Lunch at Cafe Hiro, just like dinner, starts with a velvety smooth, pureed vegetable soup of the day. Some days it can be carrot, other days it's white potato touched with a hint of curry. My favorite is the sweet potato soup, an addictive elixir with the color of muted adobe. Each warm and silken spoonful envelops the tongue in a comforting embrace of starch and sweetness.
The soup is quickly followed by refreshing salad of greens, served on a chilled plate. The fresh cold crunch of butter lettuce and baby greens is dressed with a pulpy concoction harboring the sharp bite of ginger, the acidic tang of citrus fruit, and the salty funk of miso. It's a brisk wake-up call to the palate, like a dunk in an ice cold bucket of water.
Next is the entree, which includes roasted potatoes and a cold noodle salad. The chef likes to be creative with the spuds, giving it an unexpected dimension of flavor. Some days, he glazes it with a candy-sweet coating of caramel. On others, it's dusted with the spicy wallop of curry powder. The spaghetti noodles, on the other hand, are always dressed in a tangy cream sauce and studded with sesame seeds. After these two mainstays, all that is left for us to do is to pick the main entree. For this, we're given the choice of a few constants that appear on the regular menu and one special item of the day.
One entree, which is always available on the lunch menu, is the Pork Katsu. This cut of lean pork is prepared in the classic style, breaded with a Panko crust and deep-fried until golden. Although I sometimes find it chewy and bland, the accompanying vessel of homemade tonkatsu sauce makes up for any shortcomings. This dark, gloopy brew has the consistency of tar and a taste similar to steak sauce if it had soul.
For the Sauteed Jidori Chicken entree, Chef Ohiwa takes a tender piece of the thigh meat and cooks it on a hot saute pan until the skin is rendered of fat and transforms into a shiny and crisp jacket. The finished chicken steak is then lacquered in a sweet and sour reduction, with echoes of pineapple.
On the day that I had my camera, the special item was Korean BBQ Beef -- his rendition of bulgogi. Tender strips of marinated steak is cooked on a griddle with onions and finished with soy sauce, sugar, and sesame oil. The bold flavor of this dish demands steamed rice, which, of course, was provided.
After our lunch, we can never skip dessert, no matter how stuffed we are. The Panna Cotta is strikingly presented in a martini glass and garnished with fresh berries. This cold, creamy delight is the offspring of a happy marriage between Jell-O pudding and Jell-O gelatin. It quivers and jiggles like the latter, but fills the mouth in a dream-like ooze like the former.
The most intriguing dessert however is the Green Tea Blanc Manger. The usual first impression upon seeing it is fear. What is that dark and dangerous liquid anyway? It looks like swamp sludge.
In reality, it's just a thin layer of matcha -- Japanese green tea. Directly beneath is a soft custard. Then, buried deep below the custard, on the bottom of the vessel, is a dollop of sweet red bean. The trick is to dig in, through the different strata of ingredients, and get a taste of everything in each spoonful.
10509 Valley View St
Cypress, CA 90630