Monday, November 24, 2014

ROC: Ikko (3rd Post) - The Most Authentic, Non-California Roll Serving Sushi Restaurant in Orange Country Triumphs Again

With being busy at work and the hideous commute preventing me from dining out, I've finally gotten a chance recently to do so. In addition to me being desperate of satisfying my authentic sushi craving, I figure what better place to settle my cravings at Orange County's best and most authentic sushi restaurant: Ikko.

On Yelp, people have been talking about how "rude" the chef is. I would like to respond by saying that Chef Ikko is actually quite warm and respectful but it takes time to see that side of him. Initially, he does seem quite reserved and doesn't talk as much as there are lots of past customers who don't want and aren't willing to try authentic preparations of sushi (hence the "No California Rolls" sign in front of the establishment). Be that as it may, I've developed a relationship with the restaurant the more and more I keep coming back. The staff saw that I can greatly respect and appreciate the quality and traditional preparation of their food as they understand that I would never dream or dare ordering a spicy tuna roll. The bottom line is for customers to show respect by not hesitating to try something out of their comfort zone and they shall be rewarded of not only receiving the respect of a talented chef but also experiencing culinary pleasure that greatly exceeds most dining experiences.

After ordering a large Tamanohikari, a Junmai Ginjo sake from Kyoto that has a silky smooth flavoring as described on their menu, while giving a glass to each of the sushi chefs, I've started out with the White Fish Carpaccio with Balsamic Vinaigrette and topped with Yuzu Kosho, Sea Salt & Basil. The three pieces on the left are Halibut (Hirame) and the right are Bullseye Fish. As mentioned in my past reviews, this amazing dish is not listed on their menu. The fish are not only delicate tasting along with the salt, balsamic vinaigrette and sea salt bringing out and complementing the fishes' flavors, but the unique touch of basil gave it quite the delicious variation as I'm tasting the carpaccio with this for the first time.

After a great starter, my nigirizushi course began with Akami (Lean Bluefin Tuna). As always, it is very delicious, especially with the flavors of the Tare (Seasoned and Simmered Soy Sauce) bringing out the complex flavors of the lean tuna.

The following piece is the Spear Squid (Yari Ika). This has a nice texture of it not being too firm at all where it would have came off as rubbery. The neta (sushi topping) has a nice bite to it along with it being quite delicate, not aggressively fishy as some might perceive squid to be.

The next fish as I have a fuzzy recollection at this point is what I assume was File Fish from Kyushu. Like all of the white fishes from Kyushu, it was quite delicate in flavor with the sea salt bringing out its flavor.

Although they usually blowtorch their Chutoro (medium fatty tuna) in order to have the fat melted so that it can spread throughout the fish, I actually prefer it to be unseared with only a brush of Tare applied to it. As expected with Chutoro, it was of course quite luscious as it's moderately marbled in fact versus Otoro (very fatty tuna) which they didn't have.

For the next three, and right near to the expected Uni that I would have soon savorly embraced with all of the receptors within my palate, the Katsuo (Bonito), Suzuki (Sea Bass) and Kurodai (Black Sea Bream) were the stars of that day's course. On the left, the Katsuo was deep, smoky and earthy in flavor while the Grated Ginger served as a nice contrast and the Tare served to carry out the rest of the fish's flavors in full throttle. In the middle, the touch of Sea Salt brought out the delicate yet quite deep flavors of the Suzuki. With the same touch of Sea Salt, the Kurodai had elegant flavors dancing around on my palate. 

To be honest as I wasn't sure if the chef had brushed it with Tare along with applying Sea Salt, but the Tai (Japanese Snapper) was certainly divine in flavor which makes it quite fitting as the fish itself is used in Shinto rituals. 

Next is the Premium Mackerel (Saba). Although it's brushed with the Tare where it would have masked the unpleasant fishiness associated with the fish, my taste buds ultimately assured me that this is of the highest quality where it wouldn't have had it in the first place.

This was definitely a real treat: Engawa (Halibut Fin). With the tare bringing another dimension of the delicate flavors of Engawa, the texture of this neta was quite tender as it contributes to the pleasantness of this particular sushi piece.

Following Engawa came Ikura (Salmon Roe) and Sanma (Pike Mackerel). As with the Saba before it, the Sanma was quite bold in flavor, even more so than the Saba, without it once again being aggressively fishy. As with my past visits, the freshly marinated Ikura was literally bursting with briny flavor as the roe popped in my mouth.

