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Valley Life | restaurant review

The Sky's the Limit

Diners' heads may be in the clouds over Mugen's variety and quality.

August 11, 2000|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Mugen is Japanese for infinity, and it's a well-chosen name for this Encino restaurant. The range of dishes at Mugen seems almost limitless.

It's a breezy place with a trompe l'oeil cloudy-sky ceiling, diva-style lights and brush paintings on the walls. The sushi men and a teppan griddle chef in a tall powder-blue toque greet diners with a booming "Irasshai!" (more or less, "come right in").

But the dining room, where you're waited on by bilingual waitresses in pink uniforms, is the place to get seated. There you can order dishes from all three sections of the restaurant; in the sushi bar or the teppan room you can't.

The paper sushi list contains a few surprises. One is asparagus tempura--two seaweed-wrapped bundles of three spears each. The quality, lightness and freshness borders on the remarkable.

In fact, I was greatly impressed with all Mugen's fried dishes. The fried oysters (three, in the shell) are crumb-crusted wonders, perfect with nothing more that a wedge of fresh lemon. Agedashi-dofu are crunchy cubes of fried tofu, soft in the center.

Asari sakamushi, clams in sake-laced broth, are served in a wooden lidded cooking vessel. The flavor is pure, but the broth could use a bit more intensity. The salmon skin salad is less appealing. The greens are topped with too much salty salmon and way too many shaved bonito flakes, which quiver like alien life forms as the salmon cools.

Mugen has a colorful selection of hand rolls. I tried Cloudy, because the concept matched the ceiling, and it turned out to be quite a good rice roll, coated with black and white sesame seeds and filled with soft-shell crab, asparagus and various kinds of fish roe. The salmon-and-cream-cheese roll is another matter--for me, at least, bagels still work better than rice with lox and cream cheese.

Dinners come with rice, a delicious miso soup and a nice salad in a sesame oil dressing. Perhaps the best dinner choice is beef anmiyaki--slices of grilled steak flavored like Korean barbecued beef, with plenty of garlic, soy, ginger and sesame. The meat is ultra-tender.

The teppan show can't be seen from the dining room. All you need to know about that side of Mugen is that the teppan beef dishes are fine, teppan fish (e.g., halibut) is often drastically overcooked and the side dishes, especially the fried rice laced with onions and eggs, are very good indeed.

The number of Japanese restaurants that have the variety or skill of Mugen is distinctly finite.

BE THERE

Mugen, 17200 Ventura Blvd., Encino. Lunch Monday-Friday, 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.; dinner Monday-Saturday, 5:30-10 p.m., and Sunday, 5-9:30 p.m. Parking lot. Full bar. All major cards. Dinner for two, $29-$45. Suggested dishes: fried oysters, $6.75; Cloudy, $7.50; agedashi-dofu, $5.95; beef anmiyaki, $12.60. Call (818) 501-7536.

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