There are thousands of Japanese fast-casual chains akin to Seasons of Japan across the U.S., but only nine are actually called "Seasons of Japan." All but the one that just opened in Irvine are located east of the Mississippi, most of them in Georgia. This makes Seasons of Japan even more foreign to me than if the place actually came from Japan.
Why? Well, because OC has had a lot of restaurants directly imported from the Land of the Rising Sun, with nothing lost in the translation, from ramen houses to pubs to even places that specialize in beef tongue. But a Japanese restaurant by way of Georgia? Now that's new.
Don't get me wrong: Seasons of Japan is certainly doing Japanese food. It offers the usual bag of tricks we Americans decided we like most about Japanese cuisine: teriyaki, hibachi, sushi rolls, sashimi and tempura. A large part of the menu is dedicated to the hibachi items; steak, chicken and shrimp are seared on a flattop griddle by a short-order cook standing behind a glass window because one of the best parts of a hibachi meal is watching it being cooked.
Seasons of Japan, 3831-C Alton Pkwy., Irvine, (949) 502-5111; www.seasonsofjapan.com. Open Sun.-Thurs., 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Dinner for two, $15-$30. No alcohol.
At another see-through window, you can witness your sushi order being rolled, then cut into smaller cylinders. It keeps the raw fish used for the rolls chilled in a compartmentalized steel workstation and doesn't go beyond the spectrum of tuna, salmon and yellowtail. You also might be interested to know Seasons of Japan separates its rolls into two categories: raw and cooked, so as not to alienate those who might accidentally pick out something uncooked when all they wanted was a roll with some steak in it.
And have you ever wondered what a California roll with fried chicken stuffed into it would taste like? You can try one here, along with a so-called Mexican roll, which has no actual Mexican components, as far as I can tell, except it's spicy and made with some amount of avocado. Seasons of Japan does offer sashimi in some of the bento boxes, with the pieces cut into non-uniform shapes and deviating so much from the ideal that sometimes you get one that's more of a raw fish cube. But you eat it here the same way you would anywhere else, dabbing it in a slurry of soy sauce and wasabi you'll need to squeeze out of sealed plastic packet.
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The yakisoba I tried was strange, served plain without so much as a scallion, but so sugary it could be a diabetic hazard. The tempura is fine, if leaden. And for dessert, there's a fried cheesecake—an item that proves beyond a reasonable doubt that Seasons of Japan is from Paula Deen's hometown of Savannah, Georgia.
I do like the dining room. It's as clean as a corporate-branded fast-food joint, wired with a speaker system from which your number is called, and has an automated utensil carousel that spits out plastic forks—like something seen on The Jetsons. Next to it are sauce dispensers that squirt what looks and tastes like sweetened mayonnaise. There are two variations: a regular one and a spicier blend spiked with what I suspect is Sriracha. A sign on the spigots claims the sauces go well with shrimp, and it is right. The hibachi-griddled shrimp, the tempura, but especially the shrimp served on a so-called Bang Bang Salad—which has the prawns lightly fried in a thin shimmer of batter, then placed atop the greens as though they were croutons—turned into something even better than I expected when I dipped bites in the sweet, creamy, probably very fattening sauce. It took me only a minute to realize why I liked it so much: The sauce makes every shrimp taste like the Chinese-restaurant staple of Honey Walnut Shrimp, except without the honey or the walnuts.
The other dishes are fine. The seared cubes of hibachi steak are tender enough and only got better when I doused them with a thin, soy-sauce-based steak sauce dispensed by another self-serve spigot. I used a Sriracha-like hot sauce kept in a pitcher on a roll draped with unagi and avocado and filled with some sort of broccoli salad whose contents I've yet to decipher. And because the place is from the home of Coca-Cola, it has one of those freestyle Coke machines—another reason why Seasons of Japan might quell feelings of homesickness in Georgians more than it would people from Tokyo. But ultimately, this restaurant is already a relic. It might've worked in the 1980s, when Irvine's population was as bland as its HOA-approved house paints, but that's not the city of today. Just look at Diamond Jamboree, proof that new residents have shifted their city's dining landscape to a far better place than a Georg-Asian transplant.