Shuji's Top Five Restaurants for 2012

Lucca's lemon curd
Lucca's lemon curd

We wrap up the waning weeks of every year with a list of our favorite restaurants. Normally, I pick a hole-in-the-wall restaurant with a small menu and a narrow specialty where you can pick any random dish and come up a winner. Looking at my list for 2012, your odds are not as heavily stacked. The common theme among my winners is that each brought out a sleeper of a dish from that blew me backward like Bruce Lee's one-inch punch.

In no particular order, here are my top five that delivered a knockout blow.

5. Lucca Cafe

I've eaten brunch at Irvine's Lucca Cafe numerous times over the years. While they make a perfectly good brunch and an better dinner menu, the sleeper that sneaked up on me is the lemon curd that I ordered for the first time this spring. The tart-sweet yellow silk laid me out like Pacquiao.

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At the time, it was Meyer lemon season, and the curd was a part of a quartet with a buttery berry pound cake, fresh berries, gingererd blackberry-pear marmalade and clotted cream. When I went back two weeks ago, the curd starred in a trio with house-made scones and creme fraiche. I don't care whatever else it shares billing with - if Lucca's lemon curd is on the menu, order it. 6507 Quail Hill Pkwy., Irvine, (949) 725-1773;

4. Izakaya Ku

Not for natto newbs
Not for natto newbs

"Fermented Soybean Two Ways" ain't the sexiest way to sell a dish. Perhaps you're better off knowing this dish of natto and house-made tofu was a daily special that you may not run into unless you're a frequent visitor at this Fountain Valley restaurant.

Though there are other Japanese restaurants that cater to the expat longing for the taste of home, few others go to the lengths that this dish represents. For those raised in the eastern and northern parts of Japan where slimy-stinky natto is a breakfast staple, you're in for a soy double-feature that's topped with grated mountain yam. The slippery-slimy two-shot is what gives this dish the onomatopoetic name "neba-neba." You can't say it without gesturing with both hands together like Mr. Burns. "Eeeexcellent...." 18120 Brookhurst St., Fountain Valley, (714) 963-3484.

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