The grandeur moment of the course as I've preemptively ordered two pieces instead of one: Uni (Sea Urchin). Along with the Tare bringing out and complementing its complex and deep earthy flavors, the Santa Barbara uni is of extremely high grade that I can safely say that Ikko serves the best Uni in Southern California, let alone Orange County. Even though I've experienced it so many times, it was such a compelling religious experience that I definitely savored it as long as I could in my mouth. That's how divine the Uni is at Ikko.

Unfortunately, I forgot to take a picture of the Hotate (Scallop) and the Anago (Sea/Conger Eel) that followed the uni. The Hotate was touched with Sea Salt. Some might be hesitant of trying raw scallop without any sauce but I assure you that with only the touch of salt was more than adequate in bringing out the clean flavors of the scallop; not fishy at all. Although there was certainly no issue with fishiness as just mentioned, like with some of the other sushi restaurants, a touch of yuzu juice would have greatly complemented the Hotate. In regards to the Anago, it was freshly roasted as it was complemented with a much thicker Tare (some would call that version "eel sauce"). The meat of the Anago was quite moist and loaded with flavor as the result of it being freshly roasted. Unfortunately, the shari (sushi rice) under the Anago fragmented quite easily due to the heat. 

At the end of the Nigirizushi course, I was then presented with Hata (Grouper). Although quite clean and delicate in flavor and with it being so, I had wished this was presented initially in the course.

At the end, I ordered the Green Tea Mochiko Cake with Vanilla Ice Cream and Anglaise sauce. Usually, I like the desserts at Ikko as they're never overwhelming in sweet and richness. However, this was the biggest disappointment of the night as the cake was quite dry. If it were moist, I definitely would have enjoyed it instead of it being an afterthought.

Regardless, I had a wonderful meal at Ikko. It definitely satisfied the high-end sushi deficit my palate was surely suffering from. Although dessert was the low point, it did not weigh down my overall impression of my most recent visit. With fresh and high quality fish and Chef Ikko's innovative touches on dishes, such as applying basil for the first time, this is what makes Ikko the best Sushi restaurant in Orange County.  

Friday, May 2, 2014

Le Charm Bistro: Traditional French Bistro Fare in SF

During my brief stay in San Francisco (not "San Fran", mind you), I only had one night for a great meal. In addition, I also want to go for a cuisine that's done well that I typically wouldn't be able to get in Southern California which is why I wanted to choose to dine at a traditional French bistro. Granted, there are places in Southern California that serve this fare. Be that as it may, I have to say that SF and the Bay Area does both modern and traditional French  better in general compared to its southern counterpart just like how SoCal beats NorCal when it comes to Latin and Asian cuisines such as al Pastor Tacos and High-End Edomae style Sushi. After searching throughout many reviews and finally coming to a consensus with my brother of which bistro to dine at like how Frasier and Niles would bicker over where to eat for supper, we ended up choosing Le Charm Bistro in SoMa (South of Market).

After making the reservations on which is generally the typical procedure when making dining reservations in the SF Bay Area, we've arrived at Le Charm Bistro. From the outside, the building itself has quite the adorable composure as if it were a slender woman in a springtime dress however surrounded by a bunch of ruffians as the other buildings didn't match its exterior. Once inside, it's as if we'd entered its heart. Their beautiful dining area had dim lighting setting a romantic tone for a date or simply a comfortable one for any other setting. What's also amazing is that the bistro has an enclosed outdoor patio dining area in the back. After noticing the interior, what really brought out the warmth of the bistro is the extremely friendly staff greeting you with "Bonsoir" and getting us comfortable for the meal.

After looking throughout the wine/beverage list after choosing sparkling over flat for water (note: there is a charge for sparkling), I would like to point out after noticing that they do not have a full bar. So, if you do decide to come here, make your beverage selections more wine-centric. Once we ordered our entree and main dishes, our French-speaking waitress recommended a glass of the Sauvignon Blanc for me (sorry, forgot the name) which paired well with the following dishes.

Although the following pic may seem like a basket of a simple baguette to some, it was definitely some of the best bread and butter I've had as it has a nice moist, not dry composure which made it excellent for mopping up sauces.

Our appetiz... I mean, entree were the steamed PEI Mussels Mariniere style with White Wine and Cream. These mussels were steamed perfectly which is a word that I rarely use for my writing as they were done to the right point without them being overdone as they had a soft springingness to them in addition to all the shells being open as well. Of course, the flavor of both the mussels and the liquid were amazing and spot on when it came to its traditional preparation. This is a great entree to start out with when it comes to starting a traditional bistro experience due to not only the quantity of how many mussels were offered but mainly due to its  very solid and authentic flavors.

