I usually avoid using the too-easily misconstrued word authentic to describe anything. But not since Kappo Sui in Costa Mesa have I encountered a more authentic Japanese restaurant in OC than Jinbei. No other word suits it. If John Wayne were a man's man, then Jinbei is a Japanese restaurant's Japanese restaurant, where everything served is exciting, intriguing and unfiltered. It's the kind of place you tell your friends about and hope they tell their friends about it, even while you wonder how it ended up here, tucked deep inside a treelined pocket of residential Irvine in one of Don Bren's most manicured neighborhood centers.
Before Jinbei, save for a few standouts, Irvine's Japanese joints were stuck broadcasting one wavelength, serving the lowest common denominators of teriyaki, sushi rolls and tempura combo plates. In fact, before Jinbei, two failed Japanese concepts came and went at this very spot.
To please those who require such things, Jinbei serves bentos and sushi. But even the bentos are atypical here. The one that features tonkatsu used a pork cutlet thicker and juicier than I expected: breaded with a light-handed grace; cooked with a gushing piece of fat attached; and served with homemade pickles, a hijiki seaweed side dish and an eggy potato salad in two separate bowls. But what most distinguishes these bentos might just be the house-made miso soup. It possessed a depth of flavor I never knew I was missing at other restaurants.
As good as the bentos are, and as tempting as the imported Japanese cuts of sashimi and nigiri look, Jinbei's scattershot menu is best explored by trying the items you'll need the waitress to translate. There are actually three menus, but the legal-sized scroll titled "JINBEI's Daily Recommendation" has all the interesting stuff. It's here where I found raw, crunchy, gelatinous octopus chopped to worm-sized pieces and slicked with a bracing wasabi marinade. It's here that I asked what a "koika to pumpkin no taitan" was and found out it's a simple braised dish of sublimely tender squid with boiled kabocha squash. But even the things that need no translation were great. There were ruddy, deep-fried chicken wings singing of their sake marinade; delicately fried pumpkin croquettes; and a towering salmon skin salad that, when torched to order, filled the restaurant with a barbecued-fish aroma.
Also brûléed with the same whoosh of acetylene flames: the creamy crab gratin, a ceramic bowl filled with ooey-gooey cheese and crab meat that have been baked together into a chowder-like sauce so thick it could double as Alfredo. And if you've never had unagi in any other state than lacquered in sticky sauce on a caterpillar roll, the vinegared eel and cucumber is a must. The meat is singed naked so the char cuts through its fishiness, and the cucumbers are spiral cut to resemble accordions. Both absorb the dressing and make a revelatory dish in an ocean of revelations.
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Another masterpiece: a beef stew in a tomato sauce with grated parmesan cheese, kabocha squash, lotus root and shishito peppers that tastes as though a Japanese grandmother and Marcella Hazan joined forces. In fact, I should mention a lot of the dishes aren't even necessarily or originally Japanese. The most popular item is the uni spaghetti--a plate of pasta so rich, so buttery, so redolent of the sea I figure it must harbor enough uni to make at least a half-dozen gunkan-makis. Cafe Hiro in Cypress may be the most well-known in the county for its version of this Japanese-Italian fusion, but here, I witnessed the intense effort involved in its creation.
Through a window between the dining room and kitchen, I saw the chef pull the noodles in and out of the pan to coat every strand, aerate the sauce to the perfect state of frothy emulsion, and then plate it with even more precious lobes of sea urchin on top. And when I ordered the cod roe-stuffed tamago--the traditional Japanese omelet most places make ahead of time and serve cold--I saw the same gentleman take a square pan and, in the next five minutes, construct it from the ground up, layer by layer.
On my fourth visit, as I marveled over my dessert of ice cream bundled around a crepe and my date's still-steaming chocolate soufflé, I had to ask our waitress where in the world Jinbei came from. She said the owner and most of the chefs are from Osaka and the sushi master came from Kasen in Fountain Valley. When pressed, she told me this is the first restaurant its mysterious owner has opened outside Japan. She remarked that's the reason the dishes are a little "different."
"Yes, it is different," I replied. "But also authentic!" Jinbei, 3915 Portola Pkwy., Ste. 200D, Irvine, (714) 5442800. Open Sun.Thurs., 11:30 a.m.2:30 p.m. & 510 p.m.; Fri.Sat., 11:30 a.m.2:30 p.m. & 510:30 p.m. Dinner for two, $50-$75, food only. Beer, wine and sake.