If you are at a sushi bar and the guy slicing the fish is the also the guy from which the restaurant is named, you are all but guaranteed exceptionally great sushi. In this category, there's Ikko, Hamamori, and Shibucho -- just to name a few in Orange County where the chef responsible for your meal also signs the rent check.
But when you talk about the majority of sushi joints out there, this isn't the case. Most restaurants merely employ their itamae, who might be there one day, gone the next. As such, if you wait too long between visits, you might discover that the journeyman sushi chef whose creations you admired has left, leaving you to settle for the dreck made by the guy who replaced him.
Irvine's sushi bars are particularly susceptible to this game of itamae musical chairs. So when my friend and fellow O.C. food blogger Chubbypanda invited me to eat at Gen Kai, I was hesitant. This was, after all, a place I had already tried about a decade ago whose sushi left me unmoved.
But I agreed because Gen Kai had nowhere to go but up. And if there was a different chef holding court now, that meant a completely new dining experience -- perhaps a good one.
And I'm happy to say, it was.
The master currently behind the counter is an itamae named Juuji, who's held the post for the past two years. We did him the honor of ordering "omakase", which is the equivalent of bowing reverentially, and saying "I trust you to serve me what you will".
If he seemed initially caught off guard by our request (the restaurant was nearly empty that night), he was also delighted. He quickly sprang to action, putting forth one of the best and cheapest (more on the price later) omakase meals I've had lately.
It started with vinegary half-moons of cucumber and a palate-cleansing salad of squid and octopus. The squid harbored bites of sinus-clearing ginger cut into matchsticks and crunchy, julienned sea kelp. The octopus was in ribbons tinged orange from spiced vinegar -- the candy-sweet yin to the spicy yang of the squid.
Then he served a whole poached sea snail, impaled on a toothpick, which were to be used to coax the meat from the shell. The fleshy innards slid out with a tug, looking like the flexed bicep of a juiced-up body-builder -- lumpy, shiny, and resilient to my bite.
While I was still contemplating the complexities of the sea slug, our chef dispatched a live spot prawn, twisting apart its body into two halves. The tail he disrobed and deveined, posing it spread eagle on top of grated radish. The head he presented as a centerpiece on the plate. Its antennae were still writhing wildly in the last throes of death.
Flavored with the life force that coursed through it just seconds before, the sweet shrimp lived up to its name. But so did the others on the plate with it.
Orange clam, which were the size of guitar picks, actually trumped the shrimp on sweetness. Flanking it were scraps of aji in a tataki dressed with scallions and grated ginger. The fish, which is naturally salty, was also slicked with the oil that naturally oozed from its pores. Next to that were wedges of cherry-red chu-toro; frictionless and cooly soothing cuts of tuna.
Braised skate wing, chilled with its jellied broth, felt like a dense hybrid of chicken breast and canned tuna. I flaked the meat off its central bone using my chopsticks like a surgeon meticulously trying to extract a tumor.
Then came a delicate roll wrapped in soy paper, containing shrimp, salmon, asparagus and avocado, cut into teardrop cross-sections, served on a plate dotted with Sriracha and spicy mayo. This was followed by ankimo, the liver of what is possibly the most grotesque species to swim the ocean; the monkfish.
But with this delicacy that many consider the foie gras of the sea, fishdom's Quasimodo more than makes up for its hideous appearance. Its liver is similar to a very dense custard if it were made entirely of egg yolk. Like foie gras, one bite is more than enough before you overload on the richness. And one was all that I needed from the five pieces our chef provided.
In the meantime, our shrimp heads were whisked away to the kitchen, where it was lightly battered, and plunged into hot oil. Now fried, it was dangerously spiky, rigid, and completely serene-looking. I ate the whole thing -- beady eyes, fatty guts, skinny legs and all -- but very carefully, orienting its barbed face away from me. Even still, one errant appendage almost managed to pierce my inner lip. A good gnashing between my jaws pulverized the rest.
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A simple stack of pickled napa cabbage calmed my mouth after the savage battle with the shrimp head. Then, there was a squishy, mayo-sluiced, tobiko-topped, deep-fried nori roll that sat on slices of lemon. In a zen-master stroke typical of his style of speaking, Juuji called it "pizza".
Water-seared hamachi steaks sluiced in ponzu and shaved onion was the last thing he served before dessert. The perk and pep of the topping highlighted the meaty milkiness of the cuts.
As he closed our meal with some mango mochi ice cream, our itamae apologized that he wasn't able to offer us more cooked dishes. But for this terrific omakase meal that cost only $40 (tax and tip excluded), it was me who should be apologizing. How could I have not visited sooner? My only hope is that he sticks around a while. At least until he opens his own place called Juuji's.
Gen Kai of Irvine (949) 786-3420 15435 Jeffrey Rd # 119 Irvine, CA 92618