After enjoying the entree, our main dishes were delivered. I ordered the "La Marmite" of Lobster baked in a puff pastry.  Although this may be initially perceived as a large starter as the "sauce" that was described in the menu is more of a bisque, this is one of their signature dishes they should be more than proud of. With thick chunks of delicious lobster cooked well to the right point as it wasn't tough at all, and lots of it, along with its richly flavored bisque; this certainly is such an amazing dish that the reality of it being a large soup should definitely be overlooked. The creamy bisque itself, along with the fresh vegetable of peas, spinach and potatoes contributing to its flavor and texture, was intensely loaded with the essence of lobster. With the remaining amount of bisque left in the bown, the remanants of the pastry top clinging to the rim went well to cut the richness of the bisque for its finishing. I have to say, although the lobster itself contributes
mostly to the price, this dish is definitely worth the $35 that makes it the most expensive dish on the menu albeit still being very reasonably priced. It is for sure their flagship dish that one person in the party must order.

My brother had the Traditional Cassoulet with White Beans, Duck Confit, Toulouse Sausage, and topped with Bacon. This was a very hearty dish with all the things you want in a classic, rustic dish such as duck confit, sausage and bacon. It paired well with the Syrah that he ordered with his dish.

At the end, we've decided to share the Tarte Tatin a la Mode. Done beautifully (Sorry, I took a couple of bites before remembering to take the pic), even with the drizzle of caramel, this traditional French apple tart was not only a terrific way to end the meal with its very delicious flavors, it had the right amount of sweetness that wasn't overwhelming at all. Although vanilla ice cream on the side is meant to cut the sweetness of a slice of pie or tart, it actually complemented well and served more as of it rather than being a relief to one's palate as the sweetness of both the tart and the vanilla ice cream were of similar levels. This classic dessert should definitely not be overlooked as it was a fabulous way to end the meal.

Although it may not be a Michelin-starred institution, Le Charm Bistro definitely is one SF's highly acclaimed restaurants and is an extremely ideal choice if one is looking for solid, straight-forward,  traditional French bistro fare. It is great for many occasions whether it be for a date, a business dinner, a meal to catch up with family members, or a night alone in the town. Even if there are other traditional French bistros in town, not only in terms of price but the quality of the dishes and the warmth of the service should make a meal at Le Charm Bistro a must during your time in San Francisco.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Yu Chun Chic Naeng Myun - A Top Choice for Naeng Myun in KoreaTown, Los Angeles

If you had seen the Los Angeles episode of "The Layover", this is the restaurant where you've seen the well-knowledgeable clientele of Korean descent slurping and enjoying the thin yet chewy cold buckwheat noodles known as "Naeng Myun". As LA can get hot during most of the year and besides getting Korean Barbecue during those times, those that really know LA should be eating at naeng myun restaurants or at least at Korean barbeque restaurants that offer naeng myun as well. At Yu Chun, they stand out compared to the other naeng myun restaurants that they use "chic" in Korean, or what is known as the Kudzu vine, when preparing the noodles along with buckwheat.

Usually, naeng myun comes in two main forms: Mul Naeng Myun and Bibbim Naeng Myun. The former is naeng myun in a cold beef broth with boiled beef, cucumber, daikon, sesame seeds, and a hard boiled egg as garnishes. In addition, one can adjust the taste by adding vinegar and Korean hot mustard to the broth. Mul Naeng Myun is extremely refreshing as one can also slurp the cold broth from the bowl, especially on a hot, blistering day. The latter is naeng myun in a spicy yet sweet chili paste but with the same garnishes as mul naeng myun. If you really want to eat noodles already concentrated with flavor sans broth, then choose Bibbim Naeng Myun instead.

I ended up having both kinds of naeng myun as we've shared our dishes within our  dining party. The servers will give you a cup with warm beef broth which has a distinct simmered turnip flavor. It's great to drink, especially when you have to neutralize either the spice from the bibbim naeng myun or the sourness from the mul naeng myun.

As my Bibbim Naeng Myun arrived, I've mixed all of the components, even added some of the cold beef broth that came with it for another dimension of its flavors, and dug right in. This is certainly the best bibbim naeng myun I've had. The heat, flavor and sweetness from the chili paste all delivered well without being too intense as they meld together harmoniously. Also, the naeng myun itself had a nice degree of chewiness without being too difficult to bite through or coming out too soggy.

