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Finding the Salt of the Earth at Osaka Kappo

October 20, 1994|MAX JACOBSON | Max Jacobson is a free-lance writer who reviews restaurants weekly for the Times Orange County Edition

Kansai (literally, "west of the barrier") is the large district of Honshu where many of Japan's major cities, such as Kyoto, Kobe and Osaka, are concentrated. To devotees of Japanese cooking, kansai means earthy, assertive flavors, with more salt and less soy than in other parts of Japan, all served with a roll-up-your-sleeves informality. It's my favorite part of Japan for eating.

A Tustin restaurant named Osaka Kappo specializes in the kansai cuisine of Osaka, prepared by the firm hand of a master chef named Itsuki. Kappo are small dishes designed to accompany beer or sake--Japanese-style pub food, if you will. Itsuki-san (as he is known, using the honorific commonly attached to Japanese surnames) will prepare sushi if you insist, but asking for sushi misses the point of this kitchen by a country mile. Coming to Osaka Kappo for sushi is like going down to the wharf for a juicy steak.

That goes double when you consider that this may be the best Japanese food Orange County has yet seen. Sitting at the counter the other night, I got into a discussion with a self-styled Japanese gourmet, a native of Osaka. "I eat in all the best Japanese restaurants in Southern California," he confided, "and no one can duplicate the taste of Osaka like Itsuki-san."

I second that emotion. Itsuki-san makes a wonderfully smoky dashi , the broth of mushroom, seaweed and shaved bonito that is the heart of Japanese cooking, and has a subtle touch with cooked dishes.

For instance, one evening I ordered tara (butterfish) and waited, expecting an ordinary piece of broiled fish. But what was handed me over the counter was a slice of the flaky, rich fish, skin on, on a limpid pool of spicy yuzu (Japanese citrus) sauce. The fish came topped with a lightly browned cloud of egg white embedded with a basil-like herb called mitsuba . Three slices of exquisite matsutake mushroom hid out in the cloud, waiting to be discovered.

If a chef like Nobu Matsuhisa, the bicoastal star of Matsuhisa in Los Angeles and the newly opened Nobu in New York, were to add this dish to his menu, he'd probably get national attention for it. But here in a quiet part of Tustin, Itsuki-san has to content himself with the gratitude of a nearly all-Japanese clientele.

It doesn't help matters that most of Osaka Kappo's menu is in Japanese, either. The menu has a printed apologia: " Kappo dishes are hard to translate," it says. But the fact is that on a 133-item menu, the dishes numbered from 56 to 133 are written in Japanese, and that doesn't even take into account the specials blackboard at the back of the restaurant, which is also entirely, maddeningly, in Japanese.

Osaka Kappo is a modest place, just a few tables and a long curved counter. The decor is limited to a few ceramic plates (one emblazoned with a tengu , or demon) and a bunch of watercolors depicting golf scenes. Itsuki-san works with a staff of about eight. Some of the hot dishes, such as noodles in iron pots, come out of a rear kitchen. Four chefs work up front in full view, assisting the master.

Order an alcoholic beverage and you'll be given a dish of edamame , delicious cooked soybeans that you pop into your mouth direct from the pod. Ask the waitress for ankimo , creamy monkfish liver. It is the Japanese equivalent of foie gras , and a few pink slices make a masterful beginning for a meal. From there, you might move on to a dish of simply grilled Japanese eggplant or perhaps yudofu , hot squares of tofu eaten with grated carrot and radish. Both can be ordered in English, though as it happens, neither is on the English part of the menu.

There are good things on the English menu, too. One is written down as aspara bataa yaki , another as anago shichimi yaki . The first is a hearty roulade of grilled, marinated beef and asparagus. The beef is soft and the vegetables crunchy, resulting in lots of textural fun. The second is truly wonderful--lightly grilled saltwater eel, sprinkled with orange- and pepper-flavored shichimi , which means "seven spices."

Kappo bento is a dinner box containing several Japanese delicacies. In the box you find a light tempura of fish and vegetables flanked by perfectly cut pieces of marinated and grilled beef, rice and pickles. On the side, you'll get a cup of chawan mushi , an ethereal Japanese savory custard with a surprise at the bottom: gingko nuts, chicken and sweet shrimp. You also get okara , a fluffy dish made from a byproduct of tofu--in effect, the whey, separated out from the milk of the soybean.

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