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COUNTER INTELLIGENCE: JAPAN

The uni's touching the spaghetti, and that's OK

The flavors of southern Europe find their way into the kitchen of Cafe Hiro's cosmopolitan chef.

July 23, 2003|Linda Burum | Special to The Times

Chef Hiro Ohiwa's loyal clientele may have come to his Cypress restaurant, Cafe Hiro, to sample the Japanese food, but they're not dining on sushi, tempura or bentos. Ohiwa's eclectic menu is a tribute to the invasion of "foreign" tastes that have made their way into modern Japanese cooking. The French-influenced sauces, Italian pastas and curries now so much a part of eating in Japan are Ohiwa's forte.

The Japanese native, schooled in the U.S. throughout his teen years, studied as a chef both in Japan and France, where he also spent several years working in one- and two- star kitchens. And while his European-style offerings aren't French per se, there's evidence of finely honed technique in every one.

The minute you step inside the restaurant, leaving an undistinguished mall behind, you sense you're in for an exceptional experience. Every inch of the two-story room is covered with whimsical art. Painted-on vines climb along the walls and ceiling; faux Mediterranean-style window boxes hold painted flowers. A stylized sun sprawling over one butter-colored wall carries out the sort of southern European theme that wouldn't be unusual in a Japanese-Mediterranean restaurant in the hipper quarters of Tokyo.

The daily specials board lists many of the best dishes, and these entrees (which come with both soup and salad) provide the best bang for the buck. Imagine: an uni (or sea urchin) risotto topped with large sauteed shrimp or roasted miso-marinated salmon, preceded by a satin-smooth Japanese pumpkin soup and an organic baby lettuce salad -- all for $12 or $13.

The soups, by the way, change daily, and they sing with the flavors of fresh seasonal ingredients.

A "Big Splurge" at Cafe Hiro is a $30, six-course tasting menu with soup, two appetizers, pasta or risotto, an entree and dessert. Each category offers several choices served in portions that seem luxurious but don't overwhelm.

Many an appetizer here is good enough to go up against those at high-end Asian-fusion restaurants, though they're a tad more Asian in style. The spaghettini topped with firm, supremely fresh lobes of sea urchin with a splash of ponzu was eagerly enjoyed by everyone at my table. Ohiwa's avocado-laced tuna tartare with wasabi cream is to be picked up with wonton "chips"; his fried calamari, with its wispy potato starch coating, is lightly sprinkled with Parmesan cheese. On special one day, diver scallops -- crisp outside but quivering rare within -- topped a "risotto" of fresh edamame.

Cafe Hiro offers two dishes of Wagyu, the American-bred Kobe-style beef. There's an appetizer of filet grilled tataki-style, ultra-rare inside, arranged in a tepee shape on a hillock of baby greens. "Osso buco" is an unctuous braised beef rib shrouded in concentrated meat juices.

Red pepper-infused fish roe (mentaiko) sparks a creamy spaghetti sauce -- one of the best pastas on a lengthy list that includes quirky Japanese combinations such as mustard greens (takana), bacon and bonito shavings. The familiar Italian sauces -- meat sauce, arrabbiata and carbonara -- are also on offer.

Curry sauce has captured the Japanese imagination and can appear on anything from seafood to croquettes. Instant curry sauce, as popular in homes in Japan as Hamburger Helper here, can be bland and sludgy, but Ohiwa's curries, all made from scratch and without the usual addition of beef suet, are simply adroitly spiced sauces. He makes nine curries, including free-range chicken, "hamburg" steak and my favorite, a mushroom curry of shiitake and shimeji. The waiter will inquire as to your desired spice level.

Cafe Hiro's wine list offers a good many acceptable bottles for under $20 along with beer, several mid-range sakes and a more prestigious Gingo sake.

Light desserts end these meals perfectly. The panna cotta with berry sauce and Cafe Hiro's sorbets (raspberry-blood orange or cherimoya in season) aren't excessively sweet. And the green-tea blancmange -- unlike commercially made green-tea ice cream -- actually tastes of tea leaves.

Cafe Hiro's lengthy menu, supplemented with daily specials, quells cravings for everything from light snacks to an all-out omakase (chef's tasting menu). And in every bite of Ohiwa's cooking is a taste of the food world's cultural give and take.

*

Cafe Hiro

Location: 10509 Valley View St., Cypress, (714) 527-6090.

Price: Appetizers, $2 to $9; main dishes, $8 to $16; desserts, $3 to $4.

Best dishes: Mentaiko spaghetti, tuna tartare, diver scallops on edamame "risotto," Kobe beef tataki, Kobe beef osso buco.

Details: Lunch, 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday through Friday; noon to 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Dinner, 5:30 to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. Beer, wine and sake. Parking lot. MasterCard and Visa.

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