Saturday, March 30, 2013

Shunka (Costa Mesa, CA)

Sushi Shunka
369 E 17th St, Costa Mesa, CA 92627
Sat 03/30/2013, 08:00p-10:35p

Shunka Exterior

I've always been impressed with the quality-to-price ratio offered at sushi joints in Orange County, places sushi as Ohshima and Nana San where you can get really good sushi without spending triple digits per person (which seems to be the requirement in LA proper). The last such restaurant on my "to-eat" list was Shunka, so I was determined to finally make it out here. Shunka's the work of Chef/Owner Yuki-san, previously head sushi chef at the longstanding (ca. 1978) Matsu in Huntington Beach. Yuki-san spent over 15 years there before opening Shunka in March 2012.

Shunka Interior
Shunka occupies the space that once held John Arteaga's Frenzy Sushi (tagline: Sushi Gone Wild!). The layout remains basically the same, but the decor's been tweaked to convey a more serious tone. The bar seats about 15, while a few tables line the walls.

Shunka Sushi Menu Shunka Sushi Menu Shunka Specials Board
Shunka's menu features your standard sushi fare, though the way to go is to sit at the bar and order omakase. If you insist on à la carte, I would at least pick selections from the specials board. Click for larger versions.

Marinated Snapper
Amuse Bouche: Marinated Snapper
Upon being seated, our itamae Juro-san quickly thrust before us small bowls of snapper, cooked in sake and soy. The dish didn't look like much, but was surprisingly satisfying, conveying a firm, dense, meaty texture along with a subtle fishiness that paired swimmingly with the mix of sweet and umami flavors present.

Kubota Manjyu
To drink, we decided upon a bottle of the Kubota Manjyu [$120], a legendary junmai daiginjo from Niigata's Asahi Shuzo brewery. Though the sake's fairly common, it's also unquestionably enjoyable: smooth, silky, and displaying a delicious blend of fruity and floral nuances along with a light touch of crisp, stone-y minerality toward the close.

1: Kuromaguro
We commenced our parade of sushi with a textbook cut of bluefin, which I found slick and supple, with a mild savor that was brought out by the application of soy sauce.

2: Kanpachi
Amberjack, meanwhile, was also on point, with a particularly satisfying consistency and mouthfeel to it.

3: Tai
Sea bream arrived clean and crisp, with a fantastic bit of zing from the yuzukosho that really complemented the delicate flavors of the fish.

4: Tako
Live octopus was superb: creamy, yet snappy in texture, with a softly salty taste that went perfectly with the spicy condiment on top.

5: Hotategai
Juro-san then dispatched a live scallop in front of us, presenting the bivalve in its own shell. I loved it, reveling in its soft, sweet, saline flesh, perked up by pinpoints of salt and a tiny dab of yuzukosho.

6: Kyuuban
I believe these were the suction cups from the octopus above, deep fried to perfection. I really liked the crispness here, as well as the super-savory flavors at play and how they paired with the tangy, umami-laced sauce.

Scallop Dynamite
7: Scallop Dynamite
With the remaining "sides" of the scallop, Juro-san prepared what amounted to a scallop dynamite. The hotate's firm flesh worked out surprisingly well against the hot, hearty, and creamy elements in the dish, with the scallion providing a much needed dose of levity to the mix.

Yagara Trumpetfish
8: Yagara
We were then given cuts of trumpetfish, a real rarity in sushi restaurants that I'd actually never tried before. The flavor on this one was very, very mild, so for me it was all about the texture: soft and supple, but with a very pleasing snap to it.

9: Aji
Next, an entire mackerel (a small one) was prepared for us by the Chef. It was very mild, very delicate for aji, with a lovely counterpoint in the form of that ginger and scallion, though I would've preferred less sauce.

Shima Aji
10: Shima Aji
Striped jack was spot on with its crisp, snappy consistency and sweet, saline flavors. Very nice!

11: Katsuo
Bonito, or skip jack tuna, gave us a fantastic savoriness that was deftly offset by the scallion. The tang of the accompanying ponzu made sense too, though perhaps less would be more here.

