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RESTAURANT REVIEW : Mishima #2: More of a Good Thing

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Any good Japanese noodle restaurant inspires a fierce, emotional loyalty. If you doubt this, just take a look at Mishima in West Los Angeles, a noodle house on the corner of Sawtelle and Olympic: On a Sunday night, when most restaurants are begging for customers, Mishima is packed, and there’s another crowd outside waiting to get in.

It’s a good thing, then, that now there’s Mishima #2. This one is on 3rd Street in a mini-mall catty-corner to the Beverly Center. Bigger, brighter and slightly more lavish than the first one, this Mishima is, as yet, less crowded but that, I’m sure, is a temporary condition. There’s an alluring gleam and a roominess to the new establishment. The semi-visible kitchen is busy and spotless. Lights wink in glass sculptures and Japanese pottery is carefully displayed. As with the original Mishima, the clientele is a varied crowd; these noodle lovers range from pierced hipsters and starving artists to dressy dates, families and film execs.

The vast menu seems confusing at first, but the more you scan it, the more you realize there are just a few elements--noodles, rice and things you can add to noodles and rice--presented in every possible combination.

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But don’t miss out on appetizers. A must are eda-mame , fresh soybeans boiled and still in their furry green pods: Shucking and popping them into your mouth is as compulsively fun as eating peanuts or popcorn, and, no doubt, a far more virtuous activity.

I also recommend the ohita - shi: two tidy bales of fresh, barely cooked spinach in a bowl with transparent bonito flakes that bear an uncanny resemblance to wood shavings. Moisten both with a mild dipping sauce and it’s an epiphany of taste and texture.

Pumpkin salad is actually a potato salad: The pumpkin is pureed and stirred into the dressing, so it’s a fluorescent orange potato salad, a real visual treat on its pretty green and yellow plate. A tofu salad with lettuce, sprouts, fried rice noodles and a mayonnaise-based sesame sauce is a knockout, thanks to the freshest, fluffiest tofu.

Noodles, however, are the heart and soul of Mishima. Both soba and udon noodles can be ordered hot or cold, with or without broth, with or without all sorts of additions including mushrooms, grated yam, natto and Japanese vegetables. Soba are the grayish-brown, skinny buckwheat noodles and udon are the thicker, supple, white wheat noodle.

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Every ardent noodle fan has his/her own preference: I, personally like my soba cold, with grated radish and a simple dipping sauce, a combination known as oroshi soba that, like all cold noodles at Mishima, comes with chopped scallions and a little marble of wasabi. But some perfectly sane and reasonable people prefer their soba hot and I’ve tasted Mishima’s hot tanuki soba and soba with a rich, spicy, curry sauce and found them perfectly delicious.

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I am temperamentally drawn to hot udon and my favorite is nabe - yakiudon , the mother of all hot udon : a covered, bubbling cooking pot of noodles, broth and vegetables topped with an egg (which cooks in the broth) and tempura shrimp.

In addition to noodles, Mishima offers bowls of rice with various toppings including a curried gravy with chicken or beef, chicken or beef chunks bound with egg and moistened with a special sauce. There’s also ten don and tanin don, tempura shrimp and vegetables with or without an amalgamating egg. These dishes are Mishima #2’s weakest point. One night the special sauce tastes primarily of wine; another night, there’s not a trace of beef in the tanin don or beef with egg. But onigiri rice, sticky rice molded into cunning geometric shapes and variously spiced with seaweed and cumin, is most enjoyable.

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The great bargains and, to my mind, most satisfying things to order are the combination specials, which include your choice of a rice dish, the basic tanuki noodle (hot or cold, soba or udon ), plus a small side of goma-ae (string beans seasoned with sesame). Try the ten don, where the rice is topped with decent tempura, or the onigiri combo, with the amusingly molded rice. All of these beautifully presented, abundant combination meals range from $5.95 to $8.50.

* Mishima #2, 8474 West 3rd St . , Los Angeles, (213) 782-0181. Open daily from 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Beer and sake served. Major credit cards accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $12-$37.


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