9: Kaki Furai & Ebi Furai
Breaded and deep fried oysters and shrimp, served with a tartar sauce and sweet mustard mayo. The panko crust provided a nice crunch to the dish, while preserving the nature of the oyster and shrimp. This was a simple dish, but very tasty. One of my favorites of the meal.

Supplement: Botan Ebi
Although botan ebi typically hails from Hokkaido, a trio of large prawns from Santa Barbara were used here instead. The meat, I'm told, is pretty much indistinguishable, though the eggs are a different color (red vs. blue). They had a great texture and snap, which contrasts with the soft creaminess found in most ama ebi. In that regard, these reminded me of the kurama ebi I had at Kyubey. Very, very nice.

Supplement: Tobiuo
Flying fish sashimi, with scallions, red onion, and daikon oroshi. I believe this was my first time having flying fish. The flesh was clean and crisp, with a very mild flavor that lent itself well to the various accompaniments.

Supplement: Botan Ebi Heads
The heads of the botani ebi above were then deep fried for us. This was easily one of the best versions I've ever had. Wonderful with a hint of lemon.

10: Ikuradon
Rice with ikura, maguro, nori, scallion, and wasabi. The rice provided a fitting palate for this study in contrast, with the tuna's mild flavor being supplemented by the salmon roe's sharp brininess. The wasabi then adds a spicy kick.

11: Asari Miso
A delicate and delectable miso soup with clams. Both the clams and the soup could've easily stood on their own.

12: Chawanmushi
Chawanmushi is a custard consisting of egg flavored with soy sauce, dashi, and mirin. To it, here we added kamaboko (fish cake), gingko seed, shiitake, and boiled shrimp. Though I'm not a huge chawanmushi fan, I felt that this was easily one of the best versions I've had, with all of the ingredients coming together harmoniously.

13: Matcha Aisu Kurimu
Green tea ice cream is has become almost clichéd these days. But I can honestly say that this is the best I've ever had. What did it for me was that, unlike many examples, the cha flavor was more subdued, letting the natural flavors of the ice cream come to the fore. A cup of tea was a perfect way to close the meal.

Wakasan provided a unique, and yet immensely enjoyable dining experience. For me, it was less izakaya fare and more about down home cooking. The simple honesty of the food and the faithfulness to the ingredients really stood out to me here. It was truly a new and splendid experience. At $35 for the omakase, Wakasan is a downright steal. I wouldn't feel out of place paying twice as much.

Saturday, April 05, 2008

I Love Sushi (Costa Mesa, CA)

I Love Sushi
2340 Harbor Blvd, Costa Mesa, CA 92626
714.540.6195 (Yelp, restaurant has no web site)
Sat 04/05/2008, 09:55p-11:20p

Truth be told, I didn't expect much from a sushi restaurant called I Love Sushi. It's probably a place I would've never have visited, except for the fact that it was 10:00pm, and we needed somewhere to eat. Someone in my party recommended this place, and so we decided to check it out.

Located in a strip mall, I Love Sushi doesn't exactly look like your typical Japanese restaurant. I think the place was just about to close when we arrived.

This incongruity continues into the interior. Quite simply, the decor looks more appropriate for a Denny's than a sushi joint.

Fortunately, the bar looks more promising. There are usually three sushi chefs behind the counter, and we sat in front of Tiger. I'm told that in his younger days, Tiger used to be a professional boxer.

Our sake of choice was Ozeki "Karatamba," which rang in at an affordable $65. It was pretty good, smooth and easy drinking, a prototypical example of sake actually.

1: Salad
We started off with a small salad. Not much I can say about it, except that it was fine and served its purpose.

2: Hamachi
We then went to hamachi. This was a typical example of what one would expect from the fish. It was fairly rich but not particularly flavorful. After having wild buri at Natori in Japan, the farmed hamachi you get in the States just seems a bit disappointing.

3: Tai
Snapper, or red sea bream, drizzled with ponzu and topped with scallion. This was quite good, with the accoutrements bringing out the subtle flavors of the fish. The tai had great texture and snap to it as well.

4: Maguro
This was a nice cut of tuna, with a clean, enjoyable taste and a lean, pleasing texture. A bit forgettable though.

5: Mategai
The razor clam was the clear standout dish for me. This was actually my first time having it. The taste was unlike all the other types of clams I've had before; it was very pure and mild in flavor, with just hints of the ocean coming through, and had an immensely satisfying, yet slightly chewy, texture. I wish more restaurants would offer this. Fantastic!

6: Uni
Although I'm not a huge uni fan, I thought this was a nice example. Mildly creamy with a subtle sweetness, it was exactly what one usually expects from uni.

7: Tuna Roll with Lobster
This roll may have had a special name that I was unaware of. In any case, it was a fairly typical roll, nothing creative here. It's hard to miss with lobster on top of tuna, but then again, it was quite tasty. Simple but effective I'd say.

8: Chu-Toro
After having quite possibly the best (certainly most expensive) toro of my life at Kyubey in Tokyo, I was disappointed with this. I realize this was only chu-toro, but I was still expecting more. The fish was actually quite hard in consistency, almost rubbery actually, and I felt none of that melt-in-your-mouth goodness that I usually get from toro. Rather weak flavor as well.

9: Beef Stew
For some reason, only one member of my party received this dish at the end of the meal. We passed it around to taste and it was again a fairly standard stew. Nothing to write home about, but it worked.

So what do I think of this place? Well, as the name suggests, I Love Sushi is fairly westernized, and I do think it caters mainly to your typical Newport crowd. And within that limitation, it works fairly well. Just don't come in expecting Urasawa-level goodness (or even Kasen-level goodness for that matter). For the true enthusiast, I think there certainly are gems to be found, such as the mategai and the tai; just tread carefully, and you should be safe.