Check out my friend Julian's reviews of Kitayama here and here.)
Happy Thanksgiving everyone!
Well, I'm back after a longer post-election hiatus than I'd originally planned. I blame a combination of end of Q4 projects and the World of Warcraft: Wrath of the Lich King expansion for eating my brain and blogging time.
I'd like to dedicate this review to my good friend, Professor Yong Chen at UCI, and to his Fall 2008 History 192W: Food and Culture class. I'd like to thank them for asking me to participate in their seminar discussion last Tuesday.
It was a blast, guys. This one is for you.
Japanese society during the Edo period was rigidly striated into four impermeable classes. Merchants, because they produced no goods and did not serve the State, comprised the lowest officially recognized caste. To keep the merchant class in its place, the Tokugawa bakufu regulated what merchants could spend their money on. Displays of wealth in the form of lavish homes or personal adornment were strictly prohibited. Instead, the merchant class turned to other, less material ways to flaunt their success; food, sex, and entertainment. Centered in urban red light districts, the services and subculture that arose to support the hedonistic lifestyle of affluent merchants was described as Ukiyo, a "floating world" separate from the unyielding confines of the Pax Tokugawa.
Tucked away in an odd little fold of the border between Irvine and Newport Beach, Kitayama evokes storied descriptions of life in the floating world. The restaurant is a beautiful, labyrinthine sprawl surrounding a peaceful Japanese garden. Attentive, kimono-clad servers glide through the dimly lit halls, waiting on each table with polite efficiency.
There is a variety for dining experiences to choose from. Those lucky enough to get a seat at Kitayama's sushi bar can feed their addictions with the help of two veteran sushi chefs trained in Japan. Diners sitting in one of the cozy, semi-private booths can enjoy shabu-shabu or sukiyaki, along selections of sushi from the bar and a number of Japanese pub-style dishes. Traditional tatami rooms can be reserved for large parties. There's even a full-service lounge for those who just want to drink and mingle.
The food at Kitayama can be quite good. Their sushi is usually fresh and well-prepared, although there's little to distinguish their rolls from those served at other upscale sushi bars in the area. If you choose to go the raw fish route, sit at the bar and order the omakase. By placing your dining experience in the itamae's hands, you're guaranteed to get the best the restaurant has to offer. Just be prepared to shell out for it at the end.
Shabu-shabu and sukiyaki are both dishes that are extremely easy to make at home. Instead, enjoy sitting in one of the curtained booths and sampling the hot and cold, pub-style small plates with a cold brew or some sake. While some of them, like the amusingly named but appallingly bland Anchovy's Garden, can be definite misses, Cat and I have a few personal favorites which keep us coming back.
At the top of the list are Kitayama's exquisite Crab Cakes. Each plump parcel is almost entirely fresh crab meat, encased in a savory shell of crunchy breading. The flavors locked inside are intense. Rather than share and squabble, order a plate each.
Threaded with fresh chunks of sea urchin roe and snow crab, the "Ocean" Egg Custard is a decadent take on a Chawanmushi, a classic Japanese dish. An unctuous, slightly sweet broth brings out the natural sweetness of the other ingredients.
Kitayama's Yuzu Lamb Chops are tender lollipops of succulent lamp meat, seasoned with a citrus that grows only in Japan and expertly grilled. Spread on a little wasabi for some extra kick. Depending on preference, an additional dash of salt might be needed.
Liberally slathered with miso marinade, the Baked Sea Bass is a surefire hit. The delectable charred bits on top add great contrast to the large flakes of buttery fish.
Try the Agedashi Tofu for a final dish. With deep-fried chunks of tofu tempura floating in a flavorful broth, it's a great way to warm up before venturing out into the cold.
Kitayama - Decent food in a stylish environment. Kick back and pretend you're in old Kyoto.
Anchovy's Garden - 8.00
Crab Cake - 11.00
"Ocean" Egg Custard - 9.00
Yuzu Lamb Chop - 16
Baked Sea Bass - 15
Agedashi Tofu - 6.5
101 Bayview Pl
Newport Beach, CA 92660
Read fellow food blogger Julian's reviews of Kitayama:
(Julian recommends the Free-Range Chicken.)