I then had the Mul Naeng Myun. Although it wasn't exactly a hot day as it was Thanksgiving Day, the refreshing broth definitely hit the spot. With the heat from the Korean Mustard and the tang from the vinegar, the cold beef broth became one of the best concoctions I've ever gulped down. Unfortunately, the pic shows the mul naeng myun already mixed. 

These bowls of naeng myun are the best I've had in respect to their individual preparations. Even though they are both extremely delicious, I can't say whether I prefer one or the other. It really all depends whether if you're in the mood for Mul or Bibbim Naeng Myun. If you can't decide, have more than one person in your dining party so you can share each others' dishes. Although there are other top, hole-in-the-wall naeng myun places in LA that differ primarily in their noodle preparation unlike ramen where the difference in what broth they use is the highlight, it's safe to say that Yu Chun is a solid, well-respected establishment serving some of the best naeng myun you will ever eat in the States. If you're visiting LA or have been living in the city for quite some time, you have to head down to Yu Chun Restaurant in Koreatown so that you will not miss out on Naeng Myun which is some of the finest dishes LA has to offer, especially more so for the latter.

Yu Chun Chic Naeng Myun on Urbanspoon

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Spirits Review #1 - Hangar One Spiced Pear Vodka, Suntory Yamazaki 12yr Single Malt Whiskey, Johnnie Walker Black Label, and Laphroaig 10yr Scotch

One of the main reasons in regards to starting this blog besides reviewing fine dining restaurants is to write reviews of fine spirits. Now, I finally got down to writing my first spirits review blog post after a year. I'm no expert of taking down notes of smell, taste and finish such as professional tasters but will do my best in order to describe the sensations I experience during the process. In the end, I'll be giving a score by the following rubric out of 6 points.

1/6 - Something that undergrads would drink and then chase it down with soda. Would not drink this stuff even if it's the only thing that will get me buzzed.

2/6 - Drinkable only after having already consumed many drinks prior.

3/6 - It's alright, definitely something I am fine drinking when keeping costs down.

4/6 - Good. Something to be enjoyed for sure.

5/6 - Delicious! There's no hesitation at all when I'm willing to shell out more for it.

6/6 - Nectar of the heavens.

For this first spirits review, I will be giving my insight on four spirits: Suntory Yamazaki 12yr Single Malt Whiskey, Hangar One Spiced Pear Vodka, Johnnie Walker Black Label Blended Scotch Whisky, and Laphroaig 10yr Islay Scotch Whisky.

Suntory Yamazaki 12yr Single Malt Whiskey

Unlike the famed Hibiki, a blended whiskey, that became well known to the world from "Lost in Translation", the Yamazaki 12yr is a Single Malt from Suntory's Yamazaki distillery. When I first noticed it on the shelves at BevMo, I immediately bought a bottle. In addition, this is a prized favorite all over Japan as I definitely had lots of it when this was their nicest whiskey they have to offer. The scent of the whisky incorporates the flora of Japan, especially its maples. Also by the smell, I can tell that they use water from pristine sources. For the taste, it certainly is unique when comparing it to a Scotch. Although there's a slight hint of smokiness. it's quite smooth in taste and on the palate. When it goes down, it leaves a nice smooth burn without it being harsh at all. 5/6

Hangar One Spiced Pear Vodka

Being originally from the Bay Area, I'm quite partial towards the magnificent wines, beers and spirits produced in the region. Although vodka is my least favorite spirit, especially when preferred by those that want a spirit that mixes easily with chasers (although I truly respect those that appreciate and enjoy vodka as it is), Hangar One is certainly my favorite distiller of vodka. There original, unflavored vodka is great for what it is but what makes them unique is that they use actual organic fruits and plants in order to flavor their products; nothing artificial. Their vodka I will write about is their Spiced Pear Vodka. As this is part of their unique "Tasting Room Series" that diverges from their standard, yet quite breathtaking flavors, it does live up to its upscale connotation of the series. After chilling it in the freezer and pouring it in a glass, the color is certainly like that of the skin of a pear. After taking note of how it smells, it certainly is loaded with the pear aroma and spice notes of cinnamon and cardamom. The first sip of it is quite sweet, but not overwhelming, and it goes down quite smooth as there isn't much of a burn. It's just as if I were drinking the juice of a freshly squeezed pear. Even though I think it's not close to Hangar One's best flavors such as their Kaffir Lime, Buddha's Hand Citron, or their Frasier Raspberry; which just tells you how phenomenal their vodka's are (this coming from a whiskey drinker), it's still something worth checking out and sampling.  4/6

