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Café Hiro in Cypress - the full report (thanks Kevin!)

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Café Hiro in Cypress - the full report (thanks Kevin!)

Chris G. | Feb 6, 2003 06:01 PM

I had noticed Café Hiro in Cypress previously, but before Kevin's post I had assumed that this was just a small coffee house (similar to the one that had previously occupied the space). Instead this is an incredible neighborhood gem - delicious, carefully prepared food at extremely affordable prices. This is the kind of place that Ciaolette was lamenting that L.A. lacks in her "Why L.A. dining gets me down" post, and I feel very fortunate that Café Hiro is located a short distance from where I live. In addition to having Little Saigon, L.A.'s Little India, Jay Bee's barbecue, and two of the nation's best Issan Thai restaurants only minutes away, the area is now also the home of an outstanding and inventive Franco-Japanese restaurant.

Café Hiro is indeed a café - there are nine tiny tables decorated with blue or red checkerboard tablecloths cozily placed in a small, tastefully decorated storefront space, a counter with four seats facing the kitchen and wine bar, and two or three tables placed along a narrow corridor beside the kitchen. The walls are painted in lively colors, with a depiction of the sun on one wall and a faux second story (with balcony and windows) painted above the bar and kitchen to give the café a hint of European ambience. The atmosphere is comfortable and homey, but not the type of luxurious environs where you'd want to linger for hours on end. There is an open view to the kitchen, where chef Hiro himself stands front and center, preparing salads and entrees and proudly presiding over the center of his universe like Iron Chef. The clientele is mostly local Japanese residents who probably work for the various Japanese corporations in the area (Panasonic, Mitsubishi, Bandai - the official manufacturer of Godzilla toys!, etc.).

I visited the restaurant twice for dinner - the first time in the company of a friend and the second time solo. Both times the service was incredibly warm, friendly and professional. The waitstaff is a crew of hip and cute young adults with stylish haircuts - kind of like the cast of Gen-X Cops, only Japanese instead of Chinese. But there is no hipper-than-thou pretentiousness here. The kids are as kind as they are cool, and they pay more attention to your plates than they do to posing.

On my first visit I tried the corriander seed encrusted tuna ($13) that Kevin recommended, which was one of the daily specials posted on the specials board. My friend ordered Jidori chicken with spicy miso sauce ($9) from the menu, and we shared an order of calamari ($5) as an appetizer. Overall prices are very reasonable - appetizers range from $4 to $7 and entrees range from $7 to $13. Hiro also features two six-course special menus ($25 and $30), which both offer several options. Looking around the room before we ordered, we noticed that the appetizer portions looked rather generous, which is why we decided to share one. The menu also features a variety of salads, pastas and curry dishes, which averaged about $7. The menu is very similar to that at Blue Marlin on Sawtelle in West L.A., although the overall quality of the food is several notches above. I later found out that Hiro previously worked at Blue Marlin (as well as at Matsuhisa and was trained in Japan and Paris at Cordon Bleu).

The soup of the day was served first - a very flavorful bowl of sweet potato soup. Creamy and sweet, but not heavy or cloying, it was a great way to prepare the palate for the flavors to come. Most restaurants would charge $4 to $7 for the soup alone, and we were amazed that it was included with the meal. Next came the salad - an ample heap of fresh, crispy field greens drizzled with sesame miso dressing. Again, we were amazed by the quality and freshness - this was not your run-of-the-mill iceberg lettuce with a few shavings of carrot, a tasteless tomato, and watery dressing. This was the type of salad that most restaurants charge separately for (at least $5).

Within minutes after our empty salad plates were cleared away, the calamari arrived, still steaming. The tiny rings of squid were slightly coated with a light, tempura-like batter and chunks of Parmesan cheese (Italian purists may balk at the seafood/cheese combination, but this is a Japanese restaurant after all, and it was so tasty who cares?). The portion was just right for sharing between two people before a meal, but perhaps too large for a single serving (unless you've got a huge appetite).

When our entrees arrived, I could not believe my eyes. The presentation was something I'd expect from a restaurant that charges $25 - $30 for an entrée. My tuna was garnished with thin slivers of fresh ginger and stacked on a bed of baby bok choy and colorful peppers sitting in a pool glimmering brownish-red sauce. My friend's chicken was similarly presented, stacked on a bed of greens, vegetables and potatoes. His chicken was steaming hot, and he had to wait a few minutes for it to cool down before he could eat it. My tuna (three large domino-sized slices) was seared on the outside and raw on the inside - perfect. The vegetables were cooked with a careful, precise hand - tender but crunchy and full of fresh flavor. The sauce was a good accompaniment to the tuna - sweet with a slight hint of spice to complement to tuna's richness and the coriander seeds' citrus-like flavor. The chicken was cooked to perfection with a crispy skin but tender and succulent inside, the flavors and juices seared in. The spicy miso sauce accompanying the chicken possessed a nice combination of slight heat and mild miso sweetness. Both of our meals came with a plate of rice tastefully garnished with a sprinkle of dried parsley - it was perfect for soaking up the remaining sauce.

