Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Great View and Sushi at ONYX in Westlake Village

Opulence at ONYX in The Four Seasons Hotel

Life is good when you dine at Onyx, a luxurious Japanese restaurant inside the equally luxurious Four Seasons Hotel in Westlake Village, a peaceful incorporated community of Thousand Oaks.

Surrounded by beautiful Japanese art and antiques, fancy chandeliers and a behemoth of an electric-blue saltwater aquarium, Onyx offers pure escapism through ambience. Its name, after all, could well be derived from the semi-precious stones which glitter from wall panels in the dining room. For those who prefer a wide-open view of the resort’s majestic waterfall, there is even seating available on the terrace.

Although the prices for most of the menu items here are just as you’d expect them to be at a luxury resort—high—Onyx does feature “Sushi on the Rocks,” otherwise known as Happy Hour (from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. on each night that the restaurant is open). In this specially priced section of the menu, nigiri starts as low as $4 for an order of two pieces, such as the robustly red “big eye tuna,” which can be enhanced with the pure and authentic wasabi that is served (one would find the imitation powder-based version of the green stuff blasphemous in such an upscale dining establishment, right?).

Get ready to be really happy during this hour: for only $5, you can choose a Crunchy Shrimp and Jalapeno roll, or opt for the trite, yet tried-and-true California roll, which at Onyx contains real snow crab, again demonstrating they accept no imitations here.

A few choices of sake and beer, as well as appetizers like dumplings and vegetable tempura, are also less expensive during this hour.

Now for the pricey stuff: $22 for the decadently delicious, soy-paper-wrapped Lobster Tempura Roll with avocado, yamagobo, sprouts and cucumber, which is served with a tangy garlic-and ginger-infused aioli. A leafy green salad, which could be dismissed as nothing more than garnish, forms the centerpiece of this eight-piece order. The most expensive item appears in the "Yakimono Grill" section of the menu: the Whole Pacific Snapper, which comes with bok choy, macadamia nuts and Chinese black vinegar, costs $45.

Although I have to concede that a better Miso Black Cod can probably be found at Nobu, Onyx did blow me away with a spicy scallop gunkan-style sushi that was seared to smoky, crisp perfection.

Four Seasons Hotel
2 Dole Drive, Westlake Village

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Saucy Sushi at Sakana in Montecito

Color, Sauce, Sushi!

Sushi resembles a prismatic palette at Sakana of Montecito.

With its sauces of vibrant hues and brilliant flavors, Sakana, a cozy yet upscale little restaurant tucked away in a shopping plaza, serves artistic concoctions with sauces made with everything from red beets to parsley, from habanero to white truffle.

Lured by the creative names on the seashell-embellished menu outside this eatery, I decided to give it a shot. After all, Sakana has garnered many rave reviews online, and so far, with my positive dining experiences at Ahi Sushi in the vicinity, I’ve had nothing but a good impression of sushi in the Santa Barbara area.

An oversize flatscreen behind the sushi bar displays ever-changing underwater scenes—it’s a digital aquarium, really, showing colorful reefs, darting tropical fish. Large sake bottles line the opposite wall, and a blue glow radiates, reflecting the oceanic theme.

Prices may be slightly on the extravagant side, but that doesn’t keep locals or tourists from packing this modest-sized joint on a nightly basis. Expect to pay $12 for the impeccable Aburi Toro nigiri, which is topped with roasted ginger, garlic, and balsamic ponzu vinaigrette; $9 for the Champagne Crab sushi (champagne yuzu vinaigrette and caviar inclusive); and $8.50 for the M.S.C. (Monkfish, Scallop, Caviar) sushi, which is served with a creamy “sea urchin lobster sauce.”

Other nigiri may be more moderately priced, but the plates quickly add up because you find yourself indulging in one item after another after another. The sashimi menu and the sushi roll menu also feature many of the same ingredients and sauces as the nigiri choices, so for the sake of maximizing your opportunity to sample as many varieties in one sitting as possible, it might be wise to stay on the two-piece sushi side.

