Cool Thing

Photo by Jeanne RiceBeing the best restaurant in Aliso Viejo is a little like being the richest man in Haiti, and for that reason, it's a pleasant surprise that the very best restaurant in this indistinguishable haven of masterplandom is very good indeed.

Aliso Viejo makes Irvine look like Paris, and the culinary competition in any of these frontier South County towns—especially the newest—is anything but fierce. Strip-mall owners prefer the risk-free chains—an Olive Garden here, a Claim Jumper there—because of the guaranteed clientele, leaving the innovative and quirky eateries on the sidelines.

Which is why Opah is worth celebrating for two reasons. One, that an independent, quality restaurant actually exists in a monster retail center. And two, that chef Marc Cohen tries so hard to make it a great place.

Opah is easily the place to eat in the massive, quasi-frightening Aliso Viejo Town Center. Patrons who are familiar with 230 Forest Avenue, a cool downtown eatery in Laguna Beach, know that this sister restaurant will at least match the quality of its older sibling.

The reason is in the kitchen. Cohen gives the contemporary bistro a fun, funky twist at 230 Forest Avenue, and with Opah, he infuses a trendy, nouveau-seafood restaurant with democratic flair.

Sure, the menu comes on crisp wax paper and the industrial interior features the obvious touches (cement floors and harsh geometric design). I could swear a little Kenny G seeps out of the speakers at times, too.

But you get over all this when you begin to consider the seafood-heavy menu. The signature item is the grilled Hawaiian opah—what we call moonfish—prepared with a tangy sesame-ginger glaze. There's also an exceptional crispy salmon and a hazelnut-crusted halibut, plus specials such as the grilled escolar.

If you're a fish fanatic, though, you must get the Pacific Northwest cioppino. This rendition of the famous Italian seafood stew bursts with thick chunks of salmon, halibut and ahi. Along with calamari, mussels and clams, the cioppino is finished off by two large Japanese prawns and half of a Maine lobster. It's a messy meal, almost wholly satisfying for the seafood lover, though the broth could be a bit tangier.

All these dishes hover at or above the $20 mark. So if you want to cut costs but also want a good piece of fish, I recommend the fresh fish sandwich for $9. It's a du jour thing. My night featured salmon—either grilled or blackened—lying on a big, soft bun and topped with lettuce, tomato and a high-falutin' Thousand Island kind of dressing. My blackened salmon made for an excellent sandwich, and the mass of shoestring potatoes on the side didn't hurt either.

The other sandwiches—the grilled-shrimp caesar and the Louisiana-oyster po'boy—looked worth trying, too, making Opah not just a place for a swingin' night on the town but a more affordable, two- to three-times-per-week neighborhood bistro. Even if that neighborhood is Aliso Viejo.

Opah, located in the Aliso Viejo Town Center, 26851 Aliso Creek Rd., Ste. C, Aliso Viejo, is open Sun.-Thurs., 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m.; bar open til midnight. (949) 360-8822. Full bar. Dinner for two, $50. All major credit cards accepted.

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