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O. C. LIVE

Kappo Sui Pleases Those Who Venture Past Sushi

August 01, 1996|MAX JACOBSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SANTA ANA — "This dish needs rice," I remark to the young Japanese golf pro seated at a neighboring stool, as I poke desultorily at the fried mixed fish cake known as satsuma age.

"No," he says. "This dish needs beer." Technically, he's 100% correct.

We're both seated at the long, black-topped counter at Kappo Sui, Orange County's newest, and perhaps purest, kappo restaurant. Behind the counter, master chef Shirai-san and two adept assistants are busy whipping up a wide, wonderful variety of Japanese pub dishes, generally fried and salty--the ideal companions for beer. Or wine or sake, for that matter.

This style of cooking apparently has a large local following. The first two nights I visited, there wasn't a single empty seat in the house.

Perhaps as a concession to American expectations about Japanese food, Shirai-san keeps a short sushi menu around, but it's only in English; in the Japanese aesthetic, sushi is as far from kappo as a Faberge egg is from an omelet.

Kappo Sui's English-language menu is altogether lackluster, extending only to fried chicken, tempura, teriyaki and other standbys of Americanized Japanese cuisine.

Those who don't speak Japanese will have to bring a friend who does--or a long index finger and a good deal of adventurous spirit--to get the most out of Kappo Sui. The best dishes appear on a one-page Japanese-language menu (a photocopy of a handwritten original that changes a few times weekly) or on the blackboard next to the front entrance, where the chef's daily specials are written, again in Japanese.

Shirai-san used to work the sushi counter in the O.C. restaurants Koto and Ka-sen, but he is clearly in command here. He is the shortest of the three chefs, the ruddy-faced man directing the considerable traffic at the grill, stove and broiler oven.

One evening he started me off with nasu gomadare, peeled roasted eggplant in a sesame puree so smooth it almost tasted Middle Eastern.

That was followed by toro no tataki, delicate cubes of fatty tuna belly gently coated with a sauce made from white miso and minced green onion.

Watching the chefs form tiny cakes out of shrimp and batter, I couldn't resist an order of shrimp croquettes (ebi koroke). These crumb-crusted wonders are like cream on the inside, but what makes them taste Japanese is the murky brown soy dipping sauce. If you ate these with mayonnaise (a no-no in Japanese pubs), you'd swear you were in France.

That dish was followed by lightly battered tempura fish and vegetables, and then iwashi no shioyaki, a type of Japanese whitefish baked in salt. Later came a delicate whitefish and leek broth served in a covered lacquer bowl. To slake my thirst, I added two bottles of Kirin Light to my check, which came to slightly more than $30.

If those dishes aren't your cup of tea, there is much more in Shirai-san's repertory. One of my favorite Kappo Sui dishes is miso steak. It's a filet mignon marinated in fermented soy paste, then blackened on a grill and cut into thin strips. The surface is smoky, the center blood rare--as rare as certain types of sashimi.

Another is gindara yuuanyaki. Gindara is sablefish, also called black cod and (at least here on the West Coast) butterfish. At Kappo Sui, it's broiled and served skin on, the sizzling fish thoroughly perfumed with sake.

*

Just about as good as either of these is asari wine sakamushi. Despite the Japanese elements of the name, this dish of sake-steamed clams tastes resolutely Italian. The flavor of the sake is completely overwhelmed by the other ingredients (tomato puree, plenty of garlic) in a rich sauce. (No licking the porcelain, please.) Like the miso steak and the broiled black cod, asari wine sakamushi is frequently on the printout menu.

Nowhere in Japanese cuisine does the influence of China surface more often than in pub food. Here it is possible to order shumai, diaphanous steamed noodle pouches filled with a fluffy minced shrimp paste; you eat them with a mixture of soy sauce and nose-stinging Japanese mustard. Okoze karaage is a fried sole, eaten bones and all, like the Chinese dish double happiness. Some nights there will even be the ephemeral toogan manju, a conceptual "dumpling" fashioned out of winter melon--a dome of melon with shrimp, shiitake mushrooms and gingko nuts underneath.

Rice is traditionally served only at the end of a kappo meal. Sometimes you will see customers eating the seafood-wrapped rice triangles known as onigiri, which can be stuffed with sour plums, chopped salmon or raw tuna on request.

There is also chazuke, rice and broth doused with hot tea and your choice of topping, an even more down-home way to hit the road in a Japanese pub. I had mine with salty salmon eggs.

The list goes on and on--cold buckwheat noodles with a cool soy dipping sauce, thick udon noodles served piled on a bamboo mat, the braised Japanese yam and eggplant dish koimu to nasu no oroshi ni, meant to be eaten with grated radish and green horseradish.

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This is a noisy place that just gets noisier as the evening wears on. Around 11 p.m. on weekends, women dressed in swank kimonos filter in, drawing the gazes of the businessman types.

I've finished my food now, and I need one last cold beer to send me off into the balmy summer night. I'm coming back here any time I get nostalgic for the Japanese experience, and the thought of ordering sushi will never enter my head.

Kappo Sui is moderately priced. Kappo dishes are $3.50-$10. Sushi is $2.80-$5.80.

* KAPPO SUI

* 20070 Santa Ana Ave., Santa Ana Heights.

* (714) 429-0141.

* Dinner only, 5:30 p.m.-12:30 a.m. Monday-Saturday. Closed Sunday.

* All major cards.

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