The Stepson Also Rises the Sushi-Bar Stardom at Nana San
The Stepson Also Rises
At Nana San, sushi chef Goro Sakurai carries on the family tradition with style, taste and precision
More than any other type of business, sushi bars are about cultivated relationships. If you, gentle reader, are a sushi-lover, you’ve no doubt developed a rapport, no matter how casual, with your favorite sushi chef. This is especially true if the guy preparing your meal is also the guy who owns the restaurant. He has a vested interest in your satisfaction and loyalty, and you in his commitment to those ends.
There’s no better proof of this than Nana San, a restaurant whose reputation preceded its opening date. The news that this would be a sort of reincarnation of the original Ango Tei—the much-beloved local sushi spot where an hour wait was as much a constant as the freshness of the fish—brought jubilation from old fans. As regulars know, Ango Tei was sold to new owners two years ago, but during the quarter-century the place was in business, Goro Sakurai, the owner’s stepson, was being groomed to master the sushi arts.
Nana San, a few blocks and a city away from Ango Tei, is the culmination of that training. And from observing the weeknight crowd that surrounded the younger master’s new sushi bar, this next generation seems set to win new fans of its own. They were already toasting Sakurai’s knife skills with endless pours of Sapporo.
For newcomers and old die-hards, his specials are the best way to get to know or to get reacquainted with the man. He butterflies his Japanese sea scallop and lays it on a small, sculpted ball of rice, serving it as plain as it is: fresh, fleshy, bringer of coolness and an effortless Jell-O texture. His jalapeño kanpachi—also a special on the night of our visit—fairly glows, its nudeness slightly covered by a halo of sliced, marinated chiles, their spicy seeds removed. Another special is the tempting bonito, its raw pinkness rippling like exhaling gills.
All are cut precisely, with an expert understanding that it’s not just about how the fish looks on the plate but also how it feels in the mouth. In almost every piece, I detected a 70-30 volumetric ratio of meat to rice. Examine some of Sakurai’s cuts in profile, and you’ll see the shape of a bell curve—the meatiest part of the fish bulging in the middle. This makes all the difference.
If you have the time and the money to study Sakurai’s work in detail, opt for omakase. It is perfectly acceptable, however, to order takeout. I saw a few walk-ins do just that. The sushi-combination plate No. 2 might be best for this purpose. Included is a piece of ama ebi: The slimy, sweet shrimp, recently dispatched and de-exoskeletoned, comes with the traditional side dish of its crispy, deep-fried head and carapace, which I always find more satisfying than the sushi itself.
From the permanent menu, there are cut rolls, including the obligatory California. Some rolls are hugged by abnormally generous chunks of avocado, rimmed with juicy pellets of orange fish roe, or both. For the traditionalist there’s boat-fresh nigiri, even conch, or a carpaccio-like dish called the yuzu yellowtail and the yuzu salmon, in which raw fish is sliced thinly and plated on a frigid lake of ponzu more refreshing than iced lemonade on a hot afternoon.
The spinach is another cooling dish, neatly stacked and smothered with a chilled, peanut-buttery sesame sauce. This and other non-sushi creations are the responsibility of Sakurai’s kitchen, with a varied list of cooked Japanese dishes done in the kappo style.
While the chicken karaage needs a bit of tweaking (its pieces are cut too big and are slightly undercooked), everything else is finely tuned. The salmon kama—the boomerang-shaped collarbone teeming with meaty nooks and crannies—is at its chopstick-licking best. A vibrant scallop-and-zucchini stir fry fumes with a buttery aroma that I can still smell in my hair and taste in my nostrils. And the tempura-fried shiitake mushrooms stuffed with crab recall Disneyland’s Monte Cristo sandwich.
But the most inspired offering has nothing to do with fish or sushi and everything to do with pork—pork ribs and sausages, to be exact. The former is lovingly braised, then briefly charred—a dish designed to be so tender the meat can be peeled off with a gentle pinch of your chopsticks. The latter gleams in a snappy casing and bites like a smoky Hillshire Farm sausage. Slathered in hot mustard, both will win you over if Nana San’s hospitality hasn’t already. But some have already made the decision: Sakurai’s their man, and Nana San their sushi bar.
Nana San, 3601 Jamboree Rd., Ste. 15B, Newport Beach, (949) 474-7373. Call for hours. Dinner for two, $40-$50, food only. Wine, beer and sake.
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