You don't put out a Top Ten list of sushi joints in OC and not inspire some discussion. I'd be disappointed if this one didn't. So the comment board is open for objections, inclusions and even agreement on the ten we've chosen.
Without further ado, the list:
10. Kaisen Sushi
Sushi purists should not regard the revolving sushi bar as a threat against tradition. Rather, places like Kaisen Sushi should be considered as stepping stones to eventual sushi enlightenment. Kaisen will familiarize you with the basics before you sit in front of a master. There are morsels here that you don't often find on a revolving belt joint. Take these lessons not just as a sushi primer, but as Japanese Cuisine 101. You are liable to see a sea urchin roe gunkan maki as you are likely to encounter a seaweed salad, inching you ever closer to someday attempting omakase. 3855 S. Bristol St., Santa Ana, CA 92704, 714-444-2161.
9. Yosuke Sushi
Yosuke's clients prefer to feast on teriyaki, tempura and California roll combination dinners, which are simultaneously economical and comical given the size of the gigantic bowl-like serving vessels that come with lids as big as hubcaps. Also popular are rolls such as a so-called Mitsy #2, for which a soy-paper-covered tube is filled with shrimp tempura, crab, avocado and cucumber, with an outer spackling of spicy tuna, is bent into an upside-down-U-shaped bridge. But the thing to get is the amaebi, which comes with deep-fried shrimp heads and, sometimes, their roasted egg sacks. 136 S. Fairmont Blvd., Anaheim, CA 92808, 714-921-4002.
8. O Fine Japanese Cuisine
O Fine Japanese Cuisine operates on the assumption you really like California rolls. In fact, it counts on it. Rolls make up more than half the menu. The California is just a start; there are some that don't employ a single grain of rice, a single sheet of nori, nor a single drop of soy sauce. There are also teriyaki combos, tempura this, sesame that, dishes that come with names involving the words "dynamite" and "volcano." 30872 S. Coast Highway., Laguna Beach, CA 92651, 949-715-5551.
7. WaSa Sushi
Before there was an Izakaya Wasa at the Spectrum, before the glamour of Hamamori strutted up to South Coast Plaza's Crystal Court, chef James Hamamori began with a humble neighborhood sushi bar in Irvine called WaSa Sushi. Though the chef is rarely seen there these days, his original restaurant is still one of the most beloved and reliably popular sushi bars in the city. Friday nights are routinely rowdy, with his trio of trusted sushi chefs loudly toasting, hoisting glasses of beer, having a good time with regulars, and continuing Hamamori's recipes and techniques, including his perfectly balanced "Treasures," which were conceived and honed right here. And to this day, the WaSa loyal come to pop in to grab a few bites of Hamamori's signature nigiri embellished with wasabi cream, crispy onion, microplaned jalapeño and other finishing flourishes that warrant the somewhat-presumptuous title. The "pizza," sticky-crispy rice platforms that carry spicy tuna smoothed to the consistency of jam, is so naturally good it seems like it has been part of the menu forever. Forget the obligatory and pedestrian bento offerings that entrap too many, with leaden tempura and a standard shredded-cabbage salad drenched with a flood of dressing--try something new and uniquely James Hamamori at prices that are a fraction of what his eponymous South Coast Plaza restaurant charges. 13124 Jamboree Road Irvine, CA 92602, 714-665-3338.
6. Sushi Imari
Within walking distance of OC Weekly headquarters, Sushi Imari enjoys a cult following of regulars who keep it quietly popular. Let's keep it that way. Do not be fooled by the rolls with names such as Marilyn Monroll and Me Soy Horny. In fact, if you're one of those nigiri purists, you might as well leave your pretentiousness at the door. Have you done it? Good. Now take in a live amaebi and prepare to be floored. The flesh is predictably crunchy and sweet, but watch what they do the heads,: the antennae are gilded in a thin shimmer of tempura batter that hang off like dew drops while the whole head gets rendered into an edible sea chicharon. Then have some uni, so sweet you swear it was made of egg yolk-y custard. Finally, the hamachi kama, which has to be the best rendition of the grilled fish collar anywhere--smoky down to the cellular level, skin gilded in char, flesh supple as fat. And those rolls with the cringe-worthy names are even marvelous too! 375 Bristol St., Costa Mesa, CA 92626, 714-641-5654.