Johnnie Walker Black Label Blended Scotch Whisky

Although I prefer my Single Malts more than Blended whiskeys, this is definitely a standard, go-to classic. From the nose, not only I get the smokiness/peat that's well associated with the Black Label but I get cherries as well. However, once it hits the tongue, it's well-rounded with smoke, deep flavors, and a nice pungent burn. It's because of this well-rounded character of Johnnie Walker that makes it well known, even by the most distinguished Scotch drinkers. 4/6

Laphroaig 10yr Islay Single Malt Scotch Whisky

The Macallan 12 year used to be my go-to Single Malt especially how it has that unique flavor and smoothness from the Sherry casks. However, it's now replaced with my new standard favorite of completely opposite character, the Laphroaig 10yr Islay Single Malt Scotch Whiskey. Unlike Macallan which is a Highland whisky, even though the original, spiritual home of Macallan is in Speyside and many connoisseurs still regard Macallan as that from Speyside; the Laphroaig is from Islay producing a much smokier, peatier Scotch which is quite opposite from the smooth flavorings and burn from it being aged in Sherry Oak. On the nose, it's quite pungent with the peat, not at all shy. The flavor is loaded with aggressive smokey, wood flavor. Even though it produces a nice, powerful, deep burn for the finish, it'll leave you wanting for more, especially if you're the whiskey epicure that enjoys these powerful characters of peat/smoke.  Even though it's quite reasonably priced around $40, I have to say that this Scotch is transcending. 6/6

On a side note: in the following picture, that is for sure a Sushi Clock. You can get them from and they're quite well made.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

ROC: Honda-Ya - As If It Were a Direct Transplant from Japan

I've been meaning to write this review for a while but now finally got the chance to. Honda-Ya is an amazing institution over LA County and OC as they have locations throughout those counties. Why is that so? They have pretty much introduced Southern California to Izakayas which are essentially Japanese pubs. Although there are plenty of types of Izakayas in Tokyo where they range from traditional to "modern" themes as I've actually been to a pirate-themed one and my first one being a mizugi bar (lit. swimsuit bar) where female waitresses dress in very skimpy outfits and serve food of a typical izakaya, Honda-Ya seems to have managed to recreate the traditional izakaya here in SoCal with its various food offerings and atmosphere as they have wooden bar tables, tatami mats with cushions to sit on without shoes and plenty of uniquely Japanese decorations inside the restaurant.

They have a large menu filled from the range of traditional Japanese offerings as takoyaki, sashimi, and tempura to more fusion with carpaccio and Americanized rolls. In addition, they have various seasonal specials regarding food items and a great drink list composing of beer, sake, shochu and of course chu-hai (refreshing shochu-based cocktails mixed with soda water and a choice from a variety of flavoring syrups). Chu-hai in my opinion is the drink to mainly get at an izakaya as it's uniquely associated with it and a huge part of the izakaya culture.

The location I'm covering for this blog post is the one in Tustin, CA. With hours ranging from 5:30 to 1AM (kitchen closes around 12:30am), there is usually a line throughout as not only is it a dinner spot but primarily is viewed as an amazing place for late night dining. Besides the late hours, what really makes it special for late night grub is that their menu mainly comprises of many small dishes to share. The following are photos spread out from two visits: one from sitting at the wooden bar and one with a friend sitting at the tatami mat area.  I do apologize for the poor picture quality as the setting composed of dim lighting during both visits.

When you first sit down, they offer you complementary cucumbers marinated in brine but aren't exactly fully pickled as with typical pickles here in the US. With the refreshing taste from the cucumber and the tang from the brine, it's sure delicious to nibble on before taking on their many dishes. I also went for a double Lychee Chu-hai as I wanted something to quench my thirst that's very refreshing. It definitely has that sweet lychee flavor but another chu-hai that I do recommend that's equally refreshing but more on a sour note is their Yuzu (Japanese Lemon) Chu-hai.

Definitely a great starter is simple Tuna Sashimi. Granted, it may not be as finely cut as by a sushi chef. However, elegance isn't really expected at an izakaya. Be that as it may, the tuna tasted clean and delicious. Sitting on the tatami mat, having tuna sashimi with sake is a great way to enlighten the experience.

