Bistro Anju Has an Iron Chef
The six people who sat at a table in the back of the restaurant were obviously drunk on too much sake. Their increasingly rowdy voices were fast becoming slurred cackles of obscenities and snorts. With every f-bomb they dropped, the other customers cringed, embarrassed for Bistro Anju's owner, Hideki Saito. He deserved better customers than this. Only when they left, stumbling over their own feet, did the room collectively sigh, the tension lifted.
After that, all was as it should be. Saito, the man everyone had come to see, was the center of attention once more. Throughout the entire uncomfortable episode, he barely flinched, his smile unwavering, his attention focused on directing his two helpers to slice fish, plate food and make sure the remaining guests ate well. Only the Buddha is more unflappable.
Though the lit sign outside simply says, "sushi" and the space inside is more kitchen than dining room, Saito's restaurant is not the generic neighborhood sushi joint those drunkards mistook as a place to get sloshed over a few California rolls. They squandered a chance to enjoy one of the county's finer sushi places, one on the same level as peers Hamamori and Bluefin By Abe. Saito produces California rolls and decent nigiri on rice that's a touch too sweet, but he'd rather dazzle you with foie gras and gazpacho—things cooked on a blazing stovetop and employing more than just wasabi as ingredient. You get to see the man at his best when you opt for his omakase dinner, which counts six courses, each a demonstration of his cuisine's influences. Like Cafe Hiro's Hiro Ohiwa (a close friend), Saito mixes French and Italian with Japanese. He offers a cheaper-by-$5 chef's tasting menu that sees the same dishes from day to day, but the omakase allows the man to freely riff on the freshest ingredients.
The meal usually starts with a subtle, frigid gazpacho. In its slushie pulp of a puréed tomato, two fleshy lobes of oyster and fluffy tufts of crab lie dormant until you scoop them out and slurp. Two halves of an olive float like life preservers. Drizzles of pesto invigorate. Soon comes a trio of amuse bouche. One of the three will most likely be crumbles of flesh-colored foie gras resting on a slice of green apple and a cracker. The liver, served cold, melts on the tongue like butter-flavored ice cream. Another amuse features raw slices of slippery scallop hiding under the dark blanket of a tangy, almost fruity sauce made from saikyo miso. But it's the scallop's briny sweetness that asserts itself over the micro-planed, almost-tasteless black truffles used as garnish. Though it's crowned with caviar and tear-drop dollops of more pesto, an amuse of smoked salmon draped over creamed avocado seems the least amusing, but only in light of what came before.
The first substantial entrée will be a small one, but it'll be likely richer than anything you'll eat all night. One evening, it was seared foie gras buried under syrupy spoonfuls of warm, sweetly tart berry compote. The latter tempered the liver's ducky decadence and served as first aid for the few spots that remained sinewy even after the sear. Next will be a main entrée, and it's usually here that Saito shows off, ditching restraint in favor of ingredient overload. One night, it was a rice-cracker-pellet-crusted, deep-fried sea bass teetering over two breaded potato croquettes; they sat on a bed of avocado mash, some broth and more of that invigorating pesto. On top of the fish, a mound of onion salsa threatened to topple over. But it all works. The nutty rice-cracker crust contrasts the delicate flesh of the fish; the potato soothes like a natural foil to the sharp onion.
Saito winds down the meal like Hamamori and Bluefin do, with an assortment of nigiri sushi. But the same as his peers, Saito's sushi offering becomes anti-climactic and obligatory. The morsels become mere stomach fillers. A surprise of sorts comes with dessert: cheesecake airier than most meringues, less cloying than its American cousins. But what's unexpected isn't its fluffy consistency or that it's flanked by berries; it's that the plate is garnished with a few turns of the pepper mill. The cracked black pepper—loud and jarring—wasn't unwelcome, unlike those boozers who clearly missed the finer points of Saito's cooking.
This review appeared in print as "Iron Chef: Hideki Saito weathers drunkards and the clueless alike at his Bistro Anju to deliver great Japanese fusion plates."
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