HIS dark eyes shadowed by an indigo baseball cap inscribed with the name Bluefin, chef Takashi Abe leans forward across the sushi counter to banter with a customer. The master sushi chef’s new Japanese restaurant hasn’t been open long, but his old customers from Abe in Newport Beach are streaming into Bluefin to say hello and take up where they left off. The Matsuhisa alum has a very good thing going here at Crystal Cove Promenade.
Yes, he’s working seven days nonstop, but people keep coming back, not just for sushi, but also for his more original cold and cooked dishes.
A group of us one night decide on a small series, and each arrives on a differently shaped plate emblazoned with the outline of a bluefin tuna and the restaurant’s name.
Slices of milky and translucent raw scallop have an ineffably sweet sea taste. They’re arranged in a scallop shell with a garnish of carrots cut into a flower shape. This particular sashimi comes with its own side dish, a rich, clear broth with all sorts of Japanese mushrooms.
The broiled freshwater eel is delicious slicked with a dark, sweet glaze. And there’s velvety thick-cut hamachi of exquisite quality, slices of violet-edge octopus and, my favorite, dark-fleshed Spanish mackerel. It plays nicely against a beautifully balanced dressing in a tataki, which is sort of a fish tartare.
Abe really knows his fish and takes the time and effort to acquire the best. The evidence is right there on the plate and most obvious in sashimi, where there’s nothing to disguise the pure taste of the raw fish.
Made to order
AT the sushi counter, every seat is taken. The tables along the banquette on the opposite wall are all occupied too. Maybe it’s because the place has such an inviting look. Or good feng shui. The decor is spare and contemporary. Walls are painted a subtle color that makes me think of yuzu, the Japanese citrus, and a clever dropped ceiling introduces a curve into the rectangular space. Globe lights are full moons bobbing below the ceiling. And a dark bluish panel behind the counter ripples with water flowing over its surface, an abstract reference to the restaurant’s namesake.
Bluefin’s sushi chefs, all in low white hats, are a jolly bunch, flashing their expensive knives while they shout out greetings to newcomers or catch up with a familiar face. Customers vie for a seat in front of their favorite sushi chef, who, in turn, plies regulars with an artisanal sake just in from Japan or makes up a special roll just the way that sushi aficionado likes it.
“Toro!” one customer orders, slapping his palm on the long backlit counter. At the other end, a bartender cheerfully mixes up jewel-toned cocktails for the foursome still waiting for a table. The shelves behind the bar are stocked with a nicely edited selection of sakes, some from small producers, and many available by the glass. Those interested can opt for a flight of three sakes in order to get a handle on the different styles.
Bluefin is a stone’s throw from the Pacific Coast and Crystal Cove State Park, so the dress code is casual and beachy, with sun-burnished skin bared to the max. Painted toenails peek from strappy stiletto sandals. Necklaces point the way to the wearers’ generous decolletages. And every gym-toned body seems to be wearing something that glitters or shines: suburban bling. Even the crowd at Nobu Malibu would look scruffy next to these polished Orange County women.
Meanwhile, I watch as the one non-Japanese sushi chef prepares intricate rolls of rice with vegetable or fish, snapping his bamboo mat against the counter as he releases each roll and then cuts it into thick slices. He lines up the pieces on a rustic ceramic platter until the entire surface is covered. The order is all rolls: beginner’s sushi. I bet I know just where it’s headed, and I’m right -- that table of four dressed-to-kill women seated at a table on the leather banquette. It’s got to be somebody’s birthday.
You won’t see any signs forbidding California rolls or dynamite here like you would at restaurants on Sawtelle Boulevard. Abe hasn’t survived so long in Orange County without giving people exactly what they want. But at the same time, the genial chef entices his clientele to try something new, though still within their comfort level. He’s adept, too, at bringing the more adventurous novices along. Nobody need feel intimidated. If you want to order a miso-marinated piece of fish for supper, and that’s all, he doesn’t have a problem with it. Some people toy with a salad and avoid the raw fish altogether, opting for an order of tempura or a bowl of miso soup.
THE chef, who is no longer involved in Abe, seems to be much luckier with his location this time. Bluefin is set in the new Crystal Cove Promenade, a high-end shopping mall so discreet it’s easy to miss the turn and end up at the entrance to one of south Orange County’s exclusive gated communities. The place is so low-key, in fact, it looks more like an olive grove than a mall, but the trees are so perfectly groomed and plotted, you’re not quite sure whether they’re real. (They are.)
