The restaurant that isn't a restaurant, Curry House is a chain of Japanese curry eateries that started in 1983 and spread rapidly throughout Southern California. With a new Curry House opening roughly every two years, this local phenomenon has proven the popularity of the rather innovative concept engendered by its parent company - Japanese food conglomerate House Foods. The basic premise is simple. Open a chain of affordable family diners showcasing the quality and versatility of House Foods products in an area of the United States with a high Asian population. Serve simple comfort food created using House Foods products and discretely advertise these products within the restaurant. The result? A popular, self-sustaining chain of eateries that successfully drives business towards House Foods's line of grocery store goods. Genius.
After a long and very hard day at work, comfort food was exactly what I was craving. I managed to finally make my way home around 8:00pm and picked up my fiancée "Cat" (not her real name), who suggested that we go to Curry House for dinner. After the day I'd had, Curry House sounded perfect. One of the best features of the Curry House in Irvine is its ambience. Whoever designed the lighting knew exactly what they were doing, using the perfect combination of warm yellow and white tones to create a soothingly bright atmosphere that isn't oppressively gloomy, as is often that case with mood lighting for dinner service at other restaurants. Cheerful, homey, and comforting, I relaxed the instant I stepped through the restaurant doors.
Service at Curry House tends to be swift and discrete. Cat and I had our drinks within five minutes of being seated and our glasses were never empty for long. Some of my friends and I have joked about Curry House's drink ninjas, but the true secret to their mojo is good training and an emphasis on attentiveness to the customer's needs. Because of this, we were able to place our order within ten minutes of walking into the restaurant.
Since the entrees we'd each ordered came with a choice of soup or salad, I opted to start with a bowl of the Corn Potage. Thick and creamy, yet light and not too rich, this simple soup was redolent with the flavor of sweet corn. A light dusting of black pepper was all I needed to make it perfection. As hungry as I was, I had to force myself to sip it properly, despite my inner glutton's urging to upend the entire bowl into my mouth and order another.
Cat opted to go with an undressed House Salad. Unlike my corn nirvana in a bowl, this was a far more straight-laced affair. Three tomato wedges resting on a bed of chopped iceberg lettuce with shreds of red cabbage and carrot, garnished with parsley, canned kidney beans, and thawed frozen corn and green beans. Fairly standard, and not at all sexy. But, it was very fresh, properly chilled, and refreshing for the palate.
Our first appetizer was the Popcorn Shrimp & Calamari, served with Japanese ketchup and a wedge of lemon. Both the shrimp and the calamari were appropriately seasoned, and paired well with the lemon and sweet Japanese ketchup. The shrimp had been lightly dusted with flour before being deep fried for what I felt was slightly too long. The result was shrimp that was a little chewy and dry, but had a pleasing richness and crunch. The calamari was perfectly cooked. Nice and tender, it offered little resistance to cutting or chewing. Since it had been breaded with Italian breadcrumbs before it was fried, the calamari was a bit heavy for my taste. The dish was nothing to write home about, but quite enjoyable nonetheless. Simple, hearty fare.
Our second appetizer was the Ginger Sesame Chicken. Marinated in soy sauce, sugar, and ginger before being tossed in rice flour and deep fried, the chicken was superb. An appropriately light drizzle of sweet ginger teriyaki sauce added yet another dimension to this enjoyable dish, making it my favorite for the evening. I'll be ordering this one every time I go from now on.
With our hunger now retreating, we settled down to wait for our entrees. It's a credit to the Curry House staff that we didn't have to wait long. Each of our courses perfectly timed, a sheer miracle in a full house, and practically unheard of in a family restaurant. Out of a morbid sense of curiosity, I'd abandoned my usual Omelet Rice Curry in favor of their monthly special; Seafood Tofu Shirataki. For anyone who doesn't know, shirataki are extruded noodles made from the processed starch of the Devil's Tongue plant. The processing method results in a substance that is practically indigestible by humans, making it an excellent diet food, since an entire package contains as few as ten calories. Tofu shirataki uses the addition of tofu to add nutrition and a milky white color. The end result is something that more closely resembles the Italian pasta it's meant to imitate.
When my Seafood Tofu Shirataki arrived, I immediately noticed a faint, watery fishy smell that signaled two things to me. First, that my dish had been made using pre-cooked, frozen seafood, not fresh. Disappointing, given our closeness to the sea and to a number of excellent fish markets, but understandable given the restaurant's basic premise. Properly handled, frozen precooked seafood can still be used to produce a fine dish. Second, that whoever had assembled my dish out of a packet of House Foods Kokumaru Stew Cream, House Foods Tofu Shirataki Noodles - Fettuccini Shape, and frozen seafood had overcooked it. Some selective sampling soon proved me right. The shrimp and fish were dry and stringy. Mussels with shells as large as my thumb had sweated out all of their liquid, leaving me with powdery meat the size of my pinky nail. The addition of the juices from my seafood had diluted the rich, creamy sauce into a weak, salty broth. The tofu shirataki was crunchy and rubbery, which is normal for shirataki but tends to make it less than appealing. One of the main selling points of shirataki is that it's able to absorb the flavor of whatever it's been cooked in. However, given what overcooking had done to the sauce, my tofu shirataki didn't exactly have a lot to work with. The only saving grace in my dish was the abundant scallops, which had somehow managed to survive their ordeal by over boiling, remaining tender and perfectly cooked. I really have no idea how. Overall, I'd give this dish a C-. It wasn't entirely unpleasant, but I wouldn't order it again and I wouldn't recommend it to a friend. Next time, I think I'll stick with some of the less adventurous items on the menu.
Cat had a more satisfying experience with her Curry Beef Hamburger Steak, which she was generous enough to share with me. Served on a sizzling hot, cast iron plate or "teppan", it was more akin to a richly seasoned meatloaf than what we Americans would consider a hamburger. Topped with a generous portion of House Curry Sauce and thin slices of hard-boiled egg, it was absolutely delicious. Japanese curry sauce more closely resembles a spiced French demiglace than any of the Indian curries. The House Curry Sauce turned Cat's hamburger steak into something remarkable. Included with the steak were sides of French fries, blanched spinach, and roasted corn, and a plate of fluffy, steamed rice, making it a well-rounded meal.
A criticism I've occasionally heard about Curry House is that its cuisine is nothing special. A few foodies have even commented that they're easily able to turn out dishes similar to Curry House's in their homes by using boxed Japanese curry mixes. These people are missing the point. Curry House's strength lies in precisely its ability to offer the comforting and familiar tastes of home cooking even to people who have never tried its particular brand of yushoku, Japanese-style western cooking, before. The use of House Foods products in Curry House's dishes is both a brilliant marketing ploy and proof for the consumer that the use of home cooking methods and prepackaged products can achieve some truly tasty dishes, Seafood Tofu Shirataki notwithstanding. While I would give my taste experience this evening a solid B, my long-term experience with Curry House has yielded an average in the B+ to A range.
Evening's Bill (for two):
Corn Potage - included with meal
House Salad - included with meal
Popcorn Shrimp & Calamari - 5.85
Ginger Sesame Chicken - 4.95
Seafood Tofu Shirataki - 11.50
Curry Beef Hamburger Steak - 12.95
Soda - 1.50
Tax - 2.85
Tip - 6.00
Total - 45.60
14407 Culver Drive
Irvine, CA 92604
West L.A, Little Tokyo, Gardena, Torrance, Cypress, and Puente Hills