Read Elmomonster's review of Gen Kai here.
Edit 08/24/2013: This restaurant has closed.)
Kitty-corner from Irvine Valley College lies a small, darkened strip mall mostly abandoned once the sun has set. Home to an eclectic gathering of businesses that draw little foot traffic and shutter their doors early, the lifeblood of the center's surprisingly numerous eateries is a thin trickle of car-less students desperate to get away from the campus cafeteria. With such anemic support, it's no wonder that this area of Irvine has a less than stellar reputation for food.
If there's one important piece of knowledge that I've gained from my gastronomic explorations, it's that great food is seldom where you expect to find it. Some of the best meals that I've ever had were ones that took me completely by surprise. Hunkered within the shadows of this sad strip mall, Gen Kai Japanese Cuisine, a restaurant for which I had nothing but low expectations, taught me this maxim yet again.
In operation for close to 15 years, Gen Kai has a less than stellar reputation amongst Irvine's sushi lovers. During my decade in the city, what little I'd heard about the place had been enough to prevent me from ever setting foot within its walls. However, unbeknownst to myself and most other Irvine-ites, the restaurant has undergone a Renaissance in recent years; New remodeling, new staff, new menu, and, most importantly, new chefs.
(Lightly pickled cucumber - A signature palate cleanser.)
My first visit was entirely accidental. Cat was teaching a class at Irvine Valley College that didn't end until 10pm. I'd had a late night at the office and had less than half an hour to eat before I needed to pick her up. Like the desperate students drawn to it during the day, I ended up at the strip mall across the street in search of something fast and still open. Sushi at Gen Kai seemed to be my only choice.
(Edamame - Boiled and lightly salted soybeans in their pods.)
The meal that followed was so startling that I found myself emailing my friend and fellow OC Food Blogs contributor Elmomonster the following week to suggest we try Gen Kai again together. It's a mark of our mutual respect that he agreed, even after an unpleasant dining experience at Gen Kai some years earlier.
(Squid and Kelp Salad)
Serving us that night was Juuji (pictured near the top), a cherubic Japanese itamae who cheerfully informed me that both of Gen Kai's sushi chefs were named "Juuji". However, this chef was one who'd prepared my first delightful meal at Gen Kai. When Elmomonster decided to leave the ordering to me, I was confident in asking Juuji, "Omakase onegai-shimasu," which meant he would have free reign to serve us whatever he considered to be the best and freshest that day. I'd placed us entirely in the itamae's hands
Flattered by our trust in him, Juuji was on a mission to impress. He succeeded admirably. Our first course was a pair of pickled seafood dishes to be shared between the two of us. The Tako-Su was a bold, mouth-puckering heap of sliced octopus with a sweetly tempered finish. The vivid orange color came from the marinade, which had also given each piece a meaty and tender texture. The dish's counterpart (pictured above) was a crunchy mix of squid, kelp, ginger, and bell peppers that brushed over our tongues like a gentle breeze.
A giant snail followed, poached and still in its own shell. Its twisted armor offered little protection as we wrested the chewy contents free and enjoyed their unctuous earthiness. The few drops of briny liquor left behind were eagerly sucked into our ravening maws.
(Serving for one.)
Juuji's strategy that night was evidently shock and awe, and he set out to overwhelm us with our next course. Reigning over a gorgeous plate of sashimi, its antennae still thrashing about, was the head of a giant prawn that had been whole and alive mere moments ago. Its gleaming black eyes surveyed a realm that glittered with the jewel-like flesh of the fallen. At Juuji's suggestion, I performed a Shinto prayer for the crustacean's spirit, waiting for it to depart the body before partaking.
Its freshness evident with each bite, the Amaebi (Sweet Shrimp) lived up to its name. I honored its passing by consuming every delectable morsel.
(Spanish Mackerel - center, Orange Clam - bottom)
Overshadowed by the centerpiece, yet equally sublime, wafer-thin slices of Aoyagi (Orange Clam) conveyed the aroma of the ocean. Strips of Aji (Spanish Mackerel) coated with grated ginger spread their rich oil throughout our mouths.
Finishing off the selection were two luxurious slices of Toro (Fatty Tuna). While not the highest grade of toro available, their quality was unmistakable. Each tender piece was redolent with the essence of the fish, melting away like the fine filet mignon.
Still reeling from the delicacies on our sashimi plates, we were unprepared for the appearance of our third course. With a mischievous grin, Juuji presented us each with a piece of Jellied Skate Wing. Served chilled and enveloped by golden aspic made from a combination of natural gelatin and the braising liquid used to cook it, the skate's finely textured meat required care to separate from its many bones.
The fourth course was a detour from the pure to the abstract. An imaginative roll of asparagus, salmon, shrimp tempura, avocado, radish sprouts, and soy paper was presented to us on plates that would not have been out of place in a gallery of modern art. The display was both beautiful and delicious.
At this point, we were both about ready to wave our napkins as flags. Our shock was nearly palpable when we were each served a hefty portion of Ankimo (Monkfish Liver), the foie gras of the sea. Despite the grated chili and daikon, sliced green onions, and ponzu sauce added to cut the practically pure fat, this dish nearly finished us. Yet, we were unable to stop ourselves from laboriously devouring each lump of lipid love.
The sixth course was the return on an old friend. After the sashimi course, the heads of our giant shrimp had been removed by the kitchen for further treatment. They returned to us now, twisted but still recognizable. A brief swim in a sizzling oil hot spring with only the scant protection of tempura batter had transformed each shrimp's once fearsome helm into a fragile facade of crispy goodness.
I attacked the spiky legs, feelers, and antennae first, carefully shattering each sharp shard between my teeth. Once denuded, the shrimp's now-helpless skull yielded to me its flavorful fat and brains as I devoured it whole. Not a single speck of chitin failed to make its way into my belly.
Sensing our flagging resolve, Juuji wisely chose to have us share our seventh course. I don't think we could have survived it otherwise. The amusingly named Japanese Pizza roll was a tempura fried cylinder of salmon, rice, and nori. Each slice was topped with sweetened mayonnaise and was broiled until the mayonnaise caramelized. Generous pinches of Tobiko (Flying Fish Roe) and sliced green onions were added, along with a drizzle of teriyaki sauce. It was decadent. It was obscene. It was damn tasty stuff.
Mercifully, our eighth course was a simple plate of Hakusai (Lightly Pickled Napa Cabbage) that served to cleanse our palates and sooth stomachs troubled by the heaviness of the last two dishes. Its mild bite was just what we needed to reawaken our senses.
Our ninth and final course was a shared sashimi plate of Shiro-Maguro Tataki (Water-Search Albacore) served with thinly sliced onion, grated daikon, and ponzu. The mild fish and tart ponzu left us refreshed and utterly satisfied.
(Green Tea Ice Cream Mochi - Gen Kai's Omakase includes dessert!)
Gen Kai Japanese Cuisine - In the restaurant world, it's rare when an existing, mediocre establishment is able to remake itself into something noteworthy. With the addition of Juuji to its staff, Gen Kai has managed to profoundly elevate the quality of both its food and customer experience. His mastery of traditional flavors and modern Californian sushi cuisine has made Gen Kai a contender in Orange County's highly competitive sushi market.
Bill (per person, including tax & tip):
Omakase - 53.10
Flavor: A+ (averaged over two visits)
Gen Kai Japanese Cuisine
15435 Jeffrey Rd., #119
Irvine, CA 92618
Read Elmomonster's review of our meal at Gen Kai here.