My friend was really hungry so he got the sashimi bowl for himself. Looking at the picture, it appears it contains tuna, salmon, hamachi, red snapper, ikura, and a shrimp along with a square of nori. He said it was pretty good.

 He then ordered the White Peach Chu-hai. I've had this before and like others, very delicious. Not only is it sweet but there's a slight tang from the white peach flavoring as well.

My Green Apple Chu-hai came as well. Out of all the chu-hai flavors, this easily lands on my top three as not only is it refreshing but it has the flavor of apple Jolly Ranchers.

Along with the drinks, the rest of the dishes came together. In my opinion, the dish you absolutely have to get is their Crab Shumai. Even though I wasn't sure if the crab was imitation or not, it was loaded with it which makes it very delicious and loaded with shellfish flavor. The spicy Chinese mustard on the side is an amazing complement to the shumai as I feel that it doesn't really need any soy sauce to go with it.

Another must order dish is their Takoyaki. Cooked in a batter, it's loaded with octopus pieces and topped with bonito flakes, seaweed flakes, and an okonomiyaki sauce. On the side came condiments of Japanese and ginger to go along with the pieces. Soft on the inside from the batter and chewy from the octopus pieces, it was loaded with savory, umami flavor.

The Seafood Tempura definitely is something to order when wanting to get a variety from Honda-Ya's menu. It contains tempura of shrimp, squid, whitefish and a shiso leaf. It came with a dashi-loaded tempura sauce. Even though it was delicious, I wish that Honda-Ya would also offer it with some grated radish to go with the sauce as to provide a refreshing acidic contrast to the fried, yet delicate batter of the tempura.

Although the following diverges from the sushi I usually eat, this is one of those very few exceptions where I venture into the darkness of American-style sushi. This is their Blue Crab Hand Roll in soy paper. It also has an avocado slice in there as well. I have to say that this was alright for what it is.

The following pics are from my other time I sat at the bar. This is their Monkfish Liver (Ankmo). It came with the standard garnishes of mentaiko, green onion and ponzu. The flavors of the Ankimo were very creamy and, no doubt, very delicious especially with the citric ponzu and the garnishes bringing a refreshing counterbalance.

Not sure of the exact kind of oysters that were given, they had the same ponzu and garnishes as with the ankimo with the addition of a lemon wedge even though I felt it wasn't needed with the ponzu already being citrus-based. These oysters were fresh of course. Most likely because I grew up eating oysters of this style, I prefer the Japanese preparation of raw oysters with ponzu and the garnishes of green onion and mentaiko vs. the French version with the mignonette as the ponzu incorporates strong umami flavors that go extremely well with seafood while maintaining a harmony with the acidity from the yuzu juice component.

This is Ginza no Suzume, a shochu made from barley, on the rocks. I highly enjoy drinking shochu as is on the rocks. Although only about half the alcohol concentration of vodka, I feel that shochu tastes more refined and indeed it's smooth, especially with Ginza no Suzume. Rather than drinking it straight as I find it rather unpleasant, the water from the melting ice opens the true flavors of the shochu while essentially diluting out the unpleasantness.

Afterwards, I also got a Kyoho Grape Chu-hai. While much lighter and refreshing and it'll give you a buzz, it has the flavor of artificial grape soda. I'm not implying that the artificial flavor isn't inherently bad, just like I prefer that unique, artificial green apple flavor to that of real apples. 

Honda-Ya also has an extensive yakitori list as the have the charcoal grill in the back. Yes, the yakitori's good. However, I prefer Takaya Yakitori Izakaya or Shinsengumi when I go out to eat primarily yakitori. The following is chicken skin with salt and chicken thigh with green onion and sauced with tare. I wished that the chicken skin was cooked a little more as it was soft in the center in which I find to be a bit of a turn off as a huge portion of it was all bunched up. Be that as it may, the chicken thigh was delicious while having a good amount of tare.

Even though I prefer the other previously mentioned places for yakitori, Honda-Ya definitely beats them in regards to shrimp. Not only is the shrimp properly cooked with the right amount of crisp and char, the cook also manages to retain its moisture. This is their spicy jumbo shrimp. It can be eaten with the shell but after a bite, I ended peeling it off while mopping up the tail with the sauce on the place. Not only was the tail delicious and moist, I ended up sucking the head as it has all of that goodness from the guts and organs. I know, that doesn't sound exactly appealing as almost all of the organs with crustaceans like shrimp are located in the head.

