Edit 08/24/2013: Frenzy Sushi has closed. The space is now home to Shunka. Frenzy owner and Itamae John Arteaga is now General Manager at H20 Sushi & Izakaya in Triangle Square. Check it out!)
Tucked in the same little strip mall as the renowned Plums Cafe lurks one of Orange County's most overlooked culinary experiences. In an area where there are sushi restaurants on almost every block, the delight that is Frenzy Sushi has gotten lost in the shuffle as SoCalites lurch from one mediocre sushi experience to another. That's the way we locals like Frenzy; pleasant, homey, classy, unassuming, absolutely delicious, and relatively unknown.
Frenzy Sushi is one of those places that we Chowhounds love. Known only to the locals and boasting of superb eats, reasonable prices, and a friendly staff, this is one of those places where most of the regulars know each other by name. Sit down at the bar on a busy night, and it's almost guaranteed that the people sitting next to you will start drawing you into their conversation. Drinks are bought for, and shared by, random strangers, food is exchanged, and new friends are made; it's that kind of place. If you're the type of person who craves serene sushi dining in Zen-like contemplation, Frenzy can also accommodate, just not during dinner on the weekends.
The restaurant is the brainchild of Itamae (Skilled Sushi Chef) and owner John Arteaga, a seasoned veteran with over twelve years of experience in the field at a number of high-end and well-known sushi restaurants, including the famous Hama Sushi and the iconic Mitsuyoshi. Tired of seeing the same old ideas repeatedly regurgitated at every sushi restaurant, where freshness was sacrificed for style and flavor for presentation, John set out to break the boundaries between traditional sushi restaurants and California fusion sushi restaurants, creating a new, re-imagined style of sushi all his own. The product of a mixed marriage, John inherited his love of cooking from his Okinawan mother, and he imbues his food with his belief that flavors don't have to be traditional to be excellent.
John's cooking is solidly based on traditional Japanese sushi techniques, but he borrows liberally from Okinawan, Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, and Cambodian cuisines. The result is a combination of high class traditional and fusion sushi dishes, where freshness and taste are paramount, and fusion is only done when the combination of ingredients will genuinely enhance the overall dish, never merely for the sake of fashion. When it comes to flavor, John is truly a purist.
Frenzy's motto, "Sushi Gone Wild", illustrates for John's belief that good cuisine knows no borders, as well as the fun and irreverent attitude he takes towards all things established. Make no mistake about it. The man is a sushi artisan trained in all of the traditional sushi-making techniques by some of the best sushi chefs in Southern California. He knows all the rules, and exactly how to break them.
As avant-guard as his philosophy may seem, the delicate tightrope John walks between the traditional and fusion seems to be paying off for him. Since Frenzy Sushi opened early last year, the restaurant has earned a number of glowing reviews from local and national publications, including this one from the Orange County Register and this one from the OC Metro. It's a credit to the restaurant's staff that the upswing in clientele resulting from these reviews hasn't diluted the restaurant's fine service and good-natured cheer.
Once a month or so, if I can afford it, I try to break away from my hectic existence as a salaryman and schedule a pilgrimage to Frenzy, my personal shrine to relaxation and bon temps. Friday night, I had about reached my stress limit at work when I realized that I was in desperate need of some alcohol-assisted unwinding. I sent out word to the usual suspects, and three of my top performers answered the call.
Fast becoming a regular on this blog, the first to answer the call was the Shire Nomad, my old college buddy, former flat-mate, and bottomless stomach.
Next was Mama Bear, another dear college chum and former flat-mate. Warm, generous, and caring to a fault, she earned her nickname by acting as our dorm's surrogate den mother and mother confessor so many years ago.
Finally, a party isn't a party without Mama Bear's husband, Single Malt; a man with a connoisseur’s tongue for fine Scotch, and whose Jewish frugality rivals my own genetic Asian ability to get blood from pennies. If any man could help me objectively critique Frenzy’s ROI score, he was the one.
Posse thus procured, arrangements were made to meet at the restaurant Saturday night at 7:00pm.
I arrived a little early and, as any good sushi lover does when they first step into a sushi restaurant, I scanned the whiteboard for the day's specials. Itamae John's playful and creative nature can clearly be seen in the selection of delicacies. The Cajun Tuna Tataki, Baked Butterfish, and Toro Tataki Nigiri all intrigued me. I vowed they would be mine to taste before the night was out.
After staking out four seats at the bar, I decided to start the "unwinding" process with a frosty glass of my favorite Wakatake sake (say that three times fast). Served in a frosty glass, it was cool, crisp, and smooth with a dry sweetness that was very pleasing. But, no true gentleman has sake without snacks. To this end, I procured the services of Shokunin (Sushi Sous Chef) Nori-san.