Ikko Kobayashi has been called a sushi magician, but the man is really a mad scientist, grafting disparate ingredients like black truffles and uni together into creations that come alive in your mouth. As with all venerable sushi joints, whatever you do, do not ask for soy sauce or wasabi unless Kobayashi offers it. His experiments are precisely sauced and seasoned so you don't have to. 735 Baker St., Costa Mesa, CA 92626, 714-556-7822.
4. Ohshima Japanese Cuisine
Consider yourself inordinately lucky if you are seated in front of Shige, who is perhaps the most affable sushi chef you'll ever meet, with a striking resemblance to a Japanese Ray Romano. His omakase ranks as one of the most reasonable in OC: Starting at $25 for eight pieces, it's a bargain for the quality of the fish and the meticulous care Shige uses to cut and diamond score each morsel, molding it over perfectly portioned bullets of warm rice. To prep his lustrous sea bream, he sprinkles a few grains of sea salt and spritzes yuzu juice from a spray bottle. To finish his black cod, he caramelizes the edges under the whooshing jet of a blowtorch. He offers no soy sauce; it will never be required. 1956 N. Tustin St.
Orange, CA 92865, 714-998-0098.
3. Maki Zushi
Our winner of Best Sushi 2008 is known for consistency and superior freshness. Located in a small Tustin strip mall, chef Yoshio Sakamoto's Maki Zushi wins accolades from just about everyone across the board. This place, which has a patio, can delight the most hardcore sushi enthusiast or tepid novice. For the noob, Maki offers multiple teriyaki dishes, steaks, curry chicken and charbroiled sea bass in a citrus-butter sauce. For the sushi snob, Sakamato lobs serious stuff: uni cracked fresh from its live, writhing spiky shell; fish so sparkling it seems to still have the glint of ocean water. 1641 Edinger Ave., Tustin, CA 92780, 714-259-0783.
2. Sushi Wasabi
Sushi Wasabi's Katsu Aoyagi is a lone samurai standing in defense of an artform under attack from all sides. After all, everyone does sushi these days, or some form of it, but not everyone can be called an itamae. He is one in the truest sense of the word, as serious as one gets. Aoyagi is so rigorously old-school, he will not only refuse to make you a California roll, he puts it in writing. His mission statement, scrawled in calligraphy and framed next to his sushi bar, reads: "We follow the art of traditional sushi practice. Sushi bar is limited to the fresh catch of the day - continually served. No need to place an order. We offer sushi and hand rolls of Japanese tradition. (No California rolls. If self selection is preferred, please be seated at a table.)" Heed the man's words and you will be rewarded. 14460 Newport Ave., Tustin, CA 92780, 714-505-3496.
1. Sushi Shibucho
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It is a fact that personal relationships develop between every sushi-lover and his or her preferred itamae (sushi chef). Because of this, sushi is a subjective, um, subject: Everyone has his or her favorite sushi joint. But if we had to pick simply based on the scarcity of bar seats, the best of the best would have to be Sushi Shibucho. Tradition rules here, but not with an iron fist. Sakae Shibutani's omakase always starts with a cooked dish made by his wife. Then comes bright hues, textures, and tastes. Some feel like Jell-O. Others crunch, bursts, melts into pleasure-filled mouthfuls. You need not order "omakase" (sushi chef's choice) in front of the master to enjoy your experience here. But "omakase" is the way to go--not only for one of the best sushi meals of your life, but also the most reasonably priced. 590 W. 19th St., Costa Mesa, CA 92627, 949-642-2677.