By Kristine Hoang
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By Edwin Goei
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When eating at the new H2O Sushi & Izakaya at the Triangle in Costa Mesa, Sushi Shibucho worshipers will need to try very hard to not think about how close they are to their temple. Though mere yards separate the two restaurants, the gulf between them is larger than the Pacific Ocean is wide. H2O Sushi & Izakaya is everything Sushi Shibucho isn't. H2O is to sushi what Javier's is to tacos. So if you're a self-professed sushi snob and you find yourself here, you should bite your tongue because it's likely the people you're with aren't the same kind of sushi consumer you are. They, unlike you, will regard Sushi Shibucho's refusal to do California rolls as elitist, not admirable. Omakase? They don't know the word.
What they're after are rolls fashioned into snakes and volcanoes, the fish and rice practically drowned with sauces sticky-sweet and Sriracha-based. They'll supplement the meal with combo plates containing something teriyaki and something tempura, then wash it all down with neon-colored sake martinis. Unlike you, they didn't go out tonight to sit quietly and reverentially across from an itamae who apprenticed for years under his father's stern tutelage. H2O's customers are those who will regard its nightclub aesthetics and the halting screeches of the dubstep soundtrack not as distractions, but as essential to the experience.
To that end, H2O delivers. You will be treated well here by staff members whose average age is the same as the crowd—mid- to late twenties. The bubbly waitresses are as cute as Sailor Moon heroines, and the managers are as chummy as frat brothers during Rush Week. Order the shrimp with jalapeño sauce, and one of them comes over and says, "That's my absolute favorite appetizer." Later, you overhear him telling the same thing to another couple, even though they're eating something completely different. But the shrimp, you admit, isn't bad. In fact, it's one of the better dishes of the night, with each crustacean curl lightly battered and fried, then nested atop a guacamole-like purée made from avocado, lime and jalapeño.
1870 Harbor Blvd.
Costa Mesa, CA 92627
Region: Costa Mesa
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The izakaya list holds even more gems. The agedashi tofu here is better than at Tomikawa in Irvine—a sister restaurant in the Octopus Japanese Restaurant empire—coated lightly in starch instead of just dipped in tempura. The albacore tataki, with its thinly sliced jalapeños and grilled garlic, you decide, is also done well, with the sashimi cut generously thick and the douse of yuzu kind of electric. Even more transcendent: the halibut and uni carpaccio, a dish that makes the brain pause mid-synapse as it processes the pleasure of the cold-on-cold, brisk-on-brisk—the two bites they give you gone too soon.
At some point, you feel brave enough to try the nigiri. And you are surprised that some are rather excellent. The yellowtail is laced with a stream of miso sauce and a jalapeño sliced as thin as paper. The garlic chips that adorn the bonito nigiri balance its tang. A translucent jacket of seaweed surrounding the saba tastes uncannily like a dried-fruit roll. The unagi, broiled till the sugary edges char, you can eat all day. And when you try the still-warm anago, you swear it goes down as though it were a tuna melt.
Disaster strikes as your date samples the Japanese scallop nigiri. Her eyes widen in terror as she discovers there's something off with it. She realizes she needs to spit it out, and since she doesn't want to offend the chef, she bolts to the restroom. When she comes back, she has lost her appetite.
You decide now is a good time to start trying the kushiyaki. But there are even more land mines here. The skewered sirloin steak is rubbery and empty of flavor. The bacon-wrapped asparagus seems to have been cut from the inedible fibrous stems of the plant. Weirdly boring are the pork-belly skewers, the chewy pieces in need of more salt and missing the smoky imprint that can only come from bincho-tan coal, which H2O does not appear to use. The chicken with onion yakitori you find passable, though regular onions, not traditional scallions, are wedged between the white-meat pieces. But it was still better than the shishamo. The two whole-roasted smelt taste as though they sat in the freezer or fridge too long, and thus they have picked up some odd flavors a box of baking soda should have absorbed instead.
Before you pay the huge check, you convince your date to try a dessert that involves banana ice cream and an Oreo-cookie crust. She agrees, and you eat it all because it's delicious. But you try your best to not groan when the manager comes by again to say, "Boy, you didn't like that at all, did you?"