Hone Senbei
12: Hone Senbei
At this point, the remains of the mackerel from above were deep fried to make some delightful bone crackers, which showed off the savory, ocean-y essence of the fish, balanced by a hit of citric sourness.

13: Medai
Medai was yet another rarity, something that I'd only had before at L2O in Chicago when Laurent Gras was still there. Also known as Japanese butterfish or blue nose, it was somewhat creamy in texture and benign in taste, with a great kick of piquancy from the topping of what I believe was some sort of pepper.

14: Akamutsu
Juro-san followed that up with akamutsu, a.k.a. gnomefish, blackthroat seaperch, or deep sea snapper. It's a fish that I'd only tried before at Las Vegas' Bar Masa. Tonight, it was fantastic, with a glorious savory char character that paired gorgeously against the salt-spicy jolt of yuzukosho.

15: Toro
Toro was of the medium variety: cool, dense, fatty, and almost melt-in-your-mouth, though not particularly interesting.

Itoyori Dai
16: Itoyori Dai
Itoyoridai is another hard-to-find specimen. Known as golden threadfin bream, its flesh was lean and subtle, with the shiso and salt here serving as great accompaniments.

Uni No Temaki
17: Uni No Temaki
Our only roll of the night featured lush, creamy tongues of sea urchin, which paired well with the minty shiso notes in the course. Loved the undercurrent of spice here as well.

Sakura Masu
18: Sakura Masu
Ocean trout was crisp to the bite, and very full-flavored, with a palpable brine that worked out well with the lemon-y tartness present.

19: Amaebi
Sweet shrimp was butchered right before our eyes, the result of which was a masterful preparation of amaebi: sweet, creamy, and saline, with certain crispness and spring to it.

Ebi No Atama
20: Ebi No Atama
The heads of the aforementioned shrimp, of course, were then deep-fried and brought out.

21: Suika
Dessert comprised watermelon, which seemed particularly succulent and sweet.

Juro-san, Shiori, Eiji-san
Our itamae Juro-san, along with fellow chef Eiji-san and server Shiori.

Have no doubt, Shunka managed to impress. Save for a few minor quibbles, the food here was pretty much spot on, really solid, with a selection of rare seafood that's hard to match. Service was also commendable, as were the chefs' fun, lighthearted demeanors. The restaurant is certainly one of the top sushi spots in OC, and was a fantastic value to boot, coming in at only $58.50 per person, food only. Sushi fiends, take notice.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

The Royce Wood-Fired Steakhouse (Pasadena, CA)

The Royce Steakhouse
1401 S Oak Knoll Ave, Pasadena, CA 91106
Thu 03/28/2013, 07:30p-11:15p

One of the more unfortunate shutters in recent times has been that of The Royce, the flagship restaurant at Pasadena's Langham hotel. Ever since opening at the end of 2010, the place had been one of my favorite spots in the Southland thanks to Chef David Feau's elegant, sophisticated cooking. However, I suppose the cuisine never really resonated with the area's demographic, and the restaurant ended up closing on January 26th, much to my disappointment. In its place comes a new incarnation of The Royce, this time a steakhouse that's ostensibly much better suited to the hotel's target clientele. This new concept debuted on March 15th, and is helmed by none other than Chef Anthony Zappola of Craft fame.

About the Chef: Raised in Cleveland, Ohio, Chef Zappola got his start in the industry at age 15, working at an Italian restaurant in his hometown where he worked his way up from a dishwasher position. From there, he cooked at a number of local eateries before deciding to go to culinary school. Zappola attended classes at the Scuola di Arte Culinaria Cordon Bleu in Florence, Italy for nine months, then began a year-long program at Le Cordon Bleu London in 2000. After graduating in 2001, he moved back to the States and found employment in Chicago, and then New York. In July 2004, he started at Tom Colicchio's Craft, making his way up to the post of Sous Chef in charge of private dining.

