Pork Belly Decadence
Some restaurants just aren't very good ideas during the hot summer months. Korean soft tofu joints, with their boiling iron cauldrons of soup. Fondue restaurants. Teppanyakis—really, anything that involves scalding-hot broth, open flames or live cooking in the vicinity of your face is something to be saved for chillier weather.
My friends and I did just that a few nights ago. It was freezing outside as we waited for a table at Manpuku, a new yakiniku restaurant in Costa Mesa that already has an outpost in West LA. Huddled with our hands tucked into our armpits, we peered inside and saw warm, happy faces crowding a cramped but jovial space. Sitting shoulder-to-shoulder were groups of bespectacled Japanese businessmen sipping sake and flipping thin slices of meat on a tabletop grill. At the far wall, in an elevated private booth with the middle dug out, a rowdy gaggle of twentysomethings hammed it up for someone's camera phone.
When we were finally seated, we rubbed our hands over the white-hot charcoal brazier built into our table. The circulation quickly returned to our fingertips, and we were ready to eat.
The menu was a list of items yet to be cooked. Divided by flavors of marinade were raw cuts of beef, chicken, pork and offal; seafood and veggies shared a category. There were also ready-to-eat dishes, like noodle soups and rice. Bibimbap, the popular Korean rice dish, made an appearance. This isn't surprising since yakiniku is, after all, the Japanese adaptation of do-it-yourself Korean barbecue.
We started with a plate of veggies, a motley combo of onions cut into half-moons, Japanese squash, zucchini, eggplant, carrots, corn on the cob and bell-pepper wedges. We threw them on the wire-mesh grates to char. While we waited, we woke up our palates with a tall salad of crunchy wakame seaweed and lettuce laced with nutty sesame-seed oil. When the zucchini softened and the onion mellowed, we plucked it off with chopsticks and straight it went, piping-hot, into our mouths.
Some seafood hit the grill next. The scallop steaks needed no time at all to firm up, backlit with the flicker of coal. The shrimp took a few minutes more, and both got dunked in a dipping sauce of soy, sake and sugar before consumption. Strips of squid contracted and squirmed in the fire before settling into a pleasantly chewy state of bliss. We ate them while watching a lone New Zealand mussel slowly plumping up in the heat like a balloon about to explode. But we couldn't wait to see if it would—the beef had arrived, ready for its turn.
The first was Jo-Kalbi Shio, thin slices of prime short rib practically frosted with minced scallions, garlic and salt. With tongs, I laid them in the center over the direct heat, then counted the seconds until it was time to turn. When I did, most of the seasoning fell through the grates and disintegrated, but what remained stuck to the meat jolted our taste buds with flavor bursts. Jo-Rosu—prime beef rib-eye—was flavored with a simpler marinade. Marbled with veins of fat, the finger-length flaps sizzled beautifully.
The two best items of the night—the pork belly and Kobe beef—we saved for last. Their high fat content made them decadent to eat and hazardous to cook. The pork belly started the first grease fire. On the plate, the thin sheets of bacon were flaccid and furtive, but on the grill, they rippled and sputtered, fueling the flames as they shrunk. Most of the smoke was sucked away by a series of portholes built into the side of the grill, but the lapping fire was unquenchable and a little scary (though it did make the pork cook that much quicker).
The coin-sized Kobe-beef morsels were unapologetically expensive—but worth every cent. On the grates, they sweated, feeding the fire, until they were the size of postage stamps. But it's just as well; too much of the stuff would kill us. We enjoyed them as the smooth indulgences they were.
We left Manpuku after a good hour of cooking, our faces warm, our bellies full. On the trip home, our car was filled with smiles, garlicky burps and satisfied groans.
MANPUKU, 891 BAKER ST., STE. A-2, COSTA MESA, (714) 708-3290; WWW.MANPUKU.US. OPEN FRI., 5 P.M.-1:30 A.M.; SAT., 4 P.M.-1:30 A.M.; SUN., 4 P.M.-12:30 A.M.; MON.-THURS., 5 P.M.-12:30 A.M. DINNER FOR TWO, $80, EXCLUDING DRINKS. BEER, WINE AND SAKE.
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