The Basil Fluke, along with the Aburi Toro and Kobe Beef, may well be one of my favorite sushi choices at Sakana. With a dressing of basil oil, habanero sauce, truffle yuzu vinaigrette, and cilantro leaves, the Basil Fluke is a grand explosion of flavors. Being a member of the truffle craze, I find that I am also partial to the Yaki Shiitake sushi, with its white truffle soy and habanero sauces. At only $5, the shiitake selection is the least expensive of the nigiri here.

The “Red Wine Eel” sushi sounded rather exotic, but in reality this unagi, with its edible adornments of tempura shiso leaf and yellow soy paper strips, was simply paired with a red wine balsamic sauce. It was quite tasty, but like the Champagne Crab, it might have been better (although certainly less colorful) if regular nori had been used in place of the yellow soy paper. The "Green Tea Smoked Scallop," which came with dijon smoked paprika sauce and scallions, was indeed aromatic, but the scallops tasted less like shellfish than they did like smoky fishcake.

Splashes of red from the beet sauce, green from the parsley mixed with olive oil, and brown from the balsamic vinagrette streak the basic canvas of almost every plate, and for good reason: each offers its own essence—the red one is slightly tangy, the green a bit salty, and the brown syrupy-sweet. Swirl the three together on the plate and you have the most perfect blending of flavors.

1046 Coast Village Rd., Montecito

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Kula Revolving Sushi Bar: Only $2 a Plate

High Quality and Low Prices at Kula Revolving Sushi Bar of Irvine and Rowland Heights

With an economy still in the doldrums, some sushi restaurants have had to get creative to stay afloat in the game. Competition stiffened as wallets tightened, and consumer tastes, it seemed, got more fickle by the minute. One good thing that has come out of this, though, is the proliferation of conveyor belt sushi restaurants.

Although the concept is not new, conveyor belt sushi has become quite a hit in the Southland, particularly Kula Revolving Sushi Bar and Gatten Sushi, both of which have multiple locations and continue to crop up more.

Also called a “Sushi Train” or “Sushi-Go-Round,” conveyor belt sushi is all about rotating sushi and other dishes on a moving track that runs through a restaurant, so that each selection sails past the patron and is literally up for grabs. At the end of the meal, the small plates (usually stacked high) are tallied up to determine the amount of the bill.

This is ideal for all types of people: those on the go who don’t have a lot of time for a formal sit-down meal, those who wish to sample a variety of dishes without filling up, and those who are on a budget.

Talk about a good deal: At Kula Revolving Sushi Bar, all plates are $2 each, and the quality is surprisingly high considering the low price. And if that weren’t enough, Kula also serves premium organic rice as well as the best and sweetest-tasting real wasabi I have ever experienced. Not only is this bargain-hunter’s dream of a sushi place not about cheap powder-based wasabi, which is what most restaurants offer, but Kula's wasabi is flown in from Japan from a special purveyor; the texture is grainy and its flavor potent (sweet with a pure and raw hotness that no imitation stuff could ever come close to).

In 2008, Kula had first opened in Century City as a formal dining establishment. Special cut rolls cost as much as $16. But due to low visibility and presumably a gloomy financial climate, it shortly closed down—but it wasn’t long before Kula reappeared in Orange County, this time having been reinvented as a more affordable, toned-down yet still-hip sushi outlet.

Although Kula Revolving Sushi Bar offers even the exotic items, from heart clam to conch, it mostly specializes in popular rolls and nigiri, such as “Shrimp Avocado Roll with Creamy Yuzu Sauce” or “Snow Crab Leg” sushi. For $2, you can choose from a plate of cut rolls with only three pieces, or one to two pieces of nigiri, depending on the type (snow crab and sea urchin, for example, come as a single piece).

There is also the Seared Beef with Yakiniku Sauce, a sweet and tangy Americanized selection. For those who aren’t yet ready for the totally raw, other cooked choices abound, such as seared salmon or seared scallop sushi, both squiggled with mayonnaise. Or you might find yourself tempted by the crispy rice squares topped with spicy salmon or spicy tuna, with jalapeno slices that crown the mound of chopped-up chum mixed with chili sauce and mayonnaise.