A good-looking, burly man who trains in K1-style full contact Karate and considers UFC "tame", Nori-san's rugged looks hide the delicate artist he is when he's not training to kick ass. He presented me with two plates to accompany my drink that showcased this duality of spirit.
The first plate represented Nori-san the fighter. Five shisamo (Japanese gravid female smelt) were dusted with sea salt and broiled until they were golden, brown, and almost burnt. Brushed lightly with the sliced lemon provided, they were rugged and bold. The slightly bitter charred bits, the savory browned skin, the salty richness of the roasted roe inside the fish, the tangy bite of the lemon juice, and the tingling burst from the salt grains combined to shout, "SMELT!" with each delicious mouthful. This was a straightforward, in-your-face dish that seized you by the tongue and didn't get go. It paired delightfully with the cleansing wash of the sake.
The second plate represented Nori-san the artist. A series of fine incisions were made into a succulent piece of mirugai (geoduck/giant clam) before it was cut into sashimi, causing the flesh to "flower" beautifully. Sprinkled with a little sea salt and served on a bed of julienned cucumber with a slice of lemon, this dish was even more simple than the shisamo, yet oh-so subtle and complex. The mirugai tasted clean and mildly of the sea. The flesh was resilient, yet broke apart easily when eaten the way only truly fresh mirugai will. The more you chewed, the more sweetness and flavor was released, accentuated by the sea salt and lemon. It was an excellently calculated offering, and also paired well with the subtle flavors of the sake.
The Shire Nomad was the first to arrive. Since he'd recently made the mistake of wandering into the local Fry's Electronics for a pair of new headphones and had staggered out with said headphones, video games, and a new 400GB hard drive, he was a little strapped. So, he went for one of his high-bulk low-cost sushi favorites, the Una-don (Eel Bowl).
Generous filets of unagi (freshwater eel) were brushed with Frenzy's special eel sauce and broiled to caramelized deliciousness before being laid over a heaping mound of sushi rice, then brushed with more special eel sauce. The result was tender, sweet, and savory unagi with each mouthful of plump rice.
What makes Frenzy's eel sauce so special? The secret is all in the way Itamae John prepares it. He won't let me in on the process, but the sauce is glossier and more flavorful than any other eel sauce I've encountered, with a complexity that compliments without overpowering. The sauce is an excellent example of how John fuses new cooking techniques and ingredients to improve on traditional flavors, and how he sensibly tempers his "Sushi Gone Wild" philosophy.
Mama Bear and Single Malt arrived soon after and ordered their standard palate cleanser of miso soup. Frenzy's miso soup is very traditional and very good, with just the right balance between the sweet bonito broth and salty miso. I've always enjoyed it.
Single Malt had a craving for Frenzy's signature shiromaguro (albacore) salad. Raw albacore tuna was blanched briefly in scalding hot water to sear the surface, then chilled immediately to preserve the rawness of the inner flesh, providing a wonderful contrast between raw and cooked albacore. The albacore was cubed and tossed in a ponzu-based dressing with julienned cucumber, shredded onions, sliced mushrooms, and quartered spears of homemade carrot pickles. The salad was stacked into a tower and garnished with toasted sesame seeds and dried bonito shavings. The tart, soft, and crunchy combination was out of this world.
Now that the key players were present, the real "unwinding" could begin. We started out by a few large bottles of Morimoto Black Obi Soba Ale, a special creation by Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto. Imagine the dark bitterness of Guinness Stout. Now add a touch of sweetness from rice and soba (buckwheat), followed by a crisp finish with no aftertaste.
Single Malt and I decided to follow the beer up with oyster shots. John was busy with some other customers, so we decided to try Nori-san's version. Nori-san the fighter was in true form with this viciously strong concoction of soy sauce, lemon juice, the yolk of a quail egg, sake, and a raw Hamersley oyster from Washington state. The drinks seared their way down our throats as we knocked them back and left us with screaming tongues and clenched stomachs. Yet, within seconds, the shock to our systems had subsided and we could taste the flavors from the drink flooding our mouths. We liked it, and only Mama Bear's admonition against drinking too much kept us from ordering another.
Now pleasantly buzzed ("pissed" if you're British), we decided to eat until we were sober. The Shire Nomad was still nose deep in his Una-don, but the smell of the eel tempted Mama Bear and Single Malt into ordering the Caterpillar roll.
Broiled unagi fillets were rolled in nori (sheets of dried algae) and sushi rice, topped with thinly-sliced avocado, cut into rounds, and drizzled with Frenzy's special eel sauce. Each round was like a mini Una-don with a creamy avocado bonus. The roll was huge, and came with eight pieces. The three missing pieces in this photo were already in tummies before I could bring my camera to bear.
