Restaurant Omakase: A citrus twist in Riverside

CONTEMPORARY: Restaurant Omakase’s dishes feature organic fruits and vegetables grown for chef Brein Clements.
CONTEMPORARY: Restaurant Omakase’s dishes feature organic fruits and vegetables grown for chef Brein Clements.
(Lori Shepler / Los Angeles Times)
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

It takes just a sip of water to tell you that Restaurant Omakase in Riverside is something different.

It arrives in a tall glass with a slice of citrus half submerged in shaved ice. Innocent enough, but this is anything but the usual lemon used to disguise the gnarly taste of municipal water. The citrus is extravagantly perfumed, wafting over the table the way the scent of orange blossoms used to glide in open windows on a summer night, back in the days when much of the county was carpeted in citrus groves. What is it? Bergamot, the aromatic fruit that gives Earl Grey tea its distinctive lilt. Delicious and refreshing, the scented glass of water is a hint of good things to come at this unusual 19-month-old restaurant.

Despite the name, Omakase is not a Japanese restaurant. Brein Clements, the chef and owner, has an intriguing résumé that includes stints at Domaine Chandon in Napa Valley, and Gary Danko and Manresa, both in the Bay Area. The 26-year-old chef last headed up the kitchen at the Balboa Bay Club & Resort in Newport Beach. Once he decided it was time to open his own place, he and his wife, Roryann, who had been his lead cook at the club, scouted all over Southern California, but ended up in Riverside, where she grew up, drawn by the lower rents and the sense that the restaurant scene had potential. That choice turned out to have some unexpected benefits.

Clements soon discovered the extraordinary Citrus Variety Collection at UC Riverside, with more than 1,000 varieties of citrus trees, and began to explore using their fruit in his cooking. Then a customer, Randy Reeves, came in one day and offered to grow fruits and vegetables for the restaurant on his 1-acre plot. Now they pore over the seed catalogs together and have developed the organic garden into a phenomenal resource for the restaurant’s larder.

Clements stops by the garden every couple of days to see what’s ready to use in the next menus. Right now, in the middle of winter, he’s got all sorts of fresh-picked greens, beets, radishes, carrots and other root vegetables. I’m already planning to come back in spring and summer to taste what he’ll have then.

Vegetarian tasting menu

ONE night the first course for a vegetarian omakase, or tasting menu, is the prettiest little salad of baby greens, pea shoots with their perfect blossoms marbled with green and rose, slices of watermelon radish and dainty raw turnips dressed in good olive oil and sea salt. So simple, but so wonderfully alive. Next comes a few spears of asparagus in the lightest Meyer lemon froth. And so it goes through five small courses. This is one restaurant where vegetarians (and vegans too) can eat very well. Call at least a day or two ahead to arrange a special tasting menu.

Every night, though, Clements offers a different omakase. The chef is flexible and quick on his feet, having no trouble turning out the dishes with precision and professionalism. He’s been under fire in much busier kitchens, and you sense he’s ready to cook all night.

The amuse bouche might be a sorbet of tarocco blood orange, which is perhaps too much on the sweet side. Boudin blanc, the creamy French sausages, are handmade and come with a sparkling citrus mostarda. Bergamot may show up again later in the meal in a lovely syrup served with a supple crepe folded into a small rectangle and filled with ginger custard. Right now he’s serving steelhead trout with a silky potato purée, leeks and beets from the garden and a sauce of Rangpur lime.

Sometimes he’ll garnish a plate of hamachi or some other sashimi with the finger limes he brought out for us to taste at the end of the meal one night. They’re very small, elongated ovals about the size of a kumquat. Inside, the flesh is almost crystallized, like beads of sharp lime. What fun to have an entire palette of sweet to sour to work with.

Another night the amuse is tempura of “backyard avocado” -- creamy and fabulous encased in a crisp, transparent batter and ready to be dipped in a spicy shoyu sauce. For the tasting menu, he might start with a mustard green purée and arrange a quartered, hard-boiled egg (from their own hens), some peppery upland cress, squares of crisp bacon, pickled beets and some creamy goat cheese on top. It does what it’s supposed to do: It gets your attention. And Clements definitely has mine.

Also, as a first course, he serves bisque of creamed broccoli, a beautiful gentle green, in a wide-lipped bowl and garnishes it with buttery brioche topped with a pâté of blond duck liver. I love the flavors together.

