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The Gossiping Gourmet: Eclectic Japanese cuisine in a handsome setting

It’s always exciting when a new restaurant opens in town. “O" Fine Japanese Cuisine is the latest on the scene, tucked away in the Albertsons shopping center in a beautiful space they have created from an empty storefront.

The forward-looking design is accented by dramatic blue lighting from large, round ceiling soffits meant to evoke the sea. In addition to brick walls are black wood panels with white wavy accents. It seems to be a new material and a fascinating and attractive one at that.

Behind the sushi bar that takes up one wall is a huge blue light in the shape of an “O" with the odd addition of a little stuffed teddy bear riding on the bottom. The floors and tables are charcoal brown, and the banquettes and chairs are greige leather. Altogether, the effect is very handsome.

Shelley Teng and her husband, Master Chef Richard, are originally from Taiwan and have been opening Japanese restaurants in Irvine for the last 16 years. They have had five of them and each has been sold and a new one begun. Shelley told us that several times people have just walked into their restaurant and offered to buy it. They never said no. They just take a little rest and then open another.

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Their latest is this very eclectic Japanese restaurant. In addition to nigiri sushi, sashimi, maki (rolls) and special rolls, there are dinner entrées, salads, hot and cold soba and udon noodle dishes, and combination dinners. We tried a little bit of almost everything and liked the special rolls and the hot udon noodle nabe the best.

On a particularly cold (for Laguna) evening a hot noodle soup seemed particularly inviting. We selected the house special nabeyaki udon, with shrimp tempura, chicken, egg, vegetables and udon noodles in broth, served in a large clay pot. The quality of the broth and the noodles distinguish this traditional dish. In this case the broth was very good with deep rich flavors and a bit of spiciness.

The udon (thick wheat noodles) were wonderfully chewy "” the characteristic you look for in this classic Japanese pasta. The soup was chock full of shiitake mushrooms, sea vegetable, green beans, kamaboko (a smooth, simulated crabmeat fishcake) and topped with an egg and one big tempura shrimp. In our opinion, although it may not be the traditional practice, pluck that shrimp right out of the broth first thing or you will have soggy tempura.

Soba noodles, generally made from buckwheat, are thin noodles that can be served hot or cold. They are combined here with an eight-piece California roll or mixed tempura.

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We sampled the bluefin and yellowtail nigiri sushi (raw sliced fish on top of a small mound of sushi rice). Although the portion size was unusually generous, we found both types of fish to be somewhat bland. They did not have the velvety texture or the juiciness of the very best.

Much better was the sashimi roll, with its combination of ingredients that created a lot of flavor and texture. In addition to tuna, yellowtail and salmon was crabmeat, cucumber, avocado, spicy mayonnaise and ponzu sauce, all wrapped in soy paper and topped with masago (bright red-orange fish roe) and black sesame seeds. The combination was quite delightful. Richard’s special rolls are definitely the way to go. There are six different crunch rolls and a number of combination rolls like the baked scallop or albacore tataki roll.

Inventive sashimi dishes include the poki nacho with assorted diced sashimi, cucumber, avocado and house special sauce and homemade chips on the side. The jala yellowtail is dressed with yuzu (a Japanese citrus) vinaigrette, thin sliced jalapeño and pickled wasabi. We tried the kaki fry (deep-fried oysters) and were impressed with the crispy crust but the oysters themselves were small and a little dry. The thick katsu dipping sauce was excellent, not too sweet or “ketchupy."

Catering to American tastes is a selection of entrée salads including a poke salad or seared tuna, albacore, salmon or beef tataki salads.

Dinner entrees are served with miso soup, salad, rice and steamed vegetables. Brown rice is available on request. This is more western style Japanese. Entrées include a selection of chicken, beef, tuna or salmon teriyaki. Other dinners are pork or chicken katsu (battered deep fried filets), scallop or lobster dynamite rolls, garlic beef, broiled mackerel and Chilean seabass misoyaki.

We chose the misoyaki (fish, long marinated in a miso sauce, then broiled or sautéed.) The long marinating process gives a unique texture to the fish, and the flavor of the marinade dominates. The two thin steaks were accompanied by shredded daikon and lettuce as well as steamed green beans and carrots. The salad is a simple lettuce salad but it had a very nice miso dressing. However, we found the miso soup unusually strong.

There are also a number of dinner special combinations giving you a choice of two different items, including entrées and appetizers or seven pieces of sashimi. The deluxe combo includes an entrée or roll and nine pieces of sashimi with a glass of house wine and dessert.

Dessert is ice cream, mochi (ice cream wrapped in pulverized sticky rice), ice cream with sweet red bean and homemade mango pudding with seasonal fruit. The pudding was very light with a pleasing mango taste. It was garnished with chopped fruit and that ubiquitous garnish from days gone by "” a maraschino cherry.

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Sushi party platters are also available but require 24 hours’ notice.

If You Go

What: “O" Fine Japanese Cuisine, (949) 715-5551, www.ofinejapanesecuisine.com

Where: 30872 Pacific Coast Hwy.

When:

Lunch: 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, noon to 2:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday

Dinner: 5 to 9:30 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 5 to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday

Prices:

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Appetizers: $4.50 to $12.95

Entrées: $9.95 to $29.95

Desserts: $3 to $4

Party Platters: $55 to $65

Wine:

Bottles: $31 to $75

By the glass: $6.95 to $18

Corkage Fee: $15


ELLE HARROW and TERRY MARKOWITZ owned a la Carte for 20 years and can be reached at themarkos755@yahoo.com.


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