Once again, I would like to apologize for the lack of lighting in the pics. Honda-Ya is an amazing and fun place to grab a couple of drinks and order a fair quantity of small dishes. It's a great divergence from the typical chain restaurants with their happy hour specials while also serving as an after dinner/ late night place for food and drinks. Even though it may be unusual for some, I would definitely recommend sittingat the tatami mat area as it's a unique and fun experience even though it might require more waiting. Once you sit down, have a couple of chu-hais, and nibble on some small plates; you'll feel that you've transported into an izakaya in Japan.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Sushi Gen: The Best Sushi in Little Tokyo (a.k.a. The Non-$15 Sashimi Platter Blogpost)

Sushi Gen is a landmark institution in Los Angeles as it has been around since the '80s. I can imagine it was one of the first sushi restaurants here in the US. Even after all of this time, it still not only retains its glory but also manages to introduce people towards more traditional preparations of sushi. Yes, lots of people rave about their $15 Sashimi platter ($15 during lunch, $26 during dinner) and of course it's of amazing value regarding both quality and quantity. However, not only are the people who typically go for the platter missing out on the sushi bar experience as the platters are only available for table dining, they are also missing out on the variety offered a-la-carte and served immediately by order from the sushi bar. In addition to the variety and even though sashimi's also served at the bar, people are also missing out on what Sushi Gen truly shines and excels in: actual sushi, of course, with the vinegared rice!

The moment you see the restaurant from outside, you'll notice plenty of people waiting to get a table inside as they are most likely going for the sashimi platter. However, if you decide to opt for the a-la-carte only sushi bar in which you should do so if you want the best food and experience, wait time drastically shortens or even one would be seated immediately like we were. Once seated at the sushi bar, the sushi chef immediately greets you and instructs that you order verbally a couple of orders at a time. Immediately at this point, my recommendation is to ask for the sushi list that's typically given to tables who want to order sushi a-la-carte in order to know fully what they offer. Typically in Japan as it's the same ordering method as Sushi Gen unless if one is ordering omakase at a high-end institution in Ginza, one tells the sushi chef an order or two at a time and figures out what to order by simply looking at what's inside the sushi bar refrigerator for an item's availability. This too is expected for diners at the sushi bar. However, their bar is too long to see everything they have which is why I highly recommend requesting for the list.

As I typically like to stick to tradition when dining at the sushi bar, I had ordered my sushi progressively from lightest to heaviest in terms of flavor. I started out with Japanese Snapper (Tai). The sushi was seasoned with both yuzu juice for refreshing acidity and yuzu-kosho (fermented yuzu) to provide salt and a deep-flavor contrast with the fish. With both of these seasonings contributing to the Japanese Snapper's flavors, this was a great way to start the meal along with the freshness of the fish and the skin being left on the side in order to provide a textural contrast.

Wanting another fish of the lighter flavors yet something different from the Japanese Snapper, Engawa (Halibut Fin Meat) came next. As it's a bit chewier than Hirame (meat from the main body of the halibut) along with having its clean, light flavors, the Engawa was very delicious as it too was seasoned with yuzu juice and yuzu-kosho for the same reasons as the previous Tai.

Garnished instead with chopped shallots, green onion, ground ginger, and seasoned with ponzu (soy sauce seasoned with yuzu juice); the Spanish Mackerel (Aji) was served to us. The garnishes and the ponzu provide a refreshing contrast to the strong flavors of the mackerel along with the ponzu providing an umami flavor. In addition, one can tell that the seasonings and garnishes for the Aji are there to uplift its flavors instead of masking its "fishiness" in which there really wasn't much of by the fish itself. This was a surprise favorite for everyone in my dining party as Aji isn't typically ordered as frequent in the States which of course is unfortunate as it's a traditional sushi topping in Japan.

Next came Kohada (Gizzard Shad) which is, like Aji, one of the sushi toppings that isn't much ordered in the US yet it is standard in Japan. The flavors of the fish, like as of expected in makerel, were very strong, borderlined to being a bit "too fishy" even though it was still very delicious. It was fortunate that the lone topping of yuzu-kosho was there providing a different, strong flavor to complement the fish along with the vinagered rice providing refreshing acidity. It was these two components in which I felt saved it.