Little touches make it even more remarkable that this is a $2-a-plate joint: squid sushi here is served with refreshing shiso leaf; albacore sushi is thoughtfully presented with ponzu sauce on the side in a little plastic condiment container, ensuring the fish doesn’t get soggy and that patrons who don’t like sauce can eschew it.

To ensure freshness, both Kula Revolving Sushi Bar and Gatten Sushi have systems in place which automatically disposes sushi plates after a number of revolutions on the belt. This adds up to a lot of food wasted, and with such low prices, you wonder how they stay in business—and then you see the small plates stacked to the Heavens as patrons prepare to pay, and it’s obvious that the numbers add up; people simply overeat and indulge more because they know it’s affordable.

The ideal time to eat at any revolving sushi bar is when it’s the busiest: that’s when the assembly-line sushi is at its freshest due to the rapid turnover. Another helpful tip: at just about every conveyor belt sushi restaurant, you can always ask the chef for a fresher order of anything you see on the belt, especially if it’s something fried (it’s common sense, but the longer a tempura item sits on the belt, the less crunchy it gets).

Taking the guesswork out of what to order from a menu also makes conveyor belt sushi more approachable and less intimidating. Neophytes need not be very familiar with Japanese terms at sushi train restaurants, as little signs bearing the name and ingredients (and sometimes a photo) of the dishes that follow usually say it all; plus it’s all right there—and if it looks good, it will be picked up. Sushi train restaurants are simple and fun, and they make a great starting point for small children who are just being inducted into the world of sushi.

Although the Rowland Heights location just opened up about a month ago, it is almost always packed. At peak times for both locations, expect to put your name on a list and then wait about a half hour.

Kula Revolving Sushi Bar
2700 Alton Pkwy., Irvine


1370 Fullerton Rd., Rowland Heights

Fresh Off the Sushi Train at Gatten Sushi

Gatten Sushi: Multiple Locations to Serve You

With even more locations here in the Southland than Kula Revolving Sushi Bar, Gatten Sushi serves high-quality food off a conveyor belt as well, but with tiered prices: dishes range from $1.50 to $5 (or $2 to $3 at the Gatten Sushi Junior locations), depending on the color of the plate.

The wasabi at Gatten Sushi is unremarkable, but Gatten Sushi has its own variety of tasty items that Kula Revolving Sushi Bar doesn’t feature. The seared shrimp sushi drizzled with spicy mayonnaise, for example, is top-notch, and rare items like tilapia and gizzard shad are served as nigiri. Another popular choice: the tuna steak nigiri, which is covered with a marinated onion sauce and diced scallions.

Gatten Sushi’s "Original" locations (the larger branches) also offer specials such as squid sushi with mayonnaise and fried onions, seared three-piece Salmon Oishi-Zushi topped with chopped vegetable salsa and jalapeno, and Una Tama, which is short for Unagi Tamago. The latter is a tasty treat: warm slices of Japanese omelet served with a sweet syrupy sauce, with little bites of eel peeping out from the center. For dessert, there’s even Almond Tofu in a glass that you can lift off the belt.

The seared beef sushi at Gatten Sushi is a tad on the chewy side; Kula’s Seared Beef with Yakiniku Sauce has that one beat. And although Gatten Sushi’s crab nigiri costs $5 for two pieces, the single-piece version at Kula’s tastes sweeter and fresher. Gatten Sushi, however, has a unique Daily Specials menu that lists different trio sets of nigiri depending on the day: on a Thursday, for example, you can get the amazing Seared Trio for only $2, with seared yellowtail, salmon and white tuna. On other days, you may find specials like the California Trio or the Shrimp Trio, which involve the same base nigiri dressed in different toppings. Or, it might be a Tempura Trio, which involves different kinds of fried tempura with the same sauces.