Pale, marbled hamachi, or yellowtail sashimi, is set on a bed of marinated young fennel and topped with a vivid beet jelly with just enough sweetness and acidity to modulate the fattiness of the fish. This may have been the best dish all night. And it is exactly the kind of dish you’d expect at a restaurant called Omakase, yet there aren’t all that many Japanese notes on the one-page menu. That’s because Clements initially thought he’d go with a more Asian menu, but as the restaurant has evolved, he’s discovered he’s more interested in modern European cuisine with Asian accents, a description that would easily work for half the serious restaurants in Los Angeles.

But here he is in Riverside, probably the sole proponent of that style of cooking, which he’s made very much his own. When he comes out to meet and greet in the almost-deserted dining room, you immediately sense a quiet confidence in this young cook. Away from the pressures of a busy high-end restaurant, he has the time to experiment and play.

Worthy of a crowd

IT’S a mystery why the restaurant isn’t more full, I’m thinking as I take a bite of duck confit that is very much the real thing, served one night on a buttery swath of braised cabbage with an ever so slightly sweet foie gras sauce, another time on mussel risotto with grain mustard on the side. Roast belly of pork is crowd-worthy, too, the skin as crisp as it gets, the belly underneath succulent and moist. His beef comes from the local Brandt farm and he roasts it in nori seaweed, which gives it an intriguing salt tang.

Occasionally, there’s a misstep -- too much salt, gnocchi a little doughy, a disappointing croustade. And I can see how some people might be taken aback by the portion sizes. They are on the small size, but given the quality of the ingredients and the moderate prices, they seem exactly right. I note that the waiter -- he’s the only waiter in the room, in all of my visits -- spends time explaining the menu and asks if everyone is familiar with the “tasting menu concept.” That may be a sign that Riverside still has a way to go in terms of serious dining.

The wine list is quite small, one choice listed beneath each dish on the menu. Even so, when I try to order a Grüner Veltliner, they are sold out. You might want to bring at least one bottle of your own and pay the $15 corkage fee. They’ve invested in good stemware and know not to pour too much in the glass.

It turns out Clements is the dessert chef too, turning out some well-crafted sweets, including a classic molten chocolate cake served with fantastic salted peanut ice cream and warm goat cheese beignets with a thick pomegranate sauce scented with thyme and vanilla. After, you might want to order the single-estate Guatemalan coffee brewed in a French press pot. As a last taste each night, the chef sends out a tiny scoop of citrus sorbet -- maybe Meyer lemon or satsuma-coconut.

The whole experience has got me flipping through my seed catalogs in search of watermelon radish, upland cress and tiny ruby beets. I’m also intent on fitting some more citrus trees somewhere in my yard. Rangpur lime. And bergamot, definitely.

Restaurant Omakase

Rating: **

Location: 3720 Mission Inn Ave., Riverside; (951) 788-8820;

Ambience: Contemporary storefront restaurant with floor-to-ceiling windows looking onto historic Mission Inn Avenue, and a décor that mixes simple banquettes with bronze and chocolate cushions and pedestal tables. There’s also a front patio for al fresco dining in warmer weather. Despite the name, the menu from chef-owner Brein Clements is modern European with Asian accents.

Service: Friendly and unpretentious, often from just one waiter and the chef’s wife, Roryann, who runs the front of the house.

Price: Dinner appetizers, $8 to $13; main courses, $19 to $26; cheese, $12; dessert, $7 to $9. Five-course omakase (tasting menu), $65 per person, wine pairings $35 in addition. Lunch sandwiches and burgers, $10 to $14.

Best dishes:Hamachi with jellied beet, boudin blanc with citrus mostarda, creamed broccoli soup with foie gras and yuzu, steelhead trout with potato purée and Rangpur lime, duck confit with mussel risotto, pork belly with pearl onions, beef roasted in nori with assorted mushrooms, goat cheese beignets, ginger crepe brûlée.

Wine list: Small list of boutique wines, each paired with a dish on the a la carte menu. Corkage fee, $15.

Best table: A banquette in the front window.

Details: Open for dinner (winter hours) 5:30 to 10 p.m. or until closed Monday to Saturday and for lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Thursday and Friday. Wine, beer and soju “vodka” cocktails. Street and lot parking.

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.