Both of us were too full for desert, so we passed on that. Our total bill for two, including a 20%+ tip was $50, and both of us had two drinks (one large Sapporo, two "regular" Japanese beers, and one glass of wine). The price of the Jidori chicken especially amazed me - I don't think I know of a better meal value for less than $10 in all of California. My friend and I both decided that we are going to return many times to work our way through the entire menu.

I returned a few days later by myself with the intention of doing just that, so I ordered the "top-of-the-line" $30 special menu. This is a six-course menu consisting of soup of the day, a choice of salads, a choice of appetizers, a choice of pastas/risottos, a choice of entrees, and desert. While I wasn't overly impressed with the wine that I had on my first visit (a glass of Italian Merlot), I also ordered the two glasses of wine (a choice of one white and one red from the "by the glass" selections, $9) offered to accompany the special menu. The wine selection is rather limited, consisting mostly of South American and budget Italian and California wines. Good, but not great stuff, but very reasonably priced ($5 - $6 a glass if ordered separately). Didn't ask about byo or corkage, but will on a subsequent visit.

The soup this day was potato leek - a delicious, earthy tasting soup with small chunks of leek. I ordered the albacore salad (the other option was tofu), which was similar to the mixed greens salad I had on my previous visit only it was accompanied by two slices of seared albacore crusted with flecks of pepper. It was an ample amount of fish considering that I still had three courses and desert to come. The albacore was good, although not quite at the level of freshness that I have come to appreciate from sushi restaurants.

A few minutes after my empty salad plate was whisked away by the attentive wait staff, my appetizer arrived - sea bass and shiitake mushroom spring roll. This was one robusto cigar-sized roll cut diagonally in half sitting on a bed of mixed greens in a pool of brownish plum sauce. The sweet tender flavor of the sea bass was a nice match for the smoky flavor and chewy texture of the mushroom, complemented by sweet/spicy flavor of the plum sauce. I could have ended my meal right there and been fully sated and happy.

My next dish was mushroom risotto. The presentation was rather lackluster - a heap of brown rice and mushrooms in a brown bowl (how about using a colorful plate and garnishing the dish with some green herbs?), but what it lacked in looks it more than made up for in flavor. From my first forkful my tastebuds were overwhelmed with the risotto's rich, musky flavor. The rice was cooked perfectly al dente with just the right amount of crunchy texture and tenderness. The flavors that instantly hit my palate were the pungent tang of real Parmigiano reggiano cheese and the earthy, musky aroma of three types of mushrooms - shiitake, hiratake and maitake from what I could tell. It was so incredibly rich but I couldn't resist eating every last bit of it, scooping up the last remains with a spoon.

For my main course I selected the "Kobe" beef osso buco, the restaurant's specialty. The dish arrived on a colorful plate (everything from the water tumblers to the plates and stemware are very stylish) - a brownie-sized square of beef about 3/4-inch thick sitting in a pool of brown demi glacé sauce with zig-zags of a creamy, white sauce drizzled on top. I personally wouldn't call this dish osso buco (there was absolutely no bone with a round hole on the meat, in fact it was boneless), and the beef may not have been real Kobe beef (which is why Hiro describes it in quotation marks), but it certainly lived up to its aspirations in terms of flavor and tenderness. The beef was extremely tender and I consumed it without ever touching it with anything other than a fork. The sauce was a highly concentrated reduction bursting with beefy flavor, but even though it was incredibly rich I soaked up every drop with the accompanying rice.

Even though I was stuffed by this point, I still wanted to try desert. The choices were anything from the desert menu, which included chocolate mousse, walnut crème brulee, green tea blancmange with red beans, and a variety of sorbets and fruit. I opted for the walnut crème brulee and watched in delight as Hiro caramelized the top with a propane torch. I also ordered a cup of tea to accompany my desert (not included in the $30 special menu price), and was very pleased to see that the café offers Fortnum & Mason teas - a very welcome detail. The crème brulee was lighter than the usual crème brulee but still rich, adorned with crunchy chunks of walnut. My total for all of this (excluding tip, but including tax) was $43.91.

Café Hiro is a very friendly, neighborhood hangout. In addition to chatting with the staff I also struck up a conversation with a customer seated next to me. Hiro himself was too busy to talk, but he'd occasionally look at me and smile when he saw me appreciating his food and nodding my head in acknowledgement of his considerable culinary skills.

While Café Hiro may not necessarily be worth the drive from the westside, valley or Hollywood, it is definitely worth seeking out if you are ever in the Long Beach/North Orange County area. They also offer a lunch menu consisting mainly of curry dishes and pasta ($6.95) along with a limited selection of entrees. The restaurant will be celebrating its one-year anniversary in March, and they're also serving a special $35 Valentine's Day menu. This is indeed fusion cooking (French Japanese), but in the best sense of the term.

Café Hiro
10509 Valley View St. (NW corner of Valley View and Cerritos Ave.)
Cypress, CA
714-527-6090
closed Mondays

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