Ennar Calasian Grill Puts Japan in Little Saigon
Ennar Calasian Grill has gigantic-yet-dainty shoes to fill—Haley Nguyen's, to be exact. Xanh Bistro, Nguyen's Vietnamese eatery, has been gone for a few months now, and Ennar has moved in, taking over the space with the same restaurant layout. But Xanh isn't going to be easily forgotten, nor is this newbie trying to replace the memory of Nguyen's divine, sizzling Thanh Long fish or the haunting sulfurous stink of her durian parfaits. So far, it doesn't even bother with anything overtly Vietnamese. There's not a single goi cuon or bánh mì. Despite being steps away from the Saigon Performing Arts Center, Ennar is mostly a Japanese izakaya with a laser focus on kushiyaki, coal-roasted meat skewers as good as those produced by Kappo Honda and Shin-Sen-Gumi on their side of Brookhurst Street.
If you asked me which izakaya I'd rather eat at right now, it'd be this one. The reason is partly economic. During Ennar's happy hour, the smoke-kissed meat sticks that might go for twice the price elsewhere average about $1 each here. It proves that good things happen when Japanese food, arguably the most expensive of all Asian cuisines, enters the realm of Little Saigon, home to one of the cheapest. The microeconomic effects are nothing if not a price equalizer.
You should, of course, start with the yakitori. Begin by ordering the thigh meat—everyone's de facto entry-level skewer. Each morsel, cut surgically into uniformly shaped nubs, is speared between fingers of scorched scallion. Then move on to the chicken wings, the skin rendered of its subcutaneous fat, the whole limb impaled on two strategically inserted bamboo sticks that end up resembling splints. The rest of the poultry list will consist of offal and other usually unexplored sections of a hen's anatomy. If only to say you did, try the cartilage, translucent cubes that are tougher to chew than plastic.
Eventually, you should ease yourself toward skewers that involve pork. The bacon-wrapped enoki mushrooms feature razor-thin slices fused onto the fungi. Later, you realize your dream of breakfast on a stick has been realized with the bacon-wrapped quail eggs. Then have some pig-cheek skewers that gush melted fat. At this point, you should also order a happy-hour-priced carafe of the paint thinner called Sengetsu Soju. When you do, a marvelous thing will happen: As the liquor strips your throat bare, the pork cheek's concentrated mix of meat and blubber coats it in piggy sweetness. The pork cheek is so fatty good it will make the pork-belly skewers seem vegan. And when it's time to move on to the red meat, shun the dry and mealy Kobe beef skewers for the lamb chops, even if they're $4 a pop. The medallions aren't the least bit gamy and are so soft it's as though they were made of meat vapor. Order the squid tentacles next, and swear you've never had calamari that was half as tender. They're roasted just to the point of doneness, not a moment longer.
After you've exhausted the kushiyaki list, take in a few of the gyoza, for which store-bought wrappers are used, but they are stuffed with a ground-pork filling that's as smooth as mousse. There's also an intriguingly simple plate called "ray fin nibble," golden-fried scraps of the fish and its soft cartilage that go down best with a cold, lubricating bottle of Asahi. You'll need another bottle to pair with the deep-fried matchstick pieces of pork belly that might as well be called crispy lardons.
If Ennar has one fault, it's that awkward "Calasian Grill" part of the name. A hyphen would've avoided the smart-alecks who might ask "Where, exactly, is Calasia?" Yet I understand the need to distinguish this place and be more than an izakaya. For the moment, it's covering a Japanese pub's greatest hits, but there are hints it has higher aspirations. There's a buttery ramekin of escargot with garlic and little grilled toasts—a dish you'd never see at Honda Ya, but it's expected when you find out Ennar's chef/owner is a Le Cordon Bleu grad. The chef's Vietnamese roots also peek through in a few dishes; he'll bake you a yellowtail collar the same as any respectable izakaya should, but it's going to be sprinkled with crispy, fried shallots. This simple Southeast Asian touch gives it a remarkable, burnt-onion sweetness you will now consider missing from the original dish. It also becomes an inadvertent hat tip to the venerable Xanh Bistro and Haley Nguyen, wherever she may be.
This review appeared in print as "An Izakaya In the Land of Bánh Mì: The new Ennar Calasian Grill takes over Xanh Bistro's old space."
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