Zappola then moved to Texas in the middle of 2006, where he opened Craft Dallas as Executive Sous Chef. A couple years later, he was promoted to Chef de Cuisine after the departure of Kevin Maxey, but would leave in May 2009 to take the reins at Craft Los Angeles, replacing Matt Accarrino (now at SPQR in SF). Zappola's Pastry Chef, Shannon Swindell, would also leave Dallas for LA, taking over for Catherine Schimenti. His tenure at Craft lasted until the end of 2010, and the Chef spent a couple years under the radar (which included an unpublicized stint at Animal) until re-emerging earlier this year at The Royce, where he's joined by David Feau's old Sous Chef Perry Pollaci as well as new General Manager Matt Nathanson.

The Royce Steakhouse Menu The Royce Steakhouse Drink Menu
The Royce's new steakhouse menu is fairly par for the course given the genre, and focuses on high-end cuts cooked on an Aztec wood-fired grill that burns white oak and other sundry timber. À la carte is the way to go here, though it is possible to arrange a special tasting at the Chef's Table (normally used for communal seating) as we did. Click for larger versions.

Bread Selection
The bread selection consisted of gougère, olive, and whole wheat sourdough varieties, paired with a nice butter.

OYSTERS [$3.00/each] | On the half shell
Jean-Marc Brocard, Domaine Ste. Claire, Chablis, 2011
Oysters come in three varieties here, and we had to try all of 'em, natch. In raw form, we had Kusshis, one of my favorites, and they were prototypical of the style: clean, crisp, and oh-so briny.

OYSTERS [$3.00/each] | from the wood-grill
Jean-Marc Brocard, Domaine Ste. Claire, Chablis, 2011
Crystal Bay oysters arrived lightly grilled, with the smoky, charred flavors from the cooking process forming a fitting balance to the oysters' inherent salinity.

OYSTERS [$3.00/each] | Gratin
Jean-Marc Brocard, Domaine Ste. Claire, Chablis, 2011
Finally, we had Misty Bay oysters, a hot, heartier presentation that married the natural flavors of the bivalves with a hit of rich, savory, vegetal nuances from the dish's au gratin topping.

STEAK TARTARE [$16.00] | tabasco vinaigrette
Chateau Clarettes, Côtes de Provence Rose, 2010
The quintessential steak tartar was done proud here. The meat itself was spot on in terms of texture, and melded beautifully with the pickle-y bits incorporated within. Even better, though, was the use of Tabasco, which added a jolt of heat that lingered long into the finish. The included potato chips were a nice touch, too. A must-try as far as the appetizers go.

WAGYU BEEF CARPACCIO [$18.00] | spicy radishes
Chateau Clarettes, Côtes de Provence Rose, 2010
A carpaccio was made from beef cured in-house for three days, and was surely one of the best preparations of the dish I've had, putting forth a definite gravity and meatiness that I found quite satisfying. The kick of the olive oil made sense here too, tying together some of the flavors, while the greenery on the plate provided some bright, bitter counterpoints to the heft of the beef. Loved the accompanying bread here as well, which came toasted on the wood grill.

MARYLAND CRAB CAKE [$18.00] | sumac, roasted lemon yogurt
Chateau Clarettes, Côtes de Provence Rose, 2010
I've still yet to find a crab cake that surpasses the one at Gulfstream, a damn shame given that Gulfstream is such a corporate-y type of chain restaurant. The version here tonight was good, but again, still didn't reach the lofty level I was hoping for. The sweet, saline essence of crab was there, though unfortunately its impact was lessened by the fried outer batter. That being said, the dish still worked, with the yogurt and sumac providing a tart, tangy balance to the fritter.

A pair of poussins were brought out tableside before being taken back to the kitchen to be carved and plated.

COLORADO RACK OF LAMB [$58.00] | vadouvan jus
Mollydooker, "The Boxer", Shiraz, South Australia, 2011
A rack of lamb arrived deftly prepared: tender and definitely "lamb-y," with a good hint of char goodness and a mélange of sweet and spicy notes from the vadouvan.

HAWAIIAN PRAWNS [$28.00] | candied peanuts, chilies
Argyle, Pinot Noir, Willamette Valley, Oregon, 2011
Taste-wise, the prawns were on point, showing off an appealing salinity to them. However, texturally, I wanted them snappier, springier, with more of a bite. The greens did work here gorgeously though, imparting a fantastic bitterness and whisper of char to the dish.

