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Asian Occasions

A delicious choice: Korean dumplings at Mondu Suzay, or Koki's savory teppan.

April 09, 1998|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

TUSTIN — Two great Asian restaurants have opened here in recent months. Mondu Suzay and Koki couldn't be more different, but each is impressive.

Mondu Suzay's name refers to its specialty, Korean steamed dumplings usually spelled mandu. Suzay is Suzay Cha, a Korean reared in Tokyo, but this is no Korean restaurant. The sign above her door says "Eurasian Cuisine," basically inventive cosmopolitan health food.

The restaurant is plain, a handful of unembellished tables, an espresso counter and a small back kitchen. The menu lists only salads, desserts and four mandus, for which you can choose a spicy, tangy or sweet (low-fat) sauce.

Mandus are light and almost ephemeral, steamed to order. An order is eight mandus, and I can put away two orders plus with no trouble.

The vegetarian Ganges has a delicious filling of minced tofu, onions, cabbage, garlic and mandu seasoning (extra-virgin olive oil, orange blossom honey and Madagascar pepper). My favorite, Shrimp Lucas, has a simple rock shrimp filling flavored with ginger, onions and garlic.

Beef Nicholas--ground rib eye, cabbage and tofu doused with garlic--is the densest, heartiest dumpling on the menu. Finally there is chicken Curtis, airy dumplings stuffed with fat-free chicken breast, very mildly seasoned.

Cha's salads are also light and airy. She got many of her ideas as a student in Paris. The only truly Asian salad is bean sprouts dressed with sesame oil; the rest are her creations.

Potato Han is an Asian take on potato salad, flavored with onions, cucumbers and a touch of mayo. Mushrooms Seine is marinated mushrooms tossed with a clove or two of garlic and a balsamic vinaigrette. Oil-free cucumber Amazon salad consists of sliced cucumbers with fennel and a basil vinaigrette.

The elegant desserts would not be out of place at a fancy spa such as the Golden Door. One is fruit salad Rainier: strawberries, oranges and pineapple sweetened with peach puree. The other is a caramelized apple pastry--puff pastry crowned with an austere compote with no added sugar. In the world of Suzay, apparently, everything is good for you.

Mondu Suzay is inexpensive. Entrees are $6.85 to $8.85. Salads are $3.35 to $3.85.

*

Koki, meanwhile, soars above a different cloud. What we have here is a Japanese teppan restaurant a la Benihana and its several local imitators, only far better.

Teppan is that Japanese culinary entertainment where the chefs clatter knives and make a lively fuss as they cook finely diced foods on a shiny metal grill. The secret to good teppan is good ingredients, and Koki has that covered.

The restaurant is beautifully decorated with Japanese curtains, screens, lanterns and well-placed sake barrels. Waitresses wear traditional Japanese happi coats. Relaxing music plays on the sound system, and we won't complain that much of it is Chinese, not Japanese.

For that matter, the management and chefs are Chinese. Our Hong Kong-born chef went through the obligatory Benihana-style flips and chops, catching shrimp tails in his hat and performing similar mischievous acts, so we were relieved when the meat came out done as we had ordered.

The show starts with a bowl of delicious fried rice--the best I've ever had at a teppan restaurant. While you wait, the waitress will bring drinks, then a bland but pleasant mushroom and toasted onion broth, and after that a good salad with a chunky ginger sesame dressing. The dressing is a big improvement over the faux-Thousand Island the Japanese tend to favor. It's tangy and complex, making the fresh greens taste even fresher.

Just about all of Koki's teppan foods are top notch. But, as always in teppan restaurants, the chefs are liberal with oil because more speeds the cooking process--speak up if you don't want your food to be oily.

Scallops, lobster and shrimp can be had in the seafood combination, making it well worth the $26.50. The scallops are tender and richly flavored, and the lobster is wonderful, with a nice ocean tang.

Among the steaks, easily the best cut is the buttery filet mignon, 9 ounces smeared with a good garlic butter and chopped into bite-sized pieces. I didn't much care for the Tustin special--teriyaki beef with green onions and shrimp--but I blame that on a cloying sticky-sweet sauce.

You'll finish up with a generous scoop of vanilla bean, green tea or red bean ice cream. They come from a premium ice cream maker called Dandy Don, and they're great.

They are also further evidence of Koki's intelligent use of good ingredients. A chef who can twirl his carving knife as if he's in Cirque du Soleil will never outrank a good piece of beef or a really fresh chunk of lobster.

Koki is moderate to expensive. Side orders are $2 to $4.25. Complete dinners are $17.50 to $26.50.

BE THERE

Mondu Suzay, 13931 Carroll Way, Tustin. (714) 838-4130. 11:30 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday. American Express, MasterCard and Visa.

Koki, 1061 E. Main St., Tustin. (714) 505-6738. Lunch, 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Monday-Friday; dinner, 5-9:30 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 5-10 p.m. Friday, 4:30-10 p.m. Saturday, 4:30-9 p.m. Sunday. All major cards.

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