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A Tip for Diners at Spiral: Go Fish

Review* Industrial-like Huntington Beach restaurant, with an Asian leaning, has more of a knack for seafood dishes.

January 17, 2002|MARTIN BOOE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Spiral, as you might (or might not) guess, takes its name from the spiral-wrapped shell of nori seaweed that encases Japanese hand rolls. It's a fitting moniker for this Huntington Beach restaurant because its menu wraps itself around myriad Asian culinary influences, including Japanese, Thai and Chinese.

The restaurant's ambience is fashionably stark, designed to appeal to a youngish crowd. Broadly speaking, its decor falls in line with any number of hip Asian-fusion places these days--concrete floor, high ceilings, an overall industrial feel--but it's attractive.

This is a spacious room, with banquettes running along a wavy, contoured wall on one side and a long sushi bar along the other. This design certainly boosts the energy level, but it makes for an intensely noisy room when the place is busy, and you may find yourself exercising your vocal cords in conversation.

In fairness, though, I should volunteer that on my first visit, my table included a former rock critic (me) and a former Springsteen session player (OK, post-"E Street," but still), and for the fragile eardrums of recovering rockers like us, even the sound of knitting needles counts as intrusive ambient noise.

Spiral was indeed pretty busy on my first visit, and the waiters were showing the strain. After 20 minutes, our waiter finally fought his way to our table and apologetically offered us a complimentary sake. The place was understaffed that night, he said, caught off guard by a sudden surge in business after the post-holiday slump. We ordered a couple of appetizers, waited another 20 minutes to get in a sushi order, then 20 more to order entrees.

When the food finally came, it was pretty much worth the wait, though the wait had been considerable.

We started with the six-seaweed salad. We couldn't actually pick out six different seaweeds, but it was good. Crisp, fresh mesclun formed a lush nest for the seaweed, and it had an excellent sweet rice vinegar dressing.

Next in line was the avocado and king crab salad, beautifully presented in a tulip of sturdy, reddish greens. It's a rich dish, heavier on the avocado than on the crab. The orange-pink dressing it's tossed with has a pleasing dose of hot pepper that cuts against the sweetness of the crab and avocado.

The sushi itself is fresh and neatly arranged on a chilled glass plate adorned with a banana leaf. Though there's a long list of "specialty rolls," nothing on it jumps out as strikingly original. We did like the spicy salmon roll, a slight twist on the familiar spicy tuna roll (and actually more pungent than the average spicy tuna roll).

When it comes to entrees, Spiral is considerably more adept with seafood than meat.

For example, there's a very good lobster dish, described as "Sezchuan braised." None of us could taste anything particularly Sichuanese, or even Sezchuanese, about it, but it was tender and flavorful. It arrived with the tail split and the claws cracked, on vermicelli swimming in a mildly hot curry broth with a garnish of sauteed oyster mushrooms.

We also liked the perfectly sauteed filet of king salmon, crisp on the outside and succulent within. The menu says it's crusted in herbs, without explanation; the herbs might be shredded green tea leaves. In any case, they lend a complex, savory flavor.

Chilean sea bass with wasabi pesto arrived lukewarm (service problems again), but it was moist and firm. The sauce tasted more of pesto than of wasabi, and though you might think pesto would clash with this Asian treatment (the fish is marinated in miso), it worked fine. The fish is served on rice with sauteed mushrooms and pickled baby corn on the side.

On my second weeknight visit, the service was pokey (though amiable) again, even though there were only two other occupied tables. I also found a notable disparity between some of the menu descriptions and what arrived. The rack of lamb, for example: The menu mentioned no stuffing, but the rack had a nondescript filling, mostly breadcrumbs. I ordered it medium rare; it came somewhat overdone, but unevenly so, and the five-spice jus was a murky concoction with no dominant flavor. And instead of the pan-fried noodles and mixed greens the menu said were coming, we got a slab of potatoes cemented together with eggs like a Spanish tortilla de patata and some undercooked green beans.

This was when I began to conclude that Spiral is much better at handling fish than meat. The filet mignon, marinated in soy and served on a puddle of undistinguished oyster sauce, was on the tough side, and it, too, was a bit overdone. But redemption came with the pan-seared tuna with pungent ginger-wasabi sauce. Crusted with pepper and black sesame seeds, it was perfectly seared on the outside and rare within. We also like the shrimp fried rice, which was spiked with basil and topped with a flavorful peanut dressing and a paper thin omelet.

At dessert time, the Spiramisu is a thing of beauty: a thin cone of dark chocolate containing a rather dense tiramisu propping up a bulb of intense vanilla bean ice cream. Less visually stunning, but more flavorful altogether, was the apple-almond tart.

Spiral is moderate to expensive. Appetizers and salads run $5-$9, entrees $14-$26, desserts $6. Sushi is $3-$5 per item, sushi rolls $5-$12, sushi combinations $18-$26. Beer, wine and sake available.

*

Spiral, 301 Main St., Huntington Beach. (714) 374-8885. Open for lunch 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. Mondays-Fridays; for dinner 5-10 p.m. Mondays-Fridays; 1-11 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays.

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