For this list of Japanese restaurants, we intentionally left out the sushi bars because, well, we already did that list. We also shut out the ramen joints, teppanyakis, and yakinikus because, well, we still want to do those lists. But you can certainly have ramen and sushi, even a California Roll, at some of the restaurants we feature in our list of 10--a lineup thrown together in no particular order.
10. Kappo Hana
If you think most Japanese chefs are dead serious about their craft, you haven't met the chef at Kappo Hana, who is doubly so. Why? He's the only chef in OC we know who has the balls and the mad skills to serve kaiseki, the highest form of cooking in a cuisine already steeped in tradition. The meal features a laundry list of methods and ingredients, all in a multicourse, seasonal-menu popular centuries before seasonal menus became popular. Order the kaiseki dinner three days in advance, or for more immediate gratification, get the kamameshi dinner, a meal set in six courses, culminating in an iron pot presented tableside, full of rice and meat.
Though the sign outside simply says, "Sushi," Bistro Anju should not be counted among the sushi slapdash that dots our suburban mini-malls and shopping complexes with increasing frequency, even if its sparse dining looks like it belongs. It should be compared to its rightful peers: South Coast Plaza's Hamamori and Newport Coast's Bluefin By Abe. Yes, owner/chef Hideki Saito can produce California rolls and decent nigiri, but he'd rather dazzle you with foie gras and gazpacho, things cooked on a blazing stovetop and employing more than just wasabi.
First, let's put it on the record: Habuya is an Okinawan eatery, not a Japanese one. It is true that Okinawa is a prefecture of Japan, so it's technically still Japanese food, but that's like saying a pizza from New York is the same as pizza everywhere else. Okinawa has a distinct culinary culture. Unparalleled in their love of pork and bitter melon, Okinawans have a kindred spirit in Habuya's Mayumi Vargas. She revels in satisfying homesick tastebuds unserved by OC's generic Japanese joints. She sources a specialty ice-cream maker to supply a refreshing pineapple sorbet. Other indigenous dishes include chanpuru, an egg-lashed stir-fry of bitter melon that features tiny bits of Spam thanks to an omnipresent U.S. military, and ra fu te, the Okinawan variant of Japanese kakuni, which simmers with awamori, the prefecture's own rice wine. You know better than to ask for California rolls here (which, of course, aren't Japanese either).
Simmered pork belly cooked in a broth of shoyu and mirin. Fried chicken wings arranged artfully in a pinwheel over a thin, dark broth. All are precursors to the soba, which is made in-house and what this place is known and loved for. They have a special room. I repeat: a special room in which the buckwheat noodles are kneaded, flattened, and then turned into strands that might as well be golden threads. They are so precious every resilient chew tells you someone who cared made this.
It should be already widely known that Nana San is the reincarnation of the original Ango Tei, the much-beloved local spot at which an hour wait was as much a constant as the freshness of the fish. Ango Tei was sold to new owners a few years ago, but in the 25 years it was in business, Goro Sakurai, the owner's stepson, was being trained to master the sushi arts. Nana San is the culmination of that grooming. And here, with his wife, Judy, Sakurai seems ready to cultivate fans for his own quarter-century run. The best stuff isn't even sushi-related. A vibrant scallop-and-zucchini stir-fry fumes with a buttery aroma that you'll smell and taste days afterward. And the tempura-fried shiitake mushrooms stuffed with crab recall Disneyland's Monte Cristo sandwich. But the most inspired offering has nothing to do with fish or sushi and everything to do with pork--pork ribs and sausages, to be exact. The former is lovingly braised, then briefly charred--a dish designed to be so tender the meat can be peeled off with a gentle pinch of your chopsticks. The latter gleams in a snappy casing and bites like a smoky barbecue link. Slathered in hot mustard, both will win you over if Nana San's hospitality hasn't already.
The omakase meal at Bluefin can run close to $100 per person. This is, without a doubt, one of the most expensive sushi bars in the county, and the sushi isn't even the thing to get. The omakase, a meal set in six courses, is the best way to taste the creativity at work. There'll be an amuse bouche, in which some items might be flecked with goldleaf; others, if in season, fresh caviar. Then slices of owner/chef Takashi Abe's freshest sashimi take form as a brisk salad course, followed by two immaculately cooked courses of seasonal ingredients. Expect these dishes to feature anything from a stuffed quail with foie gras to a whole deep-fried mackerel stuffed with pumpkin--maybe even some Kobe beef medallions, if you're lucky. But it's not over--a sushi course is next, which will almost be anticlimactic after the excellent food you had prior. Finally, a slice of chocolate cake and ice cream will top off a perfect dinner that you hopefully didn't have to pay for.
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