We drive slowly past the new Mastro’s Ocean Club, Ann Taylor Loft, Urban Gardener and a high-end sofa emporium, noting the Starbucks with an expansive outdoor patio two doors down from Bluefin. We park. We are far from the crush of the city and there are lots of spaces. It’s such a luxury not to have to go through the valet routine for once.
The ultimate indulgence at Bluefin is to just order the omakase, or chef’s choice -- it’s about $30 at lunch, $75 and up at dinner. In that case, you just sit back and the chef sends out the food, pretty much until you cry uncle. Some of it is just a bite -- a lovely piece of buttery seared toro and a fried lotus root chip. I love his ravioli of sea urchin sandwiched between ultra-thin slices of raw scallop topped with a spoonful of caviar and a flake of gold leaf. Another highlight is snowy halibut carpaccio with dustings of pink peppercorn and chives in a light ponzu perfumed almost imperceptibly with white truffle oil. It’s one of the few dishes I’ve ever encountered in which the chef shows some restraint with the powerful oil. Not that I don’t think the carpaccio would be better without it.
He also serves us king crab tempura in a ponzu butter sauce, which makes complete sense with the meaty crab. Of course, there’s sashimi and excellent nigiri-zushi, too, made with fragrant rice and the best of the seafood on offer, including sweet shrimp and more of the ochre sea urchin roe.
If I had to choose just one dish from the regular menu, it would be the shark fin flan with sea urchin served in a lidded ceramic bowl with a small bamboo spoon. The threads of shark fin tucked at the bottom of the custard are more texture than flavor. The custard, though, is like silk, its flavor as delicate as a memory.
The one dish that falls short, at least for me, is a bluefin tuna sashimi salad on greens wet with sweet Maui onion sauce, one of chef Nobu Matsuhisa’s signature sauces. I don’t think it works at Matsuhisa and I don’t think it works here either. It’s for people who don’t want to taste the fish.
Kobe-style beef is all the rage and so, of course, Abe’s got it a couple of different ways. The marinated sliced kobe beef is a bit tough, though. I much prefer the prime broiled rib-eye presented on a sizzling platter with an assortment of Japanese mushrooms.
Desserts are rarely worth the trouble at most sushi restaurants. Not so here. One night it’s a jasmine tea creme brulee with a fragile burnt sugar crust and a haunting note of the powerfully perfumed tea. Another time it’s a mango cream and a plate of tropical fruit.
The strange thing is that by 10, even the regulars are gathering sweaters and bags, boogying on out the door, headed -- home, I guess. Holding the door open as we leave, virtually the last sushi aficionados left in the place, the host commiserates. “I know, I know,” she says, “things close up early in O.C. By the time I get off work, there’s nothing open.”
I’m thinking they either put in a lot of winks down here in the O.C., or else, everybody’s staying up late to finish a long, long book like “Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell” or “The Brothers Karamazov.” Am I right? Or am I right?
Rating: ** 1/2
Location: Crystal Cove Promenade, 7952 E. Pacific Coast Highway, Newport Coast; (949) 715-7373.
Ambience: Smart contemporary Japanese restaurant with full bar, sushi bar and banquettes along the opposite wall. The crowd is mostly young O.C. elite from the beachside ‘hood.
Service: Courteous and professional.
Price: Starters, soup and salads, $5.50 to $17; cold appetizers, $8.50 to $20; hot appetizers, $16 to $28; main courses, $25 to $32; omakase (chef’s choice), $30 at lunch, $75 and up at dinner.
Best dishes: Spanish mackerel, hamachi and scallops sashimi; king crab tempura with butter ponzu sauce, scallop and uni ravioli, halibut carpaccio, shark fin flan, jasmine tea creme brulee.
Wine list: Limited wine list, but savvy sake selection. Corkage, $20.
Best table: The corner table on the banquette.
Details: Open from 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily; lot parking in front.
Rating is based on food, service and ambience, with price taken into account in relation to quality. ****: Outstanding on every level. ***: Excellent. **: Very good. *: Good. No star: Poor to satisfactory.