Ah So-So Sushi

Zipangu excels when youre important, pleases when youre not

Photo by Amy TheiligZipangu is empty. There are two people at the sushi bar, two tables with customers in the restaurant, and not a soul in the lounge. This could have something to do with the fact that the flat-screen TV on the wall is showing MichaelFlatley:LordoftheDance.

It's terribly schizoid: the attention to décor, with elegant blue drop lights, padded cerulean banquettes and chic grey walls; the ambitious Japanese fusion menu, with veal sweetbreads and foie gras; the branding and marketing, bringing in superstar Japanese DJs and film parties . . . and now, LordoftheDanceon the teevee and some rubbish lite R&B on the sound system.

The place one of my dates derided for being too trendy (and that wasn't even the night the Kansas City Chief and his gigantic buddies were there stuffing their faces) . . . isn't.

What on earth is going on here?

The first time I went to Zipangu, I'd been invited by the restaurant's marketing guy. It was a ridiculous meal of New York steak and lobster rolls and poke salad (It's a salad! It's sashimi! It's a floor wax anda dessert topping!) and piles of sushi the size of my head. It was a bounteous, gluttonous, magnificent feast that my five freeloading friends and I still couldn't finish, all mingled with flights of a light and tasty raspberry sake that was clearly designed, like wine coolers, to get into cheerleaders' skirts. If I were a cheerleader, you sure could have gotten into mine.

But of course it's never the same when you go to a restaurant when they don't know you're important . . . and you have to pay your own bill. Still, I've been back four times since, and each time it's been fine. There are quibbles here and there—the LAB Star roll this time (Maine lobster with asparagus, avocado and roe) was too loosely wrapped to eat easily, and it had a bitter taste as well; at $18, we should have been howling at the moon. Last time, the halibut sushi was anemic, in size and wilted texture, and lacking the thoughtful touch of scallion, roe and Ponzu sauce. And the poke salad was neither a floor wax nor a dessert topping. It was just some raw fish on some lettuce with too much sesame vinaigrette instead.

But there were still marvels too: the kabocha dumpling is baby lobster and pureed Japanese pumpkin in a balsamic glaze. Garnished with some sort of flash-fried sage or mint, it was delectable—and it was $6.50. The New York steak, served as sushi-sized pieces in a tangy teriyaki sauce, was buttery and tender and perfectly done (though how you're supposed to eat mashed potatoes with chopsticks is something my parents never taught me). The wax beans that came with it, though (and although they looked pretty in their small pile on the plate), were lumpy, bland and undercooked. Come on, Zipangu! Give us back the love!

It may sound like Zipangu's terrible. It's not—it's good!—and for chic Japanese fusion, it's reasonably priced. The waitresses are lovely, the food comes instantaneously, and each time with the waitress saying softly, "Excuse the wait." Oh, the wait of three-and-a-half minutes from when we ordered? It's just that it can be so much more . . . if you happen to come with an important person. With an expense account. When they're showing TheBigLebowskiinstead of LordoftheDance.Failing that, at least you've got the restaurant to yourself. No, there's no wait at all.

ZIPANGU, 2930 BRISTOL ST., COSTA MESA, (714) 545-2800; WWW.ZIPANGUOC.COM. OPEN MON.-TUES., 11:30 A.M.- 2 P.M., 5:30 P.M.-MIDNIGHT; WED.-FRI., 11:30 A.M.-2 P.M., 5:30 P.M.-1:30 A.M.; SAT., 5:30 P.M.-1:30 A.M.; SUN., 5:30-10 p.m. DINNER FOR TWO, $30-$130, FOOD ONLY. FULL BAR. ALL MAJOR CREDIT CARDS ACCEPTED.

 
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