According to Izakaya Ku's menu, the mackerel dish would be seared tableside. But I didn't expect the waiter to show up with a hand-held flamethrower. I admit inching away in my seat a little when it whooshed on as though it were an acetylene torch. We were sitting in an all-wooden booth shrouded with noren, the traditional Japanese curtain made of loose fabric, and I imagined the whole thing becoming kindling, the entire restaurant coming down in heap of ash. But in the middle of devising an escape plan, I became mesmerized. The blue flame licked the slab of mackerel as tenderly as a lover's tongue, the oily skin sputtering and hissing. Fine spatters of grease flew like sparks, and just as the smoke began to rise, the waiter was done.
He pushed the still-fuming plate toward us and advised a dip in soy sauce was all it needed. I noted how delicate the fish was, how surgical the cuts were so that each piece came loose from the whole, as if I were taking apart an elaborate jigsaw puzzle. In the middle of each morsel was a shallow slit in which I could tuck in a dab of mustard. The welding torch may well have burned itself a permanent spot in our retinas, but so did this dish in our memories.
You needn't go more than a few blocks to know why Izakaya Ku has to resort to such theatrics. The short stretch of Brookhurst Street it calls home has been dubbed Izakaya-Dori, the street of Japanese pubs, by our own Shuji Sakai. This is a turf long ruled by Kappo Honda and Shin Sen Gumi, old giants in the izakaya trade. Izakaya Ku is barely three months young, and if the restaurant needs to distinguish itself by playing with fire, it does so knowing it already produces dishes to rival the undisputed leader, Honda Ya. Like all eateries of this type, Ku offers bites and small plates designed for snacking in between swigs of sake and sweaty bottles of Asahi while in the company of rowdy friends.
Izakaya Ku, www.izakayaku.com. Open daily, 5.p.m.-1 a.m. Dinner for two, $30-$40, food only. Beer, sake and soju!
One night, the two center tables were monopolized by a boisterous Japanese party hoisting sake cups in never-ending toasts, cheering at the top of their lungs, becoming more raucous with each successive round. In between, they slurped motsunabe, a hearty camp-stove-heated stew topped with a bundle of chives and simmering with spicy miso, cabbage and rubbery, fat-rimmed beef intestines that you need to be a little tipsy to eat. Large quantities of kushiyaki were ordered, sticks of meat roasted by a smoky robata grill tended to by a squinting man standing behind a glass booth. The uninitiated will do well with a $9 sampler of five sticks randomly selected by the chef. When it arrives, it'll most likely include a skewer of chicken gizzards that bites as hard and crunchy as a rubber heel. The contrast is a stick of crumbly chicken meatball basted with a barbecue sauce and a simple, zen skewer of dark-meat chicken cooked to the point of perfect doneness and juiciness.
Along with oddities such as a curry-flavored chicken gratin, Izakaya Ku's menu has more deep-fried foods than the OC Fair's Chicken Charlie. Heck, I found sweet-potato fries in the strange-but-good dessert of green tea ice cream with sour cream. But the best such product has to be "Renkon," in which ground chicken mousse is sandwiched between taro root slices, the whole thing battered and fried in an homage to the Monte Cristo. When you tire of that, there's an excellent tofu caprese, which features a mozzarella-flavored bean curd lying atop tomato slices in a puddle of olive oil and crowned with a dollop of pesto. Take this one over the house-made plain tofu, which was boring despite three dipping sauces.
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Whatever you do, don't fall into the trap of ordering the dinner combinations that seem to be remnants from Funashin, the restaurant that preceded it. For what amounts to double the price of the standalone entrée, all you get as extras are a bowl of rice, a puny salad and miso soup. There's a list with the usual rolls—including caterpillar, spider and California—but you're much better off getting the hamachi carpaccio, thick slabs of silken raw fish adorned with bits of raw garlic and micro-diced jalapeños steeped in extra-virgin olive oil.
And just when you thought Izakaya Ku was done with the pyrotechnics, there's bagna cauda, an Italian version of fondue. Skewered raw vegetables are arranged as though they are a flower bouquet around a dipping sauce made of anchovies, cream and garlic that's heated by a votive candle. Come to Izakaya Ku soon—before the fire department does.
This review appeared in print as "Playing With Fire: Izakaya Ku resorts to pyrotechnics in a crowded market of Japanese pubs in Fountain Valley."