The Raw and the Smoked
OC’s Rock-star Chef Takashi Abe does San Clemente
After chef Takashi Abe cut his teeth at Matsuhisa in LA, he moved south to Newport Beach, where he eventually created Bluefin—one of OC’s best restaurants. Though it had a sushi bar, Abe wasn’t just serving sushi; he was doing Japanese food in the same way his mentor, Nobu Matsuhisa, had done. Some of it was cooked, some of it was raw, but it was always innovative and executed with finesse.
Ask for an omakase meal at Bluefin, and you might see seared foie gras and Kobe beef one night, sea bass bathed in sultry uni sauce the next. And chances are good that at least one item will be topped with gold leaf and caviar.
All this made Abe the rock star of OC sushi chefs, with a loyal fan base and a cachet that all but guaranteed the expansion of his brand. Last year, it was Izakaya Zero in Huntington Beach, a Japanese tavern molded to fit H.B.’s alcohol-fueled nightlife. This year, it’s Sea Smoke, a new venture in a master-planned San Clemente neighborhood called Talega.
Though the food here is more faithful to Bluefin than Izakaya Zero has been, Sea Smoke is a risky departure for Abe: It’s a big, boisterous family restaurant. And as such, Bluefin groupies who might make the pilgrimage will encounter something they’re probably not used to seeing at their beloved Newport Coast institution: children.
New items such as the sashimi pizza are aimed directly at this target demographic. The dish is exactly as it sounds—a thin, crispy cracker cut into tortilla chip wedges gets topped with raw cubes of tuna, salmon and albacore. Then, miso guacamole is zig-zagged while a few pieces of mushroom, onion, cilantro and jalapenos are strewn about. It’s messy and looks more like nachos than pizza. Although the thing works as intended, the lack of sophistication might befuddle Abe’s most ardent fans.
Those who yearn to see the Abe they know should look no further than the cold appetizers. Here, he’s his old self. In particular, there’s his scallop and uni ravioli, in which a blubbery nugget of sea-urchin roe is sandwiched between two thinly sliced rounds of raw scallop. Four come plated over a shimmering puddle of basil oil, and yes, each is crowned with caviar and gold leaf. To the eyes, it is beautifully minimalistic; in your mouth, it’s over-the-top decadent.
His Sea Smoke roll is the opposite. It boasts seared slices of Kobe beef, with foie-gras-mousse pâté as a filling, yet bloodthirsty carnivores will be disappointed that both ingredients are upstaged by the sprouts. In fact, the roll eats like a salad.
If a salad is actually what you want, get one from a list of seven—all but two are pumped up with a protein such as chicken or tuna. The king-crab salad features more hulking pieces of crab meat than in a dozen crab cakes. Flanked by sliced avocados, tiny tomatoes and enough spring greens to meet your daily requirement of roughage, this is a seriously big salad. Share it or forget about ordering a main course, which tries to follow the footsteps of its progenitor.
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One entrée made in the Bluefin spirit is a broiled Chilean sea bass, in which the mild-flavored fish is doused with white-truffle butter and a smattering of pink peppercorns. And there’s an assorted nigiri plate, paired with a choice of the spicy tuna, California or crunchy roll. This one’s designed for sushi lovers with kids too unruly to sit at the sushi bar.
The rest of Abe’s entrées include teriyaki chicken, tempura, steaks and short ribs. Most come with mashed potatoes and a side of veggies—square meals meant to cater to people who might not have a clue who Abe is.
But when the master starts offering his omakase meals at Sea Smoke, they will.
Sea Smoke, 831 Via Suerte, Ste. 101, San Clemente, (949) 276-5331. Open daily for lunch, 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m.; dinner, 5:30-9 p.m. Dinner for two, $50 and up, food only. Full bar.