The way I see it, there are two kinds of sushi-eaters in this world: those who abhor rolls and those who adore them. By the same token, there are two kinds of sushi bars. On one end, you have Sushi Wasabi and its kin, bars fronted by ardent traditionalists who are insulted if someone so much as whispers “California roll” and who, like Sushi Wasabi’s Katsu Aoyagi, put it in writing to officially put the kibosh on such requests. You’ll always know you’re in the presence of a no-nonsense itamae such as Aoyagi because chances are he’s the reason you’re there. You come because his reputation precedes him. You come because it’s his expert hands that mold your artful morsels of nigiri.
Then there are sushi bars like O Fine Japanese Cuisine in Laguna Beach, which operates on the assumption you really like California rolls. In fact, it counts on it—rolls make up more than half of the menu. The California is just a start; some don’t use a single grain of rice, a single sheet of nori, nor a single drop of soy sauce. Some come in the form of teriyaki combos, or tempura this, or sesame that—dishes that come with names involving the words “dynamite” and “volcano.” On the plates, you see retina-stimulating splashes of color, cucumber rinds fashioned into rakes, dribbles of multihued sauces and garnishes taking up more real estate than the actual dish. If Aoyagi’s sushi is Monet, O Laguna’s rolls are Hockney and Warhol. The chosen medium: crab meat.
On the eponymous O Roll, the hollowed-out shell of a snow-crab leg sits on the side as proof that what you’re about to consume contains its extracted meat. Not that you can’t already tell by looking at the cross-section: the crustacean’s pulpy flesh features prominently in the center, making up a large part of the mosaic that also includes cherry-red tuna, salmon, yellowtail, asparagus and avocado. The cucumber bits not already used as wrapper for the roll stand ramrod-straight on the plate’s periphery; you discover they’re as briskly refreshing to chomp on as the roll they flank. The crustacean comes up again in bold strokes for the King Crab Roll, this time hidden under sesame-freckled soy paper and doing its best impression of a Vietnamese spring roll. At some point halfway into the crab-cake-like appetizer called Snow Crab Karaage, another crab-endowed dish, you wonder if O Fine single-handedly keeps the men on The Deadliest Catch employed.
Other things you eat defy explanation. Chefs take an avocado, cut in half and baked as an edible bowl; fill it with crab meat, scallops, green onion and masago; and then enshroud the mass in a mayo-and-eel sauce. The oddity feels like the apocryphal story of chop suey’s creation, a combination of the ingredients on hand. When this happens at the Taco Bell food labs, Franken-meals such as the Crunchwrap Supreme® occur; here, the results are weirdly revelatory. By the time you finish scooping up the last of it, you’re ready for anything, even the ominously titled Heart Attack. Alas, it’s just a chile-relleno/jalapeño-popper hybrid, the pepper stuffed with cream cheese, shrimp and spicy tuna, then deep-fried in a tempura cocoon before being sliced into chopstick-retrievable rounds. Never mind that the cooking renders the jalapeños harmless, that the smidgen of cream cheese isn’t likely to represent a significant uptick in your cholesterol level; the dish is still everything delicious irreverence should be.
These bizarre dishes aside, you can still order omakase or properly made nigiri. And you can do it while plunging your chopsticks deep into baked hamachi collar, as blubbery-good here as at the most traditional Japanese joints. Follow it with the flesh of the fish surgically cut into sashimi. Almost anything your most persnickety itamae can do, the chefs here can do, without any of the pretense. And after it all, even if you subscribe to the notion that diners can’t take a place reveling in rolls as seriously as a sushi bar, you’ll consider O Laguna the exception. You’ll find it endearing that the tiny, triangle-shaped space is forever bathed in a trendy, nightclubby blue neon, and that the clientele represents every demographic, from the very old to the very young. You’ll consider it an asset that the Chinese owners employ Thai cooks as well as Japanese ones. And you’ll even look forward to the day another branch opens; there are plans to take over the space of a failed sushi/Japanese restaurant at Irvine’s Quail Hill shopping center.
You’ll think about all this as you finish your tempura ice cream. And that’s when you are finally convinced: Where else but at places such as O Laguna could you order tempura ice cream?
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O Fine Japanese Cuisine, 30872 S Coast Hwy., Laguna Beach, (949) 715-5551. Open for lunch Mon.-Fri., 11:30 a.m.- 2:30 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., noon-2:30 p.m.; and for dinner Mon.-Thurs. & Sun., 5-9:30 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 5-10 p.m. Dinner for two, $50-$75, food only. Beer, wine and sake.
This review appeared in print as "Double Domo Arigato: O Fine Japanese Cuisine pleases the masses as much as the purists."