Many years ago, during the days of Lois Dwan, I remember reading about an exotic sounding restaurant in Hanford, CA called the Imperial Dynasty. The added notion that the San Francisco Women's Press Corp held an annual meeting in the ladiesí room was a definite added attraction. I was just starting U.C.L.A. and some friends and I decided to head north from Los Angeles and an advised two hour drive ended up being double that as we made our way slowly over the Grapevine and began to realize that we had been given a faulty time estimate. We arrived around 8:30pm for a 6:30pm reservation on a darkened weekday evening, having turned off Highway 99, where the silhouette of the two story structure loomed ahead of us like Bicís Reatta. Once inside, with a couple of remaining tables finishing their dinner, we were ushered to a comfortable booth, ordered, and moved through our very first fusion dinner at a steady clip. I couldnít tell you what we had after all of these years but !
it was more traditional French fare, similar to what you might encounter in Mexico City only with Chinese influence. After dinner we were shown the celebrated ladiesí room upstairs with its pagoda like frame and given a tour of the private cellar dining room with wall to wall glass enclosed jade figurines. ìSidewaysî meets ìRaiderís of the Lost Arkî.
Sitting in a large round booth in the mezzanine of Akwa in Santa Monica Thursday night, I couldnít help but think of the Imperial Dynasty with its spectacular and incongruous aspects. Incongruous because Akwaís sheer size and layout, like those before it, make it seem like two separate restaurants. The downstairs dining room now has a sushi bar with bold oddly cut pieces of bamboo guarding the large windows while the upstairs continues to draw with its cool bar, that famous jellyfish tank, and a magnificent patio now covered with clear tenting and hanging Oriental lanterns. It remains one of the townís grandest party spaces. A recent thread here asked for a sushi restaurant with a dramatic setting. Surely, none can be more dramatic than this.
I was particularly fond of Union, the former restaurant, especially early on with its uptown jazzy setting and straightforward inexpensive take on American regional cuisine. Akwa, though, makes its own mark and our dinner was quite good. In fact, it was excellent. From the regular dinner menu, we started with hamachi sashimi with bonito flakes and a halibut carpaccio that was spiked with jalapeno and cilantro. Both were $14, I believe, and delicious. I loved the heat and bright flavors. We continued with a generous lobster salad for $18 and very good crab cakes for $12 that were dense with crab. I ordered the special mushroom crusted halibut for $28, served over a celery root puree with rapini. The fish was excellent with the mushroom crust more a buttery duxelle and the rapini rapt with garlic. The third in our party, the sushi aficionado, wanted only sushi. The full menu is available everywhere while the sushi is rumored to be only downstairs but he had no prob!
lem procuring a virtual platter of about twenty five pieces! Nothing too exotic but nicely presented seabass, ahi, snapper, mackarel and the Akwa roll with tempura shrimp and crab. The sushi chef, Taka (?), came from Matsuhisa and Fortunata (?) the executive chef from Yamashiro.
Dessert was the biggest surprise: a bento box containing a chocolate truffle cake with the traditional molten center, vanilla bean ice cream and an intensely rich berry sauce that all worked beautifully. A yuzu granite was served in a martini glass topped with finely chopped fresh fruit and a raspberry tart had a perfect crust with an unexpected crËme brulee topping. All were priced at $9 each. Apparently Takaís wife is the pastry chef and they were all first rate ñ familiar elements done right. The Weddell reserve pinot noir for $15 a glass is one of the best and was loved by those who had it. The final bill was $230 before tip for three with a lot of bottled water, wines by the glass and one beer. Service was gracious and knowledgeable with the only lapse, not surprisingly, coming from the coordination of the sushi from the packed bar downstairs.
My two generous friends dine here regularly and it was fun to live vicariously through their recent jet setting adventures: the five hour lunch with the De Laurentiisís at Per Se (ìremarkableî), a dinner at Quattro Passi near Capri where you arrive by boat (ìsublimeî), a birthday dinner at Spago (ìgreat fun but why do they keep you waiting for your table when the room is half empty?î). As we exited into the night, I had long forgotten about Hanford, but was transported nonetheless.