The progression now focused on fish with more deeper, meatier, and even perhaps buttery flavors. Yellowfin Tuna (Hamachi) came up. Even though I usually don't go for Hamachi, this was surprisingly very delicious as the fat content of the fish provided a nice buttery flavor without it being overwhelming. The freshness of the fish certainly helped as well. As the Hamachi wasn't seasoned at all like the previous sushi, the fish of this heavier class now requires the diner to dip the fish (not the rice) into the soy sauce. As wasabi is already added to the majority of sushi ordered, no additional wasabi's needed to be added or to be mixed into the soy sauce which is actually a sushi faux-pas. The slight dip of the fish in the soy sauce provided a strong, salty, umami flavor that went well together with the butteriness of the Hamachi.

Next came the most standard out of all the sushi, Lean Bluefin Tuna (Akami). Not only is the tuna of high quality and very fresh, it's meaty, savory flavors were very much appreciated.

Now, I present to you what are the most amazing, lip-drooling items at Sushi Gen: Chu-Toro (Medium Fatty Tuna on the left) and the grandest of all, O-Toro (Very Fatty Tuna on the right). First, lets start off with Chu-toro. It was quite evenly marbled which is what makes Chu-Toro what it is: an amazing blend of the fatty and the meaty, leaner flavors combined together in order to make its own unique character. Next, words can only mention so much of the grandeur lavishness of O-Toro. The distinct fatty segments of the tuna belly is what overrides the senses and makes those sensitive to fat extremely squeamish just by looking at it. This of course was extremely luscious in both flavor and texture. Only a small dip of soy sauce is required in order to fully bring out the breathtaking flavors of both Chu-Toro and O-Toro. As the chef was willing to give a piece each of Chu-Toro and O-Toro as it's two pieces per order, I was fortunate enough to taste both of them. But then again, who am I kidding? I'm going for the all out lusciousness of O-Toro only when I come back next time!

The next best thing came next: Sea Urchin (Uni) from Santa Barbara served as a gunkan-maki (battleship roll).  Unlike Ikko in Orange County where they serve some of the best Uni, this isn't preseasoned in which at times I prefer it just as is with only a small dip in the soy sauce for seasoning so that I can taste and appreciate the full, distinct yet very clean flavors of fresh Uni. The texture of the uni was firm, not at all watery which also contributed to its extreme deliciousness.

To complete the almighty sushi trinity with O-Toro and Uni being the other two components, raw Sweet Shrimp (Amaebi) was then presented freshly before us with their heads being simmered into miso soup to be served later on. Not only was it not at all slimy as one might perceive it to be, the meat was very firm in texture and of course was very sweet in flavor as it should live up to its name.

One of my personal favorites, Ikura (Seasoned Salmon Roe) came next served as a gunkan-maki like the Uni. The eggs were very fresh as determined from its non-wrinkly, springy, firm texture. I swear, some people get weirded out from the sight of roe as they make a mental connotation of fish eggs with something icky. However, they shouldn't do so as people see caviar from sturgeon as luxurious yet not so much with Ikura as it's from Salmon. Be that as it may, the Ikura had a very deep savory flavor which only required a small dip of soy sauce in order to bring out fully its flavors as the roe was of course high in salt content yet not overwhelmingly salty.

Our miso soup with the head from the Amaebi simmered in came. It definitely was a delicious way to wash down all the sushi consumed. The head was loaded with meat which made it great to nibble on while slurping down the soup. However, one more sushi remained before the meal was concluded.

Finally, the last pieces of sushi that was serve was Conger/Seawater Eel (Anago). My cousin who dined with me was curious about it in the beginning as he wanted to know the differece between it and its freshwater counterpart, Unagi. Anago is definitely more meaty, savory and fish-like in flavor versus the much sweeter Unagi which is why I prefer Anago over Unagi. My cousin too felt the same way the moment he started to savor it. The Anago served at Sushi Gen has the right amount of sweetness from the sauce and its meat was very savory and firm. The combination of the two opposite characters create a harmonious flavor. If you're ever in a bind to decide which of the two eels you should order, I would definitely recommend choosing Anago over Unagi.

After finishing the rest of the miso soup, out meal was concluded. All of the sushi were extremely fresh and tasted amazing. Because of how consistent Sushi Gen is able to maintain its high standards of quality and preparation for decades while offering more traditional sushi toppings, that is what makes Sushi Gen the best sushi restaurant in Little Tokyo, if not Los Angeles. If you have only one night to eat sushi in LA, this is the restaurant to go to. Forget the $15 sashimi platter, go for the full experience and to expand your horizons by dining at the sushi bar.

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