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O.C. Eats

Catch o' the Day : Costa Mesa's I Love Sushi is the place to fish for compliments.

July 08, 1999|O.C. on the Menu MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

I Love Sushi sounds like the pilot for a situation comedy, but forget that. This is one of O.C.'s brightest and best new Japanese restaurants.

It's a cherry-red box of a building on a sleepy stretch of Harbor Boulevard in Costa Mesa, and it belongs to a Chinese couple named Janet and Wayne Chin.

The Chins may not come from a sushi background, but they've had the good sense to hire an impressive Japanese sushi master, Hideo Matsuda. Hide-san is a true artist, and not just in fish--his paintings are on sale in a New York art gallery.

This large, spotless place is filled with Japanese art, silk flowers and red vinyl booths. In one corner stands an empty sake barrel, the sign of a pub in Japan. Progressive jazz plays softly on the sound system, a sign that this is no place for a fuddy-duddy.

Most of the action takes place at the three-sided sushi bar. You'll usually find a wait for a seat here, even when most of the booths are empty. Things are at their best when Hide-san is slicing and dicing. The quality of the fish at this restaurant is top-notch to begin with, but his undoubted artistry enhances it.

One evening he started us off with a pair of Fanny Bay oysters so fresh their white shells were glistening. He splashed them with tart ponzu sauce, added a dollop of grated fresh red pepper and then sprinkled them liberally with chopped green onions. Wow!

He then made up a platter of mixed sashimi, slicing the raw fish with a surgeon's precision. It included thin slices of yellowtail and halibut (which you can find as hamachi and hirame, respectively, at the sushi bar) plus tiny raw salmon roll-ups with a filling of chopped leeks in the middle. I've never had sashimi that was more flavorful or delicate.

Next came three creations of Matsuda's. First was an oddly refreshing bite-sized wrap of raw tuna, avocado and mango in an edible soy-paper binding. That was followed by kinumaki, deep-fried egg rolls filled with smoked salmon and cream cheese; Tokyo meets the Lower East Side, right here in Costa Mesa. Last came mentaiko, marinated raw calamari nestled inside hollowed out pieces of cucumber.

The straight sushi is highly accomplished here. Tuna tataki, possibly my favorite from the sushi list, is lightly seared slices of tuna belly (the richest, most tender part of the fish) arranged on clumps of subtly vinegared Japanese rice.

The freshwater eel sushi is glazed with a rich teriyaki sauce. One more delicious choice is scallops, which are in season right now. These are Maine diver scallops, fat, sweet and rich. It doesn't get much better than this.

Good things come out of the back kitchen as well from the sushi counter. One of the best appetizers is broiled beef tartare; good quality beef sliced thin, lightly seared and sprinkled with ponzu sauce. And check the specials board for sea bass misoyaki. This tender broiled fish has a fleeting, faintly sweet aftertaste of white miso.

I Love Sushi is also one of the few local restaurants that does justice to tempura. For only $4.95 (a steal), you get two large shrimp, some green beans, an onion ring, a slice of pumpkin and a spear of zucchini, all deep-fried in a wonderful batter that is light, crisp and meltingly rich.

Probably most diners come here for the sushi and tempura, but the complete dinners are quite good in their own right. For instance, a nice piece of salmon is flame-broiled shioyaki style, lightly crusted with salt. Scallops are sauteed in a fragrant garlic butter sauce. All the dinners come with a nicely smoky miso soup, a good green salad with tangy, citrus-based French dressing and all the Japanese rice you can eat.

Meat lovers can get a fine New York steak, served with American vegetables and the restaurant's thick teriyaki sauce. There is even baked stuffed lobster, although I find the mayonnaise-rich stuffing of scallops, crab meat and smelt eggs gloriously unappealing.

That's not the only glitch on this menu. The gyoza dumplings, similar to Chinese pot stickers, are flaccid on the outside, and the minced pork filling is bland.

And the hand rolls strike me as filling and little else. Something called a special M-80 roll--a long tube of rice stuffed with tuna and topped with melted mayonnaise, scallops and smelt eggs--is a messy example of fusion cuisine at its worst. The Philadelphia roll is a gooey mass of salmon, cream cheese and rice.

I do like to come here for lunch, when the restaurant serves a variety of hearty donburi rice bowls. Bring your appetite for katsu ju, a huge bowl of rice topped with fried eggs, a giant, crisply breaded pork cutlet and lots of green onions. Likewise for the curry seafood fried rice, which is chock full of shrimp, crab and calamari.

Much more is offered here, including the vinegared cold seafoods known as sunomono, a wide variety of broiled fish and even a handful of desserts. The restaurant makes a reasonable flan and a forgettable novelty called tempura ice cream (breaded ice cream plunged briefly into a deep fryer).

Fresh fruit is your best bet. Last time I was at I Love Sushi, Hide-san presented my side of the sushi bar with an artful arrangement of sliced strawberries and sectioned oranges, and they made the perfect finish to the meal. Simplicity and purity define a good Japanese meal, so it seems only fitting that they should end one.

I Love Sushi is moderately priced, and a real bargain. Nigiri sushi is $2.95-$6.95. Hand rolls are $2.95-$10.50. Appetizers are $3.50-$8.95. Complete dinners are $8.50-$13.95.

BE THERE

I Love Sushi, 2340 Harbor Blvd., Costa Mesa. (714) 540-6195. Open 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. daily; 5-10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday and 5-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday. All major cards.

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