WHOLE ROASTED ORGANIC POUSSIN [$26.00] | kumquats, rosemary jus
Argyle, Pinot Noir, Willamette Valley, Oregon, 2011
At this point, the aforementioned poussin arrived at our table. Though it was basically a small chicken, it was quite unlike your typical preparation of the bird. The poussin conveyed a pretty remarkable depth of flavor to it, along with flesh that was firm, taut, and dense to the bite.

SEA ISLAND RED PEAS [$9.00] | fresh bacon
Along with these more substantial courses came a few of our sides, my favorite of which were the peas. I loved their firm, substantial texture and rich, robust flavors, tempered by the bright, herb-y, spicy nuances in the dish, all while the pork belly added a delectable hit of salt into the mix. If you're only going to get one side, make it this.

SOFT POLENTA [$9.00] | mimolette cheese
Polenta, meanwhile, was pretty much flawless: creamy, cheesy, subtly gritty, and undeniably satisfying.

Radicchio displayed a delectable balance of bitter and smoky flavors, though I would've liked the leaves a touch crisper.

Gunma Beef Slicing Steak
Chef Zappola brought out a slab of his well-marbled Japanese stripsteak prior to grilling, then came back to slice the meat tableside.

Japan | KOBE-STYLE WAGYU NEW YORK STRIP [$400.00] | 16oz
Bodegas Juan Gil, "Silver Label", Murcia, Spain, 2006
What we had here was a strip loin of kuroge beef from Gunma Prefecture, priced at a not-unreasonable $25 per ounce. It was exactly what you'd expect from real-deal wagyu: lush and melt-y, with an apparent, but well-integrated fattiness to it that was beautifully moderated by the slight char astringency in the steak. It's a cut above everything else that's out there, and definitely worth your time and money to try a few ounces if you've never had genuine Japanese beef before.

Bordelaise, Chimichurri Horseradish Cream, Béarnaise
With the Japanese beef dispensed with, we were provided a quartet of sauces, which are complementary here: Bordelaise, chimichurri, horseradish cream, and béarnaise. They weren't truly necessary, but did provide an additional dimension to the steaks.

Moyer Farm, Grain-Fed USDA Prime, Pennsylvania | NEW YORK STRIP
Moyer Farm, Grain-Fed USDA Prime, Pennsylvania | NEW YORK STRIP [$54.00] | 18oz
Bodegas Juan Gil, "Silver Label", Murcia, Spain, 2006
First up was a quintessential cut of standard New York strip, done rare (note that we did not request specific temperatures, instead relying of the Chef to make the proper decision in each case). Good flavor on this one, with a noticeable amount of fat as well.

Moyer Farm, Grain-Fed USDA Prime, Pennsylvania | FILET MIGNON
Moyer Farm, Grain-Fed USDA Prime, Pennsylvania | FILET MIGNON [$38.00] | 8oz
Bodegas Juan Gil, "Silver Label", Murcia, Spain, 2006
Compared to the strip, the filet was of course a step down in terms of flavor, though it was utterly tender, with a char complement from the crust. Could've been a touch rarer, though.

MACARONI AND CHEESE [$9.00] | tasso ham
Zappola's mac 'n' cheese was something special, incorporating not only a trio of cheeses but a maple Béchamel sauce, which resulted in a fantastic sugary undercurrent in the dish. I appreciated the additional complexity of the tasso here as well.

Spinach was quite to my liking. I really appreciated how the texture of the greens was so deftly displayed here, and how the bitterness of the veggie was so aptly complemented by the earthy dressing, redolent of truffle. A must-try for the spinach fiends out there.

Showing Off Meat
Here, Zappola shows off some tasty looking cuts of Brandt beef.

Brandt Beef, 100% All-Natural, Brawley, California | FILET MIGNON
Brandt Beef, 100% All-Natural, Brawley, California | FILET MIGNON [$56.00] | 8oz
Bodegas Juan Gil, "Silver Label", Murcia, Spain, 2006
Moving on, we had here filet mignon from local producer Brandt Beef, which was a remarkable step up in terms of flavor. It conveyed an almost "earthy" flair to it, which is hard to find with filets. For me, this was definitely worth the uptick in price vis-à-vis the Moyer.

