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In Full Retreat
Chef Cody Requejo shreds with both sushi knives and Stratocasters
A few weeks ago, in a review for Sea Smoke in San Clemente, I called owner Takashi Abe a “rock-star sushi chef.” It seemed an apt description for him, especially considering his groupie following. But perhaps I should’ve saved the label for Cody Requejo, the sushi chef at the Retreat in Costa Mesa.
695 Town Center Drive
Costa Mesa, CA 92626
Region: Costa Mesa
Why? Well, he really is a rock star.
By day, he works as the crisply uniformed, bandana-wearing itamae at the restaurant, which is inside the Spa, one of the most moneyed, pampering spots at South Coast Plaza. But by night, Requejo is the longhaired guitarist for rock/garage/experimental band Duress.
When I ate my lunch, I was oblivious to this, as are most of his customers. At his day job, Requejo doesn’t exactly advertise his guitar-hero cred. Truth be told, I had to follow the cookie crumbs from the Retreat’s home page to Requejo’s MySpace page to unmask him. And if you take a seat at the Retreat’s lime-tree-shaded patio, you’ll hardly even see the guy.
But just as you need only to listen to Duress’ music to know that Requejo the guitarist can shred, one taste of his food will also tell you that Requejo the chef can cut. And boy, can he—with skills honed from stints at sushi joints up and down the coast, Requejo is as much a pro with his sushi knife as he is with his Fender.
As proof, he offered us some sliced sea bream arranged in a pinwheel, with a spritz of citrus and a sprinkle of salt—a luminous dish worthy of Abe himself, even if most of Requejo’s customers hit him up for his rolls.
There’s his caterpillar roll, the best I’ve ever had. Tightly packed to unfurl, it did so in nuanced mouthfuls of rice and oven-crisped shards of sugary unagi. His spider roll was cut into neat segments, then separated by lemon slices and encrusted in caviar.
Requejo faltered slightly with his Fire Station roll, which featured thinly sliced, lightly scorched jalapenos over seared big-eye tuna draped over rice. Apart from the sting of the peppers, it didn’t live up to the promise of its name.
Our moonlighting musician did much better on his riffs with the appetizers. He didn’t boil his edamame; he sautéed it with garlic and Cajun seasoning. And the way he dribbled the Sriracha over his “nachos”—in which stir-fried scallops and shrimp wiggle atop fried wonton chips—was nothing short of ballsy.
His most rousing ballad came in the form of stuffed shishito peppers, simultaneously an homage and a critique of the jalapeno popper. Instead of cream cheese, he stuffs the peppers with spicy tuna, wraps them in white fish and mint leaves, and then fries the battered morsels to a golden laciness. You dunk each piece into a spicy-sweet sesame dipping sauce of his own creation—a brew so addictive it deserves to be bottled.
Ask for an extra bowl of it to soak the seared albacore panini in. What you lift out will be a tuna sandwich unlike any you’ve ever had—an unexpected union of grilled focaccia bread, rare sushi-grade tuna and shaved onions, all tied together with that magical sauce!
If you didn’t expect paninis in a sushi bar, you should also know that the Retreat does French toast and oatmeal in the morning for breakfast. And when Requejo’s buddy Dave Mau is around, all bets are off. Mau is a barbecue specialist who’s famous for his “Dining With Dave” events at Santa Ana’s Memphis Cafe, held every second and fourth Wednesday. Here at the Retreat, he’s in charge of the weekly specials, which can veer into unpredictable territory. One week, you’ll see shrimp quesadillas overstuffed with cheese. The next, there will be Tunisian salad with lentils.
One day, I ate one of Mau’s creations, a hollowed-out pasilla chile filled with chicken, cilantro, tomatoes and mozzarella, then served with Spanish rice. And I had it right after one of Requejo’s Japanese dishes. Why not? If a sushi chef can play rock music and Mexican food can be eaten as a chaser to sushi, anything’s possible.
The Retreat at the Spa, 695 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa, (714) 850-0050, ext. 135; www.thescretreat.com. Open for breakfast, Tues.-Fri., 7-11 a.m.; lunch, Tues.-Fri., 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Lunch for two, $20-$50, food only. Free valet with validation. Check website for Mau’s weekly specials.