Sashimi Surrender

Sushi on the rocks. Photo by Jonathan Ho.

Ikko Kobayashi has been called a sushi magician, but I regard the man as a mad scientist, grafting disparate ingredients into creations that come alive in your mouth. Whatever you do, do not ask for soy sauce or wasabi—his experiments are already carefully sauced and seasoned.

The best way to experience his genius is to relinquish all control of your meal. Do so by volunteering to become a test subject and order "omakase." He offers this "tasting menu" in three price levels from $60-$80 a person. Electing one of these options gives Kobayashi free rein with your food.

Immediately after we asked for the most expensive omakase, Kobayashi unleashed a barrage of opulence for our first course. Both my date and I received oblong plates with three gorgeous dollops of uni perched atop raw scallop steaks and crowned with shaved black truffles. Custardy and sweet, salty and musky, these lavish mouthfuls were a harbinger of things to come.

Next came filefish sashimi: thinly-sliced pearly strips spread out on a leaf, topped with a bundle of chives and a nub of spiced radish pulp.

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We chewed while watching juices fly as Kobayashi's fellow itamaetwisted heads off still-wriggling shrimp. We hoped it would be our next course, but the morsels were whisked away for another lucky diner in the tiny cubbyhole of a restaurant.

Instead, Kobayashi carved off some diamond-shaped slivers of alfonsino for sashimi. For plating, he sprinkled coarse sea salt and a few flecks of pickled seaweed. The sparkling beauty of its strawberry-hued skin heralded the sweetness of its flesh.

Afterwards, he decided our palates needed a break from fish. He turned his knife on ice-cold wedges of Japanese heirloom tomatoes, serving them with even chillier cucumber spears, shaved onions and dribbles of a slobbery, acidic tomato sauce flavored with Tabasco.

Tradition dictated his matsutake mushroom soup, boiled in a small teapot. The lid came off to become the cup we would use. Before pouring, we were instructed to squeeze sudachi juice into the hot brew. (Sudachi is a bittersweet Japanese lime rarely seen stateside). A sip of the broth revealed the forest-fresh earthiness and umami of the mushrooms, which we plucked out with chopsticks.

Then the first of two duck experiments arrived. Sliced as thin as ham, and just as pink, three bite-sized discs of chilled duck breast came topped with a spoonful of tangy plum jam and a red peppercorn pellet. The flavors echoed Thanksgiving turkey and cranberry sauce, rudely interrupted by the explosive peppercorn pop.

The second duck course was foie gras—a dish so eccentric it will either sell you ?on or scare you off Kobayashi's self-described "free form" cuisine. On top of two puffed wonton crackers, he plopped a glop of cold foie gras mousse over a knob ?of the real thing. It's chocolatey, gooey, pasty and messy, and as I ate, the stuff smeared on my upper lip, forming a funky-smelling moustache.

Since I also had to eat my date's share of foie gras (she doesn't eat liver), I was getting full fast. But I forced my stomach onward; the uncertainty of what Kobayashi still had in store was too irresistible.

When I saw Kobayashi's partner squeezing rice into tight bullets with a praying motion of his palm, I correctly anticipated that nigiri was next. The first was red snapper with frazzled skin intact, seasoned with sea salt and a spritz of acid. Then plump amberjack brushed with a lacquer of soy. This was followed by more alfonsino, flavored with crunchy salt and searing wasabi tucked between rice and fish.

A cold jiggle of uni also came our way as nigiri; a welcome sight despite its extraterrestrial appearance. Then fatty toro ?was scored and scorched with a roaring blowtorch in front of our eyes. It had already started melting when we placed it on our tongues.

When I saw the bowl of sesame ice cream floating in a pool of coffee (yes, the ice cream was in the coffee), I sighed relief. Any more food, and I would've died—and Kobayashi isn't the kind of mad scientist who can revive the dead. Ah, but what he does to fish . . .


Ikko, 735 Baker St., Ste. C, Costa Mesa, (714) 556-7822. Open for lunch, Mon.-Sat., noon-1:45 p.m.; dinner, Mon.-Sat., 5 p.m.-10 p.m.

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735 Baker St.
Costa Mesa, CA 92626


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