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O.C. Eats | O.C. on the Menu

Come for the Sushi . . .

. . . but stay for the exotic Japanese creations at Abe.

April 01, 1999|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Fans of Restaurant Abe in Newport Beach call it the Matsuhisa of Orange County, after the celebrated Japanese fusion restaurants in Los Angeles, New York and London.

The comparison is not far-fetched: Master chef Takashi Abe (pronounced AH-bay) prepared Japanese pub dishes (kappo) at the original Matsuhisa in West Hollywood. Before that, he worked in Anchorage, where he met his Korean-born wife, Mi Song, the charming hostess here.

I'm an Abe fan, though my first visit last summer did not go well. The sushi seemed tired, and a few of his dishes struck me as unfinished. But you've got to get past the sushi or you're missing the point. And that was part of the problem with my first visit. The restaurant was new; many wrinkles seem to have been ironed out since then.

A few of Abe's creations are excessive, such as a foie gras and sea bass loaf topped with a thin layer of edible gold leaf. But when he's at his best, as with his snapper carpaccio topped with slivers of fresh black truffle, no one around here comes close.

This is a quirky little place. If you don't sit at the sushi bar, you'll probably have a table dressed in white cloth set with fresh roses. That's pretty standard for an upscale restaurant, but add the trompe l'oeil ceiling of a cloudy sky and music such as John Lennon's "Imagine" album, and you know you're in for a cultural encounter.

Your first clue of what's to come is from the specials blackboard behind the sushi bar. The right half, written in red ink, lists fresh fish, anything from meaty sardines to kohada, a blue-skinned snapper imported from Japan.

The left half, in blue ink, lists the chef's specials. That can mean exotic things such as smoked monkfish liver or oddball hand rolls.

Then open the menu, where you'll find a list of decidedly different dishes of Japanese inspiration. One is tuna rib--long strips of tender barbecued tuna, still on the bone, blanketed with a balsamic teriyaki sauce. More curious is deep-fried seafood banana roll: whitefish and banana slices side by side in an eggroll wrapper with a shiso leaf.

I like to start with the "love love shooter": a fresh oyster and a raw quail egg served in a shot glass with a tangy ponzu sauce and a dollop of osetra caviar. Another terrific cold dish is ankimo mousse, the creamy, coral-red monkfish liver pa^te that some call Japanese foie gras.

If you seek real dining adventure, ask for omakase, which is Japanese for "chef's choice." This is a multi-course affair that can run $50, $70 or $90 a head (beverages not included). It's an aesthetic experience; every dish is presented on glittery Art Deco china or on artistic Japanese lacquerware; I especially like the lacquerware, which adds tranquillity to the already beautiful presentations.

Here is what I got when I ordered the $90 omakase. The first, a mixed hors d'oeuvres plate (zensai), included three baby squid dabbed with miso paste and the Japanese citrus yuzu, a clam in aspic and a tiny Napoleon-like pastry--presented in the bowl of a silver spoon--with fillings of monkfish liver pa^te, blue cheese and beluga caviar.

Then came a dish of snow crab and fatty tuna belly, which had been cooked by lightly swishing it in hot water and topping it with a sesame oil sauce. That was followed by two deep-fried items presented in a black cast-iron basket lined with white paper. One was a spring roll of halibut and bananas served with a Korean-style hot bean and sesame paste. The other was a wonderful sea-urchin tempura sprinkled with spiced salt.

The next course was simpler: the chef's rare, cold-smoked salmon, served in thick chunks. It will not be to everyone's taste. It has a stronger aroma of wood than any oak-aged California chardonnay, and the taste lingers.

Then came an abalone shell holding a casserole of baked blue snapper and a leafy herb called kashiwa, all under a white cloud of grated radish. Later there were separate courses of fried crab claws; that gold-topped cube of sea bass and foie gras I've mentioned; and a delicately flavored shrimp and clam broth, served boiling hot in a ceramic kettle.

After a platter of assorted sushi, the feast ended with a dessert called sakura mochi, balls of sticky rice with a strawberry half in the center of each.

I should emphasize that nearly every dish in the meal had at least one memorable visual touch. The dessert had a tiny cherry branch on the plate, complete with little red berries placed on every bud.

I've had a few of the commonplace dishes here, none as much different from what you might get at any local Japanese restaurant. The tempura wasn't particularly light or crisp as tempura should be. The bland salmon teriyaki was slathered with a quite sweet soy glaze without the proper teriyaki sauce bite.

But as we've seen, Abe can do better than that. Matsuhisa, watch out. Someone is gaining on you.

Restaurant Abe is expensive. Sushi is $3 to $12. Cold dishes are $4 to $14.50. Hot dishes are $3.50 to $15. Omakase starts at $50 per person.

BE THERE

Restaurant Abe, 2900 Newport Blvd., Newport Beach. (949) 675-1739. 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Monday-Friday; 5:30-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 5:30-10:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday. All major cards.

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