My Hero, Zero

No place else is as quintessentially OC as Huntington Beach. And no nightlife is quite like the kind going down on Main Street. Along the beer-soaked drag, Friday-night revelers, full of alcohol, merriment and greasy food, spill out from the bars. Most are oblivious or maybe too drunk to notice that just around the corner, on a dimly lit street, there's a bar of a different sort: an izakaya.

In Japan, izakayas are watering holes—a place of refuge for the bleary-eyed businessman to go to after work and before bed. These are often informal neighborhood haunts, where pitchers of cold brew are poured and food is served in appetizer-size portions to share. In a way, it's not that different from an American pub, except that as much attention is paid to the grub as the libations.

Izakaya Zero is one of those joints and yet another place where the H.B. crowd can get their drink on. But those expecting a place to kick up their feet are in for a surprise: Izakaya Zero isn't so much an izakaya as it is an upscale restaurant serving izakaya food and spirits. And it's a gorgeous one at that. The room is designed to look unfinished. Exposed two-by-fours brace the wall, while the ceiling alternates between planks of blond wood and blackness. The effect looks like a giant checkerboard zipping overhead.

The man behind the food is Takashi Abe, who also owns Bluefin, considered by many to be one of the best restaurants in Orange County.

So our expectations ran high, despite the fact that the servers were so new to the cuisine they were barely able to pronounce the names of the dishes (the “buta kakuni” proved to be an especially challenging tongue twister).

The menu is ambitious. The first two full pages are devoted to cocktails, shochu, sake, beer and wine. The rest are billed as “Japanese tapas” and divided into categories. There are entire sections of rolls, soups, sashimi, snacks, greens—and even a dedicated list for deep-fried dishes. Proteins are segregated into three groups dubbed “Sea,” “Land” and “Air,” while starches are stuffed into a section called “Rice and Noodle.”

We started with a “snack” of chilled jellyfish that we remembered enjoying at Bluefin. Its strands were amber-colored and translucent, served ice-cold atop shaved cucumber and splashed with sesame-seed oil. Breathtakingly brisk, the texture was like Jell-O meets cabbage meets noodle—slippery, crunchy and slurpable.

Another “snack” called kushiyaki featured chicken morsels grilled on skewers. It wasn't unlike Thai chicken satay, except nothing more than salt and pepper was used as seasoning. But the charcoal smokiness requisite in the best versions of this Japanese pub staple was noticeably absent.

What the kushiyaki lacked in soulfulness, the prosciutto-wrapped melon balls made up for in playfulness. The fruits, threaded three per stick, were devoured in seconds. No one seemed to mind that it wasn't Japanese, nor cared that the classic pairing seemed like child's play when compared to Abe's usual inventiveness. The dish ate like a dessert and a main course in one bite: The zig-zag of mayo balanced the saltiness of the ham with the sweetness of the ripe melon.

Next, the soft-shell crab arrived, a perennial resident of izakaya menus. This is a dish that never disappoints, even when it's greasy (all the better to wash down with more beer). But if done right, like Zero's was, the crustacean crackles and dances on the palate with a crunch lighter than parchment.

A ramekin of the rustic buta kakuni—two bite-sized chunks of pork belly simmered in soy, sake and sugar—was heated by the flame of a votive candle, its gentle heat keeping the dish warm. We found the fork-tender pieces luscious and addictive beyond what's recommended by cardiologists, and afterward, I couldn't help sipping the leftover braising liquid like consommé.

Our mouths made an easy hot-to-cold transition when the sashimi combo arrived. The cut pieces of raw fish were served on a bowl of crushed ice meant to preserve the coolness of the maguro (tuna), the smoothness of the sake (salmon) and the tang of the hamachi (yellowtail).

To cap off the evening, Izakaya Zero has a dessert list. The chocolate soufflé was a hockey puck so dense and chocolaty it was in danger of being called a brownie. The crème brûlée was pleasantly imbued with citrus and coconut. But the best was the lychee sorbet, which came studded with chewy pieces of the fruit.

After dinner, inebriated on Abe's food and high on ocean air, we joined the Main Street throng. Though still sober, we were just as buzzed and happy as our fellow Orange Countians celebrating the start of a weekend in Huntington Beach.


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