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ORANGE COUNTY CALENDAR: ARTS, ENTERTAINMENT, LEISURE
| SETTINGS: Stops on a Tasting Tour of Orange County

Style With Substance

Surfer dude sushi chef serves generous portions of personality.

Buddha's Favorite, 634 Lido Park Drive, Newport Beach. (949) 723-4203.

October 28, 2000|DAVID LANSING | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Miko Uchida blushes and puts down her chopsticks when I ask her why she left Japan for Los Angeles. "I was a big movie fan," she says. "I came to Los Angeles to be in movies."

She laughs and rolls her eyes at the very notion. Instead, she earned a law degree, passing the bar last July. Now she's a business litigator. But while in school and wondering how to become a famous actress, she worked as a waitress at Hama, a popular Japanese restaurant in Venice.

On a busy night, Hama might have four or five sushi chefs slicing delicate portions of octopus, yellowtail, white fish, or squid, she tells me. One of those chefs was Masaki Yoshitsuka, or "Yoshi" as everyone called him. While Miko studied law, Yoshi studied the fine art of modifying traditional Japanese dishes to American tastes under the restaurant's master sushi wizard, Chef Omakase. Yoshi did well.

"My friends would ask me about my boyfriend and I'd say, 'Oh, he's a sushi chef,' and they'd say, 'Not a doctor or lawyer?' " Miko laughs. "I'd tell them he was much more than just a sushi chef. Yoshi has style."

Yoshi, whose English is still limited, picks up on the word "style" and smiles at us from behind the sushi counter at Buddha's Favorite, his new restaurant in the Cannery Village of Newport Beach, and repeats the word, pronouncing it with two syllables: "Sty-el." He turns his baseball cap, with a red Buddha embroidered on it, backward on his head and grooves a bit to the reggae music playing while he cooks up one of his specialties, a sizzling tofu steak with green onions and sansai--wild mountain vegetables like yamaimo, a nutty shoot that tastes like mushrooms--sauteed in teriyaki sauce.

When our waiter, Kenny, hears the word "style," he breaks out into a grin, repeating it the same way Yoshi does. Kenny, whose hair looks like that of a blown-dried Pomeranian poodle (he is studying at Golden West College to be a hairstylist and says the design, which he calls "Twist," is his), repeats the word several more times.

Style is important here and shows in everything from the oddly laced red low-top Converse All-Stars Kenny wears to the halogen lights on curved tracks that outline the sushi bar in a wave of soft yellow illumination. In a way, you could say Yoshi has taken California beach culture and mirrored it back through a Japanese looking glass, making it cooler than the original.

"Yoshi thinks he's a surfer dude," Miko says. "The Buddha surfer." He comes by the notion honestly. His mother owns a noodle shop near a popular surf spot in south of Tokyo called Chigasaki. "Not big waves," Yoshi tells me. "Little waves. But fun." When Yoshi and his brother, Hideki, weren't helping their mother in the noodle shop, they hit the surf. Hideki, who also works at the restaurant, even became a windsurfing instructor.

After high school, Yoshi went to culinary school in Yokohama and moved his surfing safaris to Kamakura, known for a muddy-looking beach, tiny waves and the second-largest bronze statue of Buddha in Japan. "It's very big--about 40 feet high," Miko says, "and Yoshi liked it very much."

Put that all together--a Japanese surfer Buddhist dude who really knows his udon and sashimi--and what you get is Buddha's Favorite with its luau music (Yoshi prefers reggae for dinner and Hawaiian music for lunch), quasi vegetarian fare (chicken and fish are OK, but no beef or pork) and a butter-colored dining room whose artistic centerpiece is a brass Buddha Yoshi found at the Rose Bowl flea market.

Everyone who comes into the place seems to appreciate Yoshi's style. And his food. "Japanese restaurants often get criticized for their decor," Miko says. "In Japan, it's not so important what the restaurant looks like. We think if the food is good, that's enough. But Yoshi wanted this to be more like entertainment."

Three young hipsters, with gelled hair rising skyward and silver earrings, come in and high-five Yoshi. "Come in, come in," Yoshi says, smiling and bowing slightly. They sip on iced green tea, the color of Mountain Dew, while playing with little iron pots cooking rice over a Sterno flame. The dish--kamaneshi--is one of Yoshi's showcase entrees. Rice flavored with a rich sauce that includes sweet sake, fish stock, soy sauce and other ingredients, as well as your choice of chicken or fish, cooks in little fondue pots at the table.

The hipsters keep sneaking peeks at the kamaneshi, barely lifting the lids, while Yoshi clicks his tongue and waggles his finger at them. It's a little game they play.

Meanwhile, Kenny brings out plates of soft-shell crabs, lightly deep-fried and placed on top of mixed green in a ponzu dressing. The boys ignore their chopsticks and lift the crabs by their spidery feet and plop them in their mouths, whole, washing them down with the iced green tea. Yoshi, the Buddhist surfer sushi chef, shakes his head and laughs at his customer's uncouth manners.

"More?" he asks.

They shake their head. "Sushi," they reply.

"Sushi?"

"Sushi!"

Then they take another peek at their cooking rice pots as Yoshi pretends to be angry. Everyone laughs.

When I have finished my bowl of udon noodles and shrimp tempura, Yoshi comes over to our table and smiles at his girlfriend. He's too polite to ask me how the food is, but I tell him anyway and he is pleased. He says something to Miko and she translates. "He wants to know if you like the music," she says.

"It's definitely got style," I say.

And that's all he needs to hear.

Lunch daily, 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Dinner, Sunday-Thursday, 5:30-10 p.m.; Friday-Saturday, 5:30-10:30 p.m.

David Lansing's column is published on Saturdays in Orange County Calendar. His e-mail address is occalendar@latimes.com.

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