Where the Chefs Are

...And the sushi is probably real good, too! Photo by Jonathan Ho.

Ever wonder where chefs go to eat on their day off? I do, and on a recent Monday evening, I found out by chance where at least one, chef Hiro Ohiwa of Café Hiro, dines: Kappo Sui in Santa Ana Heights.

Like most small restaurants, Café Hiro is closed on Mondays, so it wasn't surprising to find him here. What did surprise me was his proclamation that Kappo Sui is one of his favorite places. Funny, since I consider his Cypress restaurant one of mine.

On a quiet corner in a strip mall that sees a bare trickle of traffic on most days, Kappu Sui occupies a spare, almost barren space, free from fuss and tchotchkes. With Ohiwa's endorsement still echoing in my ears, my dining companion and I perused the menu, which was printed and laminated on a single sheet of paper. On one side were the usual suspects: combo plates of teriyaki chicken and tempura, served with miso soup and salad. But on the flip side were 27 numbered offerings, featuring ingredients and preparations outside the mainstream American consciousness.

Mountain potato, black cod, lotus root and kaki-age sound unapologetically foreign. But the section titled "Authentic Japanese Dishes—Top Sellers" is where you'll find these staples of izakaya, the Japanese version of the gastropub, where small tapas-sized dishes are designed to fortify your stomach while you consume vast volumes of sake and beer.

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Kappo Sui also has a roster of sushi rolls on a separate order sheet, but since Ohiwa and his family, seated nearby, weren't eating any, I focused my attention on the cooked foods menu. The restaurant has several daily specials, all written in Japanese script on a whiteboard, which our waitress translated at my request. One of these, whitefish nuggets marinated in mayo and enveloped in a thin golden batter with gnarled knobs of crunch, was served in three bite-sized filets per order. Any more would be overkill, as the morsels were so decadently rich and eggy. We squeezed every drop of juice from a lemon wedge to cut through their sumptuousness.

Deep-fried items from the izakaya menu, some dredged in panko bread crumbs or suspended in lacy tempura, were equally tempting, and we couldn't resist ordering more than our daily allowance. The agedashi tofu is encased in a stretchy, protective layer of potato starch before frying. Each delicate cube of silken curd came topped with scallions and sat in a pool of tentsuyu broth made of dashi, mirin and soy. Picking one up with chopsticks was tricky, as the tofu was softer than Jell-O and just as quivery. Once secured, though, it can be slurped like custard.

Ebi korroke is the Japanese version of the croquette: a deep-fried, panko-breaded cylinder filled with shrimp and cream. It is meant to be dabbed in tonkatsu sauce, a pungent, sweet-and-sour reduction with the tang of Lea & Perrins Worcestershire sauce and the consistency of syrup. A thinner dipping sauce accompanied the ika kaki-age, a mix of chopped calamari, zucchini and shitake mushrooms entangled in an airy matrix of crunchy tempura batter.

The soft-shell crab is dropped into hot oil whole, with little more than a pat for good luck. Then it's chopped to quarters, served greaseless and crisp with a tart ponzu sauce. Looking at this crackly red carapace and moist, pulpy insides, one can't help but feel a sense of carnivorous satisfaction that every part is edible.

Taking a break from the fried foods, we ordered the asari ninniku-itame, tiny manila clams boiled in a broth of their own juices and sake. Each slippery nibble was flanked by whole cloves of softened garlic that outnumbered the clams four to one. A sip of broth, a bite of clam and a chomp on that sweet, sweet garlic was the perfect way to ward off deep-fryer overload.

Then there was the hokke ichiya-boshi, a king mackerel splayed open down its spine and grilled skin-side-down with nothing more than salt as seasoning. The skin was burnt to embers, while the fish remained supple and unctuous like the fattiest of salmon but with a subtle, briny tang all its own.

More robust was the gindara miso yaki, butterfish baked and frosted with a thick layer of white miso, a salty paste of fermented soybeans, which almost made the fish look like a piece of toast topped with melted gruyere. This was a dish that played directly to my love of Japanese cooking: simply prepared yet unwaveringly elegant. And I can't discount my favorite part: the slip of charred skin, salty and crisp as bacon.

It left no doubt as to why Kappo Sui is one of Ohiwa's favorites—and now, one of mine. Only one question remains: Where do Kappo Sui's chefs go to eat on their days off?

KAPPO SUI, 20070 SANTA ANA BLVD., SANTA ANA, (714) 429-0141. OPEN MON.-SAT., 5:30-11:15 P.M.; SUN., 5:30-9 P.M. DINNER FOR TWO, $40-$50, EXCLUDING DRINKS.

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Kappo Sui Restaurant

20070 Santa Ana Ave.
Santa Ana, CA 92707

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