I decided to go for okonomi (a la carte orders). Nori-san highly recommended the maguro (Bluefin tuna in this case) and I wasn't disappointed. Each piece was like a tuna-rrific morsel of filet mignon from the sea.
Next, I needed to slake my hankering for hamachi (yellowtail tuna). Unfortunately, both Nori-san and John warned me away from it that night. It always pays to make friends with the itamae and the shokunin at every sushi bar you visit. They'll take care of you in the future and make sure you get the good stuff. Unwilling to give up on hamachi, I inquired about the hamachi no hara (yellowtail belly), which got nods of approval from both chefs. Folks, if you love toro (fatty tuna) but can't afford it on your budget, remember that yellowtail belly is Pepsi to toro's Coke. Like all animals, fish store a hefty portion of their fat in their belly flesh. Most sushi chefs throw the belly of the yellowtail away as rubbish, but John discovered that properly prepared, the belly of the yellowtail rivals the flavor and richness of toro at only a fraction of the price point.
Where's the other piece? That's right. In mah belleh! The yellowtail belly was firm and rich without being greasy or overpowering. Since of lot of the flavor of the fish is stored in the fat, yellowtail belly has an even more intense yellowtail flavor than the flesh. The serving I had that night blew me away.
Since that sexy bastard Kirk from mmm-yoso!!! had helped inspire this mad binge with Part 1 and Part 2 of his Restaurant Yakata review, I decided to pay him back by ordering something John had recommended to me when I had first walked in; the aji (Spanish mackerel).
Served with ponzu sauce, minced scallions, and grated chilied daikon radish, the aji was everything I dreamed it could be; milky, sweet flesh with a slightly chewy texture that melted into a creamy softness only accentuated by the tartness of the ponzu and the bite of the chilied daikon. Take that, Kirk!
The smell of the eel my friends were eating was really getting to me, so I ordered up some anago (saltwater eel). With a finer, richer flesh than unagi, the anago practically melted away in my mouth and left me craving more.
Instead, I opted for the briny, palate cleansing power of fresh Hama Hama oysters. The one in the front was prepared like the aji, with ponzu sauce, minced scallions, and grated chilied daikon. The one in the back was more simply prepared with lemon juice and shredded shisou leaf. Both were excellent and refreshing after the richness of the anago.
I wasn't done yet, though. John had been tempting me all night with the freshness of the uni (sea urchin genitalia) he had in the case. Since I can resist all things except temptation, I succumbed willingly to the uni's siren call.
The uni was perfect. The flesh was chilled, flowing over my tongue like egg yolk redolent with the flavors of the ocean. It was classically served in a cup made of nori and sushi rice, with wasabi and yuzu zest for accent, and so good that I ordered a second round.
Inspired by my sea critter binging, Mama Bear and Single Malt ordered the Cajun Tuna Tataki. Nori-san prepared it simply by coating a piece of tuna with John's special blend of Cajun and Japanese spices, then gently searing the outside with a blowtorch. It was served in classic sashimi-style on top of a bed of thinly sliced daikon with a little ponzu sauce drizzled over the top.
The Cajun Tuna Tataki is another example of John's subtle fusing of the traditional and West Coast techniques with his own subtle flare. Each piece was deliciously complex, with the varied heat and flavors of different chiles, the pungency of garlic, the tartness of the ponzu, the contrast between raw and cooked, and the aroma of the other spices.
At this point, I decided that our state of "unwoundedness" was fading too rapidly, so I bought a round of this excellent Juu-yon Dai Shochu, that one of John’s Japanese waitresses had procured for him from her home prefecture.
If you don't know what shochu is, it's the Japanese equivalent of Scotch or vodka, usually distilled from a root vegetable, wheat, and/or barley. It can have a 25-47% alcohol content. I don't know what they make Juu-yon Dai shochu out of, but that stuff is magic in a bottle. Smooth and sweet with a honeyed mouth-feel, it slid over our tongues and down our throats with nary a whisper. The bottle was gone before we knew it.
Pleasantly renewed, we decided to buffer ourselves with even more food. Mama Bear ordered the gyoza (Japanese-style potstickers). The gyoza at Frenzy is another great example of John's subtle fusion cooking. Acknowledging that the main weakness of most Japanese gyoza lies in their pasty, bland filling, John fused Japanese-style gyoza with their ancestors, the Chinese guo tie.
The skins retained their crispy crunch and al dente resilience, which were impervious to the potsticker sauce lightly sprinkled on. The filling was a combination of the Japanese cabbage-based filling and Beijing-style meat filling, including a rougher grind of pork and the addition of garlic and sesame oil to the ginger, scallion, and soy flavoring ingredients. The resulting potstickers appealed to all tastes, and did not need to rely on the sauce for their flavor.
