Finding new restaurants to review is often an adventure and sometimes a challenge. We get press releases, read industry magazines, get recommendations from enthusiastic readers who have discovered some neighborhood spot and drive around looking for new little treasures.
When all else fails, we scour the Internet, and it was there that we discovered Kasen, a sushi bar in Fountain Valley, which customers were raving about on Yelp and Urbanspoon. What caught our eye was the unqualified assertion that Kasen has the best sushi in all of Orange County.
This restaurant serves authentic Japanese sushi. That means, according to husband-and-wife owners Susumu and Keiko Ii, no "modern style" or fusion cuisine, but rather everything as it was prepared a thousand years ago. So you will not find California rolls, spicy rolls, teriyaki, sukiyaki or tempura, and if you want anything hot besides some of the best miso soup on the planet, you must order the yakimono (grilled, broiled or pan-fried food) in advance.
You will recognize Kasen, which is in a strip mall, by the traditional flag-like short curtains (noren) that announce a Japanese restaurant. Upon entering, you find yourself in a simple, classic setting with clean lines, shoji screens, light-colored slatted wood elements and a few framed calligraphic ink paintings. There are several tables, a long sushi bar and a tatami room at the rear for small parties.
Behind the counter, Susumu works alone preparing everything by himself, while Keiko acts as hostess as well as translator for their few non-Japanese-speaking guests. Real sushi connoisseurs will appreciate the subtleties of Kasen's food. Everyone will appreciate the freshness of the fish and the generosity of the portions. Just as the best Italian food is comprised of the finest ingredients prepared simply, so too is Japanese sushi cuisine.
A crabmeat sunomono proved a refreshing appetizer. Sunomono means a dish prepared with rice wine vinegar. Ours was really good lump crabmeat with crunchy seaweed and cucumbers in a simple, delicate marinade. The cool, brisk flavors were palate-awakening, the perfect preparation for the next course, a platter of sashimi: six different exquisitely fresh, unusually thick slices of fish resting on a large shiso leaf (a kind of mint), which were accompanied by shredded daikon radish, wakame seaweed and very mild wasabi.
We feasted on toro, yellowtail, kampachi (a milder yellowtail), mackerel, salmon and ahi. Each was better than the last, although Elle is a sucker for yellowtail and Terry, who won't touch cooked salmon, went nuts over the juicy, fatty raw stuff. The extent of Kasen's discrimination is such that Keiko described this particular fabulous toro as only medium rich.
In most Japanese restaurants in the U.S., the soup is made from shiromiso (white) and served as a first course. The stronger flavored akamiso (red) is generally used for other dishes, but here at Kasen, the red is used judiciously in the soup, and we found it to be uniquely flavorful, loaded with umami, that indescribable fifth taste, that gives depth and richness. It was the best miso soup either of us had ever tasted, and served with the sashimi, it made a wonderful complement to the cold fish.
Rice is as important as the fish to connoisseurs of sushi, and Kasen's is superb; lightly vinegared, with a hint of sweetness and a perfect texture. The previous fish selections reappeared on the sushi platter with the addition of an amazing shrimp. It seems odd to say, but it really tasted of the essence of shrimp, rarely the case these days.
As well as the de rigeur green tea ice cream, which was minimally sweet, the house dessert was a panna cotta with a red bean topping … not exactly compelling.
We highly recommend Kasen for superb sashimi and sushi at unusually reasonable prices for generous portions.
Note: All imported fish is carefully inspected at all ports of entry into the United States and tested for radiation.
ELLE HARROW and TERRY MARKOWITZ were in the gourmet food and catering business for 20 years. They can be reached for comments or questions at email@example.com.
Where: 9039 Garfield Ave., Fountain Valley
Lunch: noon to 2 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday
Dinner: 6 to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday
Dinner specials: $12 to $35
Chef specials: $20 to $35
Sake: $4 to $30
Beer: $4.50 to $6.50
Wine by the glass: $8
Corkage fee: $25
Information: (714) 968-9860 or http://www.kasen-sushi.com