After months of anticipation and delays, Fountain Valley's Izakaya Ku held its grand opening on May 1. The new restaurant takes its name from the kanji character for “eat,” and sets up shop along a short stretch of Brookhurst Street I'm naming Izakaya-Dōri, the street of Japanese pubs. They're nestling into a neighborhood where Kappo Honda and Shin Sen Gumi Robatayaki already have a strong following.
Typically, izakayas have very expansive menus composed of small dishes prepared with the full range of techniques used in the Japanese kitchen: grilled, fried, raw, stewed, and boiled. Like going to a diner with a 10-page menu, the trick for the izakaya eater is to find the areas where the chefs shine. Ku's opening menu narrows down the selection to a more manageable size than their neighbors', and differs by offering many fried dishes, and several hot pot, or “nabe” dishes on its menu. Ku's sushi selection is intelligently terse, and composed of Americanized rolls. There's enough sushi specialists within a few miles that it'd be foolish to offer a bigger variety here.
Interestingly, they have revived several dishes from Funashin, the Japanese restaurant that previously occupied that space since 1989. If you were a sentimental fan of Funashin's Sesame Chicken, Beef Teriyaki and Chicken Teriyaki know they're still offered, though I'm a bit baffled why they're on the menu of a restaurant trying to forge its own identity.
We tried several dishes during the grand opening, and the standout was the house-made tofu topped with a condiment of yama-imo and natto. Rather than the silken texture of industrial tofu, their roughly-ground soybeans firms into a fantastic texture that's simultaneously smooth and coarse on the tongue. Yama-imo is a root vegetable that has both the fresh crunch of raw jicama and the sliminess of fresh-cut okra, which also makes an appearance in this dish. Natto are the fermented soybeans with its own infamously savory mucilage. This sort of sliminess in food is onomatopoetically called “neba-neba” in Japanese, which is also the name of this texture-fest.
All the food we ate this weekend was solid, nothing was done poorly, yet I left confused about the restaurant's mission. On the one hand, the very traditional ingredients like yama-imo, natto, and motsu say it's there to lure fobby Japanese expats. On the other hand, hyper-Americanized dishes like the sweetly-sauced Ku Roll and the held-over hits from Funashin seem like blatant gaijin-bait. Will offering both sides of that divide on one menu fuse its hardcore-Japanese and hiply-American identities, or split them? Perhaps the ease with which they toggle between both food cultures is the niche they're angling for on Izakaya-Dōri.
In fairness, it's too early to call this a review based on one try of a restaurant just getting off the ground. Watch for a future writeup after they've found their groove.