Gatten Sushi also sells a rowdy, energetic ambience: every new item that gets placed on the belt is heralded by a chef, to which the entire staff choruses “Yummy!” at the top of their lungs. Every time a patron stands up and prepares to leave the restaurant, you can hear a staff member announcing “Customer leaving!” And at this, the entire staff turns toward that customer and bows graciously, exclaiming "Arigato Gozaimashita!" loudly and in unison.

A Gatten Sushi Original is slated to open in the Westfield Shopping Mall in West Covina sometime this month.

Gatten Sushi Original
500 N. Atlantic Blvd., Monterey Park

Gatten Sushi Jr.
4517 Campus Dr., Irvine

Gatten Sushi Jr.
18162 Colima Rd., Rowland Heights

Gatten Sushi Jr.
11306 ½ South St., Cerritos

Saturday, September 17, 2011

The $100 "High-Roll"er at Wazuzu in Las Vegas

The $100 Roll at Wazuzu of Encore, Las Vegas

High roller sushi, indeed.

I had heard of a $100 sushi roll before, but never tried one. I read about it once in a magazine somewhere, and as you'd expect, some of the most expensive ingredients were included in the roll: Wagyu beef, lobster, caviar, and the obligatory gold flakes, for a regal touch. It sounded delicious, albeit pretentious and overpriced.

Wazuzu, the pan-Asian bistro at Encore Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, appropriately calls its $100 roll the "High-Roll"er. Served with a lobster miso soup on the side, the "High-Roll"er comes with Maine lobster, toro, Osetra caviar, creme fraiche, and 23-karat edible gold flakes.

When in Vegas, one is tempted to splurge and then rationalize that indulgence. It's the ambience, perhaps: Wazuzu is in the middle of a poshly decorated resort-casino, where you can hear the hubbub and feel the energy; the jingle and whirr of slot machines serve as an audio backdrop while synthetically perfumed air lures you. Wazuzu itself has no ordinary atmosphere: a 27-foot crystal dragon encrusted with Swarovski crystals snakes across one wall; a color scheme of red, gold and black evokes Oriental opulence; smartly uniformed servers pamper you like you're Asian royalty.

Amid this ostentation, it's hard not to yield to excess and just say "What the hell, it's Vegas," and be a gambler.

Lobster claw meat and shimeji mushrooms make a small difference in an otherwise typical miso soup, but the "High-Roll"er–especially its presentation–will leave a lasting impression. The lobster head and hollowed-out shell on the plate may be there for decorative purposes only, but they certainly turn the dish into a visual masterpiece. All the flavors coalesce just right, the saltiness of the caviar mingling with the creamy, slightly sour taste of creme fraiche–add some bites of the freshest cold Maine lobster and the highest grade of fatty tuna to that and you'll realize this was a risk well taken.

Despite the high stakes, the "High-Roll"er is worth a try...even if the price may be up the wazuzu.

Wazuzu at Encore
3121 Las Vegas Blvd. South, Las Vegas

Friday, August 26, 2011

Yuki Japanese Restaurant of Portland, Oregon

Yuki Restaurant: Go for the Oysters

The city of Portland, Oregon lives up to all its stereotypes–being environmentally friendly, being weird, and having good reason to be called Porkland as a reference to some of its over-bingeing residents. It's a bicycle-friendly town, which means it doesn't cater to cars, and therefore parking is a challenge, not to mention the inconvenience brought on by all the one-way streets. The fact that there is no sales tax in Portland is a singular perk.

I was chagrined at most of the food in this tree-lined town due to the blandness of flavors, but perhaps Pacific Northwesterners are overwhelmed by the pungent and the piquant. Some of the oysters I had in this city, however, were truly remarkable.

For Japanese-style oysters, look no further than Yuki Restaurant. Shigoku oysters, famous for their deep-cupped shells and firm insides, are sweet and refreshing here, especially because they are served with green onions, spicy grated radish and a mixture of ponzu sauce and rice vinegar. Meaning "ultimate" in Japanese, Shigoku is a Pacific oyster that hails from Willapa Bay, Washington.

