“Are you on Yelp?” the waitress at Mizuki asked when she noticed my camera on the table.
“No,” I replied.
“We’re getting pounded on there,” she said and sighed, a pained expression clouding her once-bright smile.
I pretended like I had no idea, but I already knew. And it’s not just the Yelpers. Reviews for Mizuki on blogs and Chowhound have also been almost unflinchingly unkind and uniformly harsh—the kind of frothing-at-the-mouth reaction that stops just short of calling for the whole place to be set ablaze.
Most reviewers expressed outrage at the prices, noting that some bowls of ramen were going for upward of $16. Others seemed to take particular glee at excoriating the incessant Kenny G soundtrack, the too-trendy designer décor of the cavernous room and how it all goes against the populist idea of the dish. (Ah, Kenny G. What is it about you that engenders fury in even reasonable people?)
Ramen, after all, is Japan’s hot dog. It’s arguably the most affordable, most beloved, most accessible of Japanese foods, often served in little more than streetside shacks or stalls.
And it is against the likes of the venerated Santoka Ramen—a food-court vendor at Costa Mesa’s Mitsuwa Marketplace—that the most fervent comparisons are drawn, with Mizuki always falling short.
In truth, Mizuki set itself up for this. In the weeks prior to its opening in Irvine’s Park Place, the restaurant advertised in local Japanese magazines, proclaiming itself to be the largest ramen-ya in the States. It also proudly announced that its chef, Maesawa Masahiro, trained under Sano Minoru, the ramen god whose prestige is equivalent to that of Paul Bocuse. Both heightened expectations to impossible-to-meet levels.
The 20 or so varieties of ramen, some of them non-traditional (teriyaki-chicken ramen, anyone?), also caused some to scoff that Mizuki was pandering to those who wouldn’t know any better. Though most of the bowls do hover around the $14 mark, it must be noted that the prices (about $9) for the four basic models (shio, shoyu, tonkotsu and miso) are on par with the larger servings at Santoka or Shinsengumi, with just about the same amount of noodles and soup.
When our server returned with the tonkotsu ramen, there was plenty food to share between my date and me. From the depths of the bowl, we fished out gobs of thin, angel hair-like strands. The starchy threads were far too soft, with none of the toothsome resistance that makes Santoka’s ramen so pleasurable to chew. The texture came mostly from the crunchy snap of the bamboo shoots, which played against the spongy softness of the small slice of roasted pork.
The soup bath—a salty, milky, light-caramel-hued, pork-bone-based broth in the Kyushu style for which Santoka is renowned—was poured in rocket-hot. But the body was much thinner and less lip-smacking than Santoka’s, which is usually rich enough to go toe-to-toe with turkey gravy.
Unfortunately, most of the tonkotsu’s other subtleties were overwhelmed by a burnt-charcoal bitterness from the sooty pieces of fried scallion that were seemingly sprinkled into every bowl. The muddy-tasting miso ramen wasn’t immune to it. Neither was the steak ramen, which, at $15.75, is the most expensive bowl they sell.
But in the latter, the steak managed to trump all else and justify the premium price I paid to eat it. It is also proof that Mizuki has been listening to all the online criticism. The steak was no longer “loaded with gristle” and worse than Norm’s, as blogger Exile Kiss put it. What I got instead was a pristine plank of beef cut into spears, tender enough for dentures, absent of sinew and cooked to a little pink in the middle.
Though it won’t be enough to sway those who’ve made up their minds, I must point out that the fried rice here is very, very good. The curry fried rice is even better. Each is studded with enough cubed pork to make it a meal unto itself. Though I wished that they served it with a bowl of ponzu instead of just dribbling a few drops of the sauce over the karaage, the golden crispiness of the Japanese chicken nuggets still persisted, being neither underfried nor overseasoned. When you order the gyoza, they’ll trot out a tray with containers of soy sauce, vinegar and chili oil for dunking. Mizuki’s dumplings are serviceable, presented with their thin, crepe-like skins browned-bottoms up and their fillings, porky.
But what every online review I’ve read has missed thus far (perhaps because they’re in such a hurry to rush out the door and write their scorching screeds) are the desserts. There are a bracingly bitter and thrilling Earl Grey crème brûlée that comes with a scoop of quickly melting homemade vanilla ice cream on top, a perfect panna cotta, a green-tea mousse that tastes like the frothy embodiment of Zen, and an intriguing mango sorbet flecked with black pepper.
They’re almost compelling enough to convince you to sit through another infuriating Kenny G tune. Almost.
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Mizuki Japanese Cuisine & Noodles, 2981 Michelson Dr., Ste. E, Irvine, (949) 251-0555; www.mizukirestaurant.com. Open daily, 11 a.m.-midnight. Ramen, $8.75-$15.75. Full bar.
This review appeared in print as "Openly Flamed Ramen: Is Mizuki as overpriced and underwhelming as the Yelpers and Chowhounds have made it out to be? Not . . . exactly."