I followed up with an order of shrimp shumai (steamed dumplings). As with the potstickers, John had recognized that the weakness of traditional Japanese shrimp shumai lay in the smoothness of the shrimp paste used to fill them. To help them appeal more to the American palate, he made them larger, intensified the flavors slightly, and stole a page from Cantonese-style dim sum by adding a meaty, plump shrimp to the top of each one. The resulting shumai combined the smooth texture of the shrimp paste with the chewy, juice resilience of the shrimp meat. These shumai practically exploded with juice in our mouths.
I still wanted to try the saikyo misoyaki (butterfish marinated in miso paste marinade and broiled). There's just no cooked fish that can beat this dish. Mildly sweet, savory, and caramelized on the top, the rich flesh melted away in my mouth, leaving a pleasantly buttery aftertaste that wasn't greasy. The radish sprouts and homemade pickled carrots helped cut the richness and refresh the palate between bites. Mama Bear and I loved this dish.
Since it was nearing closing time, I decided to combat our inebriation with its classic foil, fried foods. I ordered the biwa, another one of Frenzy's signature dishes.
Biwa is John's fusion take on the classic Scotch egg, which is traditionally a hard boiled chicken egg wrapped with raw sausage meat, breaded, and deep fried. John's version uses quail eggs wrapped in ebi (lightly poached shrimp), coated with tempura batter, and deep fried. The biwa are then halved and served with fresh cucumber slices, lemon slices for zest, a spicy garlic chile sauce, and a seasoned aioli of John's own devising. The blend of creamy yolk and aioli, tender shrimp, chewy egg white, and fiery chile is really invigorating. The raw cucumber helps you cool off between each hit. Single Malt and Shire Nomad were instant converts to the biwa experience.
I also wanted my friends to try my favorite roll, and another of John's special creations; the Firecracker roll. Fat tempura shrimp were wrapped in nori and sushi rice with avocado and cucumber. The roll was topped with a spicy, chopped hamachi, then drizzled with two of John's original aiolis. (I'd tell you what's in them, but that flavors are too complex to decipher, and John won't tell me his secrets.) Hefty dollops of Sriracha hot sauce were added to the top of each piece to give it that firecracker-like burst of heat. I really can't describe the flavor, save to say that it's the most delicious roll I've ever had, and I've had a lot of sushi in a lot of places, including NYC, Tokyo, SanFran, and the fishing docks of Kobe.
At this point, I was more worried about being able to get out of my chair than I was in being able to drive. But John had one more surprise up his sleeve. He gifted me with this order of Toro Tataki Nigiri. Large slices of toro were placed on fingers of rice, seared with a blowtorch, seasoned with a little ponzu, and topped with a fresh chile blend. The rare toro with its warm, melting fat, the familiar zing of the ponzu, and the heat of the chiles was an awesome way to close an excellent evening of fine dining...
... or so I thought.
What I didn't mention was that during our roughly four hour stay at Frenzy, we'd made friends with a pair of high spirited, intelligent, and attractive, law school students named Sophi and Erin. We'd shared our sake and beer with them, they'd bought us a few rounds, we'd helped them convince Nori-san to do three sake bombs, and managed to give everyone including John and Nori-san, healthy Asian glows (gotten them nicely pissed). As I wrote in my introduction, Frenzy is just that kind of place.
To thank our new found friends, I bought an order of deep fried ice cream for them, and one for myself. Single Malt liked the idea of deep fried ice cream so much that he ordered one too.
Frenzy's deep fried ice cream is another example of the excellent balance between flavors and textures in its cuisine. Scoops of ice cream are carefully wrapped in thin pieces of pound cake, covered in a sweet batter, and deep fried. Given a light topping of whipped cream, they're served and eaten immediately. The hot, crunchy light batter, the buttery whipped cream, and the moist pound cake and cold, sweet ice cream contrast and compliment one another beautifully. That was the perfect way to end a perfect evening.
Frenzy Sushi - For the best sushi in Orange County at a highly competitive price point. Where the fish are always fresh and delicious, and the only roll with creamy imitation crab filling is the California roll. Go there. You won't be disappointed. Better yet, stay away. We locals would rather not fight a crowd to experience the awesome flavors of Sushi Gone Wild.
Bill (for four):
Okonomi binge of death - 196.59
Tax - 15.24
Tip - 39.39
Total - 251.22
ROI: A (For what we ate in quality and taste, totally worth $60 per person.)
369 E 17th St, #17
Costa Mesa, CA 92627