Photo by Mark DanceyEating at Seal Beach's Koi Restaurant reminds me of getting my back scrubbed by a naked septuagenarian. And that, my friends, is a high compliment.
This airy, well-lit Japanese eatery on PCH evokes the trip to the resort town of Hakone, some 60 miles southwest of Tokyo, that I made last November with my Japanese wife and in-laws. Folks frequent Hakone for its hotspring baths known as onsens, and that mountainous hamlet boasts many hotels and restaurants where one may take a meal before changing into sandals and kimono and tromping off for an hour or so of soaking in large tubs of steaming mineral water.
Seal Beach thankfully lacks the sulfurous odor that permeates all of Hakone. Still, Restaurant Koi is much like one of those casual Hakone spots where one dines prior to a dip. Certainly Koi's spare, tasteful décor resembles that which you'll find in Hakone or other parts of Japan. Frosted windowpanes show the restaurant's dancing koi logo, and white paper lanterns dangle from the ceiling. A large sushi bar dominates the rear, and displayed throughout the restaurant are wooden mallets and barrels used for making the rice-based confection mochi.
The menu is uncomplicated, authentic and relatively easy on the wallet. No doubt this accounts for Koi's popularity with an upper-middle-class clientele evenly divided between Asians and non-Asians. Most nights of the week, the place is hopping, and on the weekend, you can expect a wait to be seated for dinner unless you arrive especially early in the evening.
Daily sushi offerings are posted on the walls. For a starter, I adore Koi's famous crunchy rolls ($7.50) made from shrimp tempura, a Japanese root called gobo, and smelt egg. I also suggest the sashimi appetizer ($11.95) with its delicious chunks of tuna, yellowtail and salmon.
When it comes to a main dish, I've always found Koi's tempura entrée with crispy veggies and shrimp ($12.75) adequate but hardly worth a handspring. Yet their chirashi sushi ($18.75), a medley of fresh tuna, salmon, yellowtail, crab, tamago (egg) and daikon (Japanese radish) on a bed of rice is as delightful as any I've ever tasted. If you're really famished, pig out on Koi's nabe ($16.95), a ceramic pot of scallops, shrimp, Chinese cabbage, tofu, rice noodles and sea bass, all in a light, tasty broth.
I know sea bass is politically incorrect these days, but what can you do? If you're an environmentalist, avoid it. If not, dig in! I wash all this down with a couple of large bottles of sake ($7.50 each) and afterward end it with some piping-hot green tea.
If it's dark and cold outside, so much the better for reviving my memories of the onsens of Hakone. But what about that naked septuagenarian and my soaped-up backside? Well, that was quite unexpected. On arriving in Hakone and seeing the many beautiful Japanese ladies walking to and from the baths in their kimonos, I was under the mistaken impression that the onsens were co-ed. Visions of my randy Rubenesque self surrounded by so much unclothed feminine pulchritude nearly caused me to swoon with anticipation. And it would, of course, have to be okay with my bride, as it is the custom for onsen-goers to bathe au naturel.
Alas, imagine my disappointment upon learning that not only are men and women segregated in the saunas, but that it's also considered proper to scrub down your relative's back while there. By dilly-dallying after dinner, I'd hoped to escape this familial bare buffing. But as I eased my nekkid Mr. French frame onto a tiny stool to wash off before entering the communal tub, my kind Japanese father-in-law literally leapt out of the bath to apply a sponge to my reverse side, going so far south as to enter certain crevices where no man has gone before or since.
Now whenever I visit Koi, my mind inevitably turns to a scene out of Caligula, with me in the title role. But in this case, as Martha Stewart would say, that's a good thing.
KOI RESTAURANT, LOCATED AT 600 PACIFIC COAST HWY., SEAL BEACH, IS OPEN FOR LUNCH, MON.-FRI., 11 A.M.-2 P.M.; DINNER, MON.-THURS., 5-9:30 P.M.; FRI.-SUN., 5-10 P.M. (562) 431-1186. DINNER FOR TWO, $45-$55, INCLUDES SAKE. AMEX, MC AND VISA ACCEPTED.
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