You Gotta Really Like Fish

Photo by Jeanne RiceThis is a review of the Japanese sushi restaurant Kasen. If you read this review and decide that Kasen sounds like a wonderful Japanese restaurant—which it is—and that it serves the freshest sushi around—which it does—do not, DO NOT under any circumstances journey to Kasen and attempt to order teriyaki chicken or shrimp tempura or—dear God—California roll, which is about as authentically Japanese as the Viennese waltz. Kasen is not that type of Japanese restaurant.

There is a bit of a debate as to what kind of Japanese restaurant Kasen is. That it's one of the best sushi restaurants around, there is no doubt. But there have been questions raised about, oh, let's say their openness. I first heard about Kasen in an e-mail from a reader:

"I have never had better sushi in my life. I have many Japanese friends who commute down to OC from LA just to eat at Kasen. If you go and are not Japanese, please do not be embarrassed when you enter and the hostess tries to get you to leave. I think they are tired of people asking for California rolls."

So it was with a bit of trepidation that I went to Kasen. The hostess met us and seemed perfectly nice. She sat us at the bar, where we were attended to by Mr. Ninomiya, dressed in sparkling white smock, tie and hat. He looked at us; we looked at him. "What would you suggest?" I asked. Mr. Ninomiya demurred and then suggested, "Yellowtail."

I said sure, but I was disappointed, yellowtail being the peanut butter and jelly of the sushi world. Mild, soft, simple, it's usually what you give someone trying sushi for the first time. But here's the thing: it was the best yellowtail I've ever had. More than fresh, it was clean, melting, absolutely surrendering in my mouth.

I was grateful but wanted to establish some street cred, so I requested Spanish mackerel. Mr. Ninomiya made a tangy pair and instructed me to take each of them in one bite. Wonderful! Hearty but not chewy. And just like that, we were in sync. He made not just shrimp and salmon but a shrimp flour ball bobbing in a sweet sauce. Then came sweet chunks of cooked Toro. And then I went and spoiled it all by saying something stupid: "Spicy tuna hand roll."

I don't know if you've ever really disappointed someone. Not just "Mom, I wrecked the car" disappointment but "You're a guy?" disappointment. Mr. Ninomiya's face fell and his head listed to one side. He was in obvious pain as he attempted, in the nicest way, to tell me, "Oh, no, we don't, no . . ." Then I started saying, "Oh, no, no, I don't, no, I'm sorry, no . . ." And he said, "Uh, no, we, no, uh, I can make you salmon skin hand roll . . ." Wonderful! Salty, soft, warm and crispy.

I paid the bill and told the hostess that I wanted to write a review about the place. Like Mr. Ninomiya, she winced and shook her head. They had had reviews before—"perfect ones"—in The Orange County Registerand the LA Times, and they had only led to misunderstanding and hard feelings.

"This is very traditional," said Keiko, the wife of owner and head chef Susumu Ii. "We love America. We love America, but we can't make American sushi. Please tell them our customers really have to like to eat fish."

That would be because Susumu was raised and studied in Japan, and when he came here 25 years ago, he decided he would one day open a restaurant that adhered to the principles he had been taught. It would be about the simple elegance of sushi. No mayonnaise. No rolls with silly names.

"Many people told him that it would not work," Keiko said.

But 12 years later, it has—and deliciously so. And why has Susumu risked so much, including new business, in his pursuit of pure Japanese cuisine?

"He's stubborn," Keiko said.

Kasen, located at 9039 Garfield Ave., Fountain Valley, is open Thurs.-Tues., noon-2 p.m. & 6-10 p.m.; Sun., 6-10 p.m. (714) 963-8769. Beer and wine. Dinner for two, $40, food only. All major credit cards accepted.


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