Yuki's oysters may vary depending on the day. Sometimes, good ol' Kumamoto oysters are available. Kumamoto oysters, which originated in Kumamoto Bay of Kyushu, Japan, have a slippery consistency and are notably less sweet than the Shigoku. The Kumamoto oysters are about the same size as the Shigokus, and at Yuki's, they are served with the same toppings.

Another special at Yuki's is the Columbia River King Salmon sushi, although it doesn't taste as exotic as it sounds. The Ichiban Roll–with its hodgepodge of thrown-together ingredients like sun-dried tomato, shiso leaf, fried shallots, spicy tuna and cream cheese–has far more flavor.

From the colorful Makimono menu, which shows the price, description and a photo of each roll, one may also choose the $9.50 Sumo Roll, which is excellent with its pickled jalapeno, snow crab, seared salmon, and wasabi-flavored tobiko and wasabi mayonnaise.

Yuki Restaurant
930 NW 23rd Ave., Portland, OR

Tasmanian Ocean Trout and Truffled Avocado Sushi, Ring of Fire Roll, and the MSC Albacore Carpaccio at Bamboo Sushi of Portland, Oregon

It's All About Sustainable Sushi

In keeping with Portland's "green" culture, there is Bamboo Sushi, which is proud to be a "Certified Green Restaurant" as well as the first Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certified sushi restaurant in the world. The MSC, which is the world's leading independent third-party certification and eco-labeling program for sustainable seafood, has developed standards for fishing that are the global standard.

Quite possibly, Bamboo Sushi could be the most sustainable sushi restaurant in the country. And this doesn't deviate from the Zeitgeist. It's a highly publicized fact that bluefin tuna is being overfished, putting the species in jeopardy; the demand for hon maguro hasn't slackened, either.

Bamboo Sushi is doing what it can to help the oceans by properly harvesting its seafood. In addition, the restaurant plans to take a percentage of each dollar spent there to work with conservancy groups, with the idea of protecting areas where fish breed. Patrons also have the option to donate after they dine.

As environmentally conscious as this restaurant seems to be, I wasn't at all surprised that even their chopsticks are made of sustainably harvested teak wood.

Of the five items I ordered, the tasty Tasmanian Ocean Trout sushi, recommended by the chef, was my favorite. Perfect in its simplicity, it didn't need any enhancements–it was served bare and natural, sans toppings or lemon juice. Where I expected flavors to burst, as in the Truffled Avocado sushi (sprinkled with French black truffle salt), there was a bit of a let-down; the truffle salt did not taste very truffle-like at all in my opinion, and the Ring of Fire roll–with its fried oysters, yamagobo, albacore and jalapenos inside and yuzu juice and jalapeno marmalade on top, plus a crown of fried shallots–was good, but a bit blander than expected. For $13, this roll may have been compliant with carbon-footprint-lowering food industry standards, but it was not congruous with a palate as customized to strong flavors as mine.

For a refreshing sashimi plate, try the MSC Albacore Carpaccio, also $13. Chopped, house-smoked cippolini onion, pickled shiitake mushrooms, momiji, chervil, and Japanese sea salt adorn and flavor these raw, pink slices of fish.

Bamboo Sushi
310 SE 28th Ave., Portland, OR

Ginormous Sushi at Saburo's of Portland

Saburo's: The Walmart of Sushi Restaurants

There's an extraordinary wait for ordinary food at Saburo's, where diners sit or stand in a long line just for huge portions–oversize hand rolls that are stuffed to the hilt, gunkan-style sushi that are large and overflowing. It certainly can't be for the flavors. I tried the salmon belly nigiri that my sushi bar neighbors swore by, as well as a pillar of a hand roll filled with real crab meat and avocado, and while the size was larger than life, the flavors weren't very impressive.

