Photo by Joy BastMy education in sushi came at knifepoint. At Hapi Sushi, I watched in astonishment as an elderly Asian man, presumably Japanese, laid the edge of his blade at the side of a cucumber and began to carve. The blade whizzed around the circumference of the vegetable with alarming speed and precision. Within moments, the jocular chef had transformed what was once a solid cucumber into a single paper-thin cucumber sheet.
Cooking is an art form, certainly, and as with most art forms, the majority of its practitioners are adequate at best. All three of the chefs I've observed at Hapi Sushi are true virtuosos, capable of transforming raw ingredients into something not only delectable but visually striking as well.
The best way to enjoy sushi is to ask about the specials. A good sushi chef will inevitably suggest making something "special for you." Don't be too inquisitive. At Hapi Sushi, the sign reading "English spoken (barely) here" isn't much of a stretch. Each time I've entrusted myself to their culinary knowledge, I've been rewarded with unprecedented sushi, something beyond my imagination—like the time I was handed a tuna roll topped with fresh, pulsating red strawberries. Or a sort of tofu roll topped with peanut sauce: nothing I had requested, nothing even listed on the menu. Inspiration had struck the chef, and it would be served at the same price as a more pedestrian plate.
On a recent visit, I put the chef's skill to the test. My two guests and I split seven plates, including one of fried dumplings. The first plate was two types of sashimi, a white albacore and a red tuna, on a bed of rice noodles. Each piece of raw fish was sliced thin and was remarkably delicate. Tasty but definitely an appetizer. The second dish was more challenging, soft-shell clam on rice: thick and chewy, not tough, but with enough texture to be satisfying.
With the third plate, things got cooking, so to speak. The chef presented us with a tangy tempura roll, tuna and rice dipped in a fried batter that—by some culinary miracle as far beyond me as levitation, stigmata or teleportation—was amazingly tangy to the tongue. This was followed in quick order by a milder Masago roll and a somewhat more traditional rice, egg and tuna roll that was considerably milder.
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All of this proved a mere setup, however, for the pièce de résistance: a masterwork in the form of a crab and asparagus dish in which every piece was fresh, vibrant and sizzling with the flavor of its components. The chef (one of the younger ones at Hapi Sushi) smiled and said, "You like." It wasn't a question but an observation. He knew damn well we liked.
He didn't pause to be smug, instead moving on efficiently to produce a heavy, creamy sushi of rice, avocado and crab wrapped in soybean paper. We consumed like Newport housewives at Fashion Island armed with an American Express gold card.
The chef wanted to continue, and in a very real way, I wanted him to as well, but I could take no more. As we paid the bill and started to leave, I watched in envy as they prepared sushi on an oyster shell for someone else. The chef looked as if he could go all night without repeating himself, tireless.
Hapi Sushi, located at 250 Beach St., Laguna Beach, is open daily, noon-10 p.m. (949) 494-9109. Dinner for two, $17, food only. All major credit cards accepted.