Brandt Beef, 100% All-Natural, Brawley, California | RIBEYE
Brandt Beef, 100% All-Natural, Brawley, California | RIBEYE [$49.00] | 14oz
Bodegas Juan Gil, "Silver Label", Murcia, Spain, 2006
The Brandt rib eye would probably be my choice among all the steaks here if I had to consume a bunch of it. It displayed a bold, focused beefiness to it that was joined by a well-placed fatty character, resulting in an supremely balanced steak overall.

Mushrooms, meanwhile, were just what I was expecting. Can't go wrong with this.

The potatoes gratiné was a fairly classic interpretation of the dish, with the firm, hearty cuts of potato augmented by a rich, enveloping cheesiness, all while a touch of pepper offered up a nice counterpoint.

Showing Off Steak Cutting Steak
Last up was Australian wagyu from producer Greg Norman.

Greg Norman Signature Australian Wagyu | RIBEYE
Greg Norman Signature Australian Wagyu | RIBEYE [$65.00] | 12oz
Bodegas Juan Gil, "Silver Label", Murcia, Spain, 2006
This was another commendable presentation of rib eye. Compared to the Brandt, this was a more luxurious cut, with a more in-your-face richness and more apparent fattiness. I'd have a tough time choosing between the two.

Greg Norman Signature Australian Wagyu | NEW YORK STRIP
Greg Norman Signature Australian Wagyu | NEW YORK STRIP [$68.00] | 14oz
Bodegas Juan Gil, "Silver Label", Murcia, Spain, 2006
Lastly, we ended with the Aussie striploin. Again, there was strong flavor, appropriate char on this preparation, nothing out of place, but I'm not sure if it's worth it over the non-wagyu beef, which was already very good.

The Royce Steakhouse Dessert Menu
Desserts are now the task of Pastry Chef April Baton, who actually started out working here under David Féau. Click for a larger version.

MAPLE BRIOCHE BREAD PUDDING [$11.0] | candy cap mushroom ice cream
Ramos Pinto 20 yr tawny port
We began with a lovely bread pudding, the bread really soaking up all of the goodness that the maple had to offer, while the candy cap added an additional hit of sugariness to the fray.

FRIED CINNAMON BEIGNET [$11.00] | chocolate bailey's sauce
Ramos Pinto 20 yr tawny port
Beignets were straightforward in presentation, offering a churro-esque sweet spice to them that made sense against the chocolate-y Bailey's dip.

WEST COAST DUTCH BABY [$11.00] | market fresh berries and tahitian vanilla ice cream
Ramos Pinto 20 yr tawny port
Next was a version of the Dutch baby, a light, almost fluffy and soufflé-like pancake. Its pairing with tart, tangy berries and ice cream wasn't groundbreaking, but was effective.

GINGER BABA RUM [$11.00] | chestnut cream, rum ice cream
Ramos Pinto 20 yr tawny port
Here was the Chef's take on the classic baba au rhum. It maintained the traditional appeal of the dessert, conveying an interplay of sweet and boozy flavors, all while the use of chestnut cream and salted caramel added further facets to the dish. The rum ice cream, meanwhile, was the perfect topping to the cake, and I appreciated the texture from the cinnamon tuile as well.

CHOCOLATE LAYERED MOUSSE CAKE [$11.00] | vanilla malt milk shake
Ramos Pinto 20 yr tawny port
We concluded with my favorite dessert of the evening. It was pretty much your perfect chocolate cake, an unabashedly sugary, uncompromisingly satisfying smack of cacao-laced goodness, wonderfully paired with that delightful vanilla shake.

Over the past several years, CUT in Beverly Hills has consistently been my favorite steakhouse in the Southland. However, my last experience there was somewhat disappointing, and thus this new incarnation of The Royce has a good shot at taking over that top spot. The food, from the steaks to the sides to the apps, was consistently strong overall, and Zappola really is a great fit for the job. The use of a wood-fired grill, meanwhile, adds a wonderful char character and complexity to the cooking that helps set the place apart. To take things over the top, what I'd love to see is the restaurant increase the scope of its own dry aging program. Either way, what we have here is undoubtedly another great addition to the Los Angeles steakhouse scene.