There are also strange rules here. "You have to order all at once," the chef commands from behind the sushi bar, indicating you should check what you want on the dry-erase sushi menu with the marker provided. "I don't want to commit," I sniffed, diva-like. "Let's see how you do with the first order before I order more." Then there was the matter of having to jostle for space, for the seating at the sushi bar feels tight and claustrophobic, with hardly any elbow room.

"Try the Spider. It's ginormous," said the dude sitting to my left. On his plate was a heap of a softshell crab roll, the pieces ginormous indeed. His order of salmon egg sushi, served battleship-style with quail egg on top, was almost literally like two battleships.

Aside from the ginormous portions, patrons love Saburo's for the prices. Compared to most places, Saburo's is the Walmart of sushi bars, offering passable quality at a cheap cost. Cut rolls range from $5.75 to $7.25, and most two-piece sushi orders cost between $2.50 and $4.75, with an option to add quail egg yolk on top of some nigiri for 50 cents more.

The menu is quite specific here. On the page that lists special rolls, it says that "All Rolls are Made with Mayo Sauce and Smelt Roe Except Karate Roll and Shogun Roll." It's also unabashed to announce that "All Rolls are Made with Sesame Seeds Except the Big 'O' Roll." (According to the menu, the "Big O Roll" is a deep-fried affair of cream cheese, crab, masago, and a "Chef's Choice" mixture of fish served with a special dipping sauce.) There is even a variety of rare soft drinks on the menu: bottles of Ramune soda sell for $2 each and come in orange, melon and strawberry flavors.

1667 SE Bybee St., Portland, OR

Jumbo Scallop, Japanista Roll, and Dungeness Crab Hand Roll at Masu in Portland, Oregon

The Best Muki Hotate is at Masu

Located in the west end of Portland, the contemporary second-story Japanese restaurant known as Masu makes a great stop for sushi. The stylish, modern decor is enhanced by the light shining through the large windows along one wall, if you happen to be in during the daytime.

The Muki Hotate, or Jumbo Scallop, is unbelievably fresh and sweet here. Taking a bite of this soft, heavenly scallop nigiri is like tasting the ocean, or nibbling half fish, half silk. The eight-piece Japanista Roll, for $16, features spicy crab, spicy tuna and sprouts with seared yellowtail and a bright contrast of red jalapeno slices on top. It is served with a Hana sauce and sweet chili sauce.

Dungeness crab, which I've found to be in amazing abundance in Portland, is served at Masu; however, I have yet to find one restaurant in this city which serves it so fresh that it has me swooning, and which doesn't scoop it out of a plastic tub (which suggests it's not shelled in the kitchen but perhaps purchased beforehand from a purveyor). At Masu, I found my Dungeness crab hand roll to be pretty bland, although the avocado and Japanese mayonnaise I had requested to be added gave it a bit more flavor.

406 SW 13th Avenue

Portland's Restaurant Murata: Crab Hand Roll, Fresh Oysters in Ponzu Sauce

Portland's Restaurant Murata

Considering that Restaurant Murata was highly recommended by other sushi chefs, and that its front window practically flaunts its awards and accolades which extol it as "Top 100" and "The City's Best," I was utterly dumbfounded that the sushi rice was completely lacking in flavor. Sushi rice, one of the key elements to delicious sushi, should be properly seasoned with the right mixture of vinegar, sugar and salt. The resulting rice should be aromatic, sweet and savory, not so plain that it begs the question, Is this just regular white rice?

Thwarted by the sushi rice in my otherwise delicious hand roll with real crab, I ordered the Fresh Oysters in Ponzu Sauce for $9.95, and was glad I did. Although they were served in a bowl of cold goopiness with green onions and spicy pickled radish (without their pretty shells, aesthetics be damned), these oysters were opalescent, and rife in richness and taste.

Although the solemn chefs at the this traditional restaurant seemed oblivious to their bland sushi rice, they probably get away with it due to the cluelessness of the patrons, who perhaps just don't know any better. After all, this city is not known for its sushi, and many diners here seem more concerned with quantity than quality.

Restaurant Masa
200 SW Market St., Portland, OR