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Restaurants | Counter Intelligence

Two Chefs, Two Cuisines

April 25, 2002|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The name of Tokyo-born Michiko Soffer's first restaurant was the Japanese word for first generation, and no one in Newport Beach seemed to mind that it was spelled Issay, rather than the standard issei. Until it was destroyed in a fire two years ago, Issay had a loyal following, a great wine list and a menu of satisfying Italian dishes.

Yes, that's right, Italian. It was an Italian restaurant that just happened to have an oddly spelled Japanese name.

Now she has opened a new place, and she's named it Nesai, representing the Japanese word for second generation. Well, that makes sense, although the word is generally spelled nisei. (Soffer is unapologetic about the spelling. "The sign painters made a mistake," she says.)

So what does her No. 2 restaurant serve? Two cuisines: the Italian dishes she built a reputation on and Japanese dishes.

But this is not accomplished as some kind of Japanese-Italian fusion cuisine. There are two chefs, Nicolo Achille from Italy and Hideo Matsuda, who specializes in Japanese pub food, and two menus.

The decor is much the same as when this was the Stuft Noodle. It's still a long, narrow, comfortable room, filled with plants, paintings and comfortable booths. In the front, there's a wooden bar where you can have bruschetta or a spicy tuna roll. This might look like a fern bar from the '60s, but the food is distinctly better. The regular menu is Italian, but the equally long nightly specials board is mostly Japanese.

The reason is simple: Matsuda's dishes are based on what fish are fresh that day.

So you might start with calamari arrabbiata, squid in a spicy marinara sauce, or the magnificent smoked calamari: tender, nut-brown slices served on a potato salad shot through with tartar sauce.

Or you could have Manila clams and rock shrimp sauteed in a garlicky white sauce or seared albacore dressed with a biting Japanese citrus vinaigrette. The obvious path is to experience both sides of the menu.

This is by no means a sushi bar, but Matsuda, who once was chef at a local restaurant named I Love Sushi, still makes spicy tuna rolls set off with a fiery cucumber and red chile concoction.

One of his more elegant starters is tender barbecued sea eel glazed with an unctuous sauce dominated by shiitake mushrooms.

One evening, the Italian chef made grainy risotto with shrimp, porcini mushrooms and lemon-infused olive oil. On another, there was gnocchi with duck breast and pesto.

The pasta choices are fairly standard, but all are done with intelligent restraint. One of the best is pasta puttanesca, with a sauce of fresh tomatoes, capers, olives, garlic and a touch of anchovy.

Most puttanescas in our part of the world hit you over the head. This is a subtle version; as a matter of fact, it's the sort of puttanesca you'd get at an Italian restaurant in Tokyo's Ginza.

The Italian entrees are disarmingly simple and straightforward. The salmon piccata is almost a minimalist version. The richest dish, veal scaloppine, has a nicely reduced green peppercorn demi-glaze.

Occasionally, Matsuda ventures into entrees too, but his journey is less consistent. Chilean sea bass is well suited to its mild marinade, white miso citrus emulsion. But it's hard to fathom the chipotle beef: short ribs marinated in too much Grand Marnier as well as the smoked version of the jalapeno chile. The beef, cut into small Chinese-style pieces, is distressingly sweet.

There are only three desserts. One is a rather classic homemade tiramisu, heavy on the mascarpone and with an even heavier layer of powdered chocolate than usual. Torta di nonna ("grandmother's cake") is a dense lemon torte, two crusty layers with a light lemon mousse in the center. Finally, there is a somewhat dry mocha marble cake.

If you're lucky, you'll be served by Soffer's charming daughter Shima, a beautiful woman whose name means island. She is herself a fusion of two cultures, a true nisei, regardless of how you spell it.

*

Nesai, 215-17 Riverside Ave., Newport Beach. (949) 646-2333. Dinner, 5-10 p.m., Tuesday through Sunday. Full bar. Parking lot. All major cards. Dinner for two, $36-$59.

What to Get: smoked calamari, spicy tuna roll, penne puttanesca, veal scaloppine.

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