Perfection. Something that we strive to experience, but rarely do. I found it tonight. The perfect sushi experience. NO, its not in New York, Las Vegas, Japan...its right here in OC. South County as a matter of fact. Where everything is about as distinctive as a terra cotta tile roof on a tract home.
I have eaten at so many sushi restaurants over the years. I have eaten at some of the most expensive ones in the United States. Nobu in Los Vegas at $300 a person, Tokyo-Tokyo at the Mandarin Hotel in Honolulu. And believe me the sushi experience was great. But its just as good at Uoko in Lake Forrest at a fraction of the cost.
Sushi Bars are like a favorite drinking bar. Its very personal. Many things besides the food make people recommend an establishment. Uoko has great food, but so much more. Its a DINING EXPERIENCE. The food, patrons, chefs, and ambiance all perform to make this place unmatched. Many sushi places have "fresh fish". Other things are needed to set them apart from the others. Uoko has these things in spades.
I have found 2 kinds of sushi bars. Very traditional ones and very progressive ones that fuse different cuisines into their offerings. I have found that the traditional ones offer excellent quality and I appreciate the strict adherence to custom and decorum. However, the offering sometimes gets boring. The there are the new "fusion" restaurants that offer a progressive, exciting offering, but often times makes you wonder if you are eating at a sushi bar or at a Wolfgang Puck's after Wolfgang got back from Japan and wanted to showcase what he saw on his vacation. No authenticity! Uoko is the perfect blend of the 2. You will feel the creativeness, innovation, and exoticness you crave, and at the same time, the tradition, quality, and authenticity you REQUIRE. Our sushi chef Tomo also exemplifies this. Traditional when needed, but a hell of a lot of fun and engagement as well!
I will concede that places like Nobu fill your senses and ego with the ambiance and atmosphere that is hard to beat. They blast you with rare and exotic delicacies that perpetuate this state of euphoria. Your ego is fed by the "rare" offerings they remind you that you are eating. "I thought this was just an eel"Turns out its some almost endagered species. It tastes good, but is it 50 dollars good for a serving? You tell yourself so to justify the price you paid. But if you ignore the fancy titles (ie "Seasonal Wild Mushrooms that only sprout every 10 years) and close your eyes, and listen with your mouth and not your ears, you will find that the food served at Uoko tastes just as good. I bet if I threw some exotic stories and titles by the dishes, they would taste the same or if not better!
Uoko is in a strip mall in Lake Forrest where Captain Creams is located. I have no idea what goes on at Captain Creams ;). I just hear that people will know where this place is if I threw that name out there. Specials are written on the wall. All Japanese men preparing sushi. Our sushi chef was a younger (34 year old) chef who loves to surf. The patrons consisted of mostly Japanese with several Caucasian people mixed in. Our experience was a whole NIGHT affair. We requested Omakase and let the chef decided what was best. We spent over 3 hours there and Uoko is not just a place where you go for dinner, but where you go to be entertained for the whole evening. We partied with the sushi chefs, drank with them, and engaged with all the other patrons. These people were all complete strangers and by the end of the night it was like we were all long lost friends. I have to admit that this added to the experience and probably is skewing my review!
We had to wait as the place was packed. We arrived at 8:30pm and we noticed Kirin on draft. Most Japanese beer in the US is all brewed in Canada now (check the label) and tastes like Hell. Kirin is the same. But they have it on draft which improves the taste exponentially! We ordered a pitcher and drank while we waited. The waitress brought out soybeans without us asking. We made new friends with others that were waiting. I was actually disappointed when were seated as we were having a great time waiting. But we had to eat at some point!
The first dish was Maguro. Very traditional. But the quality was incredible. The texture was like velvet. What I noticed the most though was the quality of the rice! Such complex yet subtle flavor. I have never eaten sushi where the rice demanded my attention. Tangy and sweet. Firm but with a great mouth feel when you bit through the grains. We also had Toro.. It was like melting butter that was cold. If muguro was like velvet, the toro (from Japan I was informed) was like silk.
Next was Tuna Tetaki sashimi. Perfectly seared with poznu sauce. The combination of velvety textures with firm, dense cooked tuna, with the citrus flavor of the Ponzu combined with the explosion of taste from the thinly sliced onions. Simply incredible!
Next were spicy tuna handrolls. The nori demanded attention this time. The chef told me that the nori they use was selected after sampling many different ones by the nori specialist from their supplier. Similar to a wine tasting. The butteryness of the avocado complimented the tuna perfectly and the crunch of the nori with the cucumber was perfectly matched. Someone knew what they were doing. This was the 3rd tuna dish I had in a row and every tuna dish was like a completely new fish.
Next was an asparagus dish with seasonal mushrooms. I am not sure what kind of mushrooms they were. It tasted like buttered veal. The asparagus was cooked to perfection. Firm and delicate. The buttery sauce was like a liquor produced by the mushroom gods.
I hate shiso. Probably because I don't care for mint. When shiso is servered, its usually raw. When raw its very strong and minty in my opionion. I was worried when they brought his out as I noticed the deep fired shiso leafs. I ate one on its own. When they served it tempura style, there was no trace of that minty flavor. It was incredibly subdued and mild. I could not believe what I was eating. The sushi chef "Tomo" stopped me. He told me I was to put the tuna tartar on it with a slice of avocado and eat it. Euphoria! That's all I can say. All of those flavors working in harmony. Keep in mind that this was the 4th tuna dish I had!! This was the most exciting dish I had that night and this is a testament to their skill at blending traditionalism with contemporary techniques. The orange droplets were a spicy mayonnaise based sauce that took the dish to new levels. So many strong flavors balancing each other out. Tomo told me to brush the bites with the lemon slices. "Don't squeeze..just brush" The ability to infuse so much more flavor from such subtleties blew my mind!
Next were king crab legs that were broiled with a buttery, citrus, garlic glaze. This was to die for. But then again, its pretty hard to screw up King Crab. I was amazed at how much flavor they could bring out with the simplest of ingredients!
Elmomonster recently wrote about Super Corokke. I have been there before and found it average. Not that the place was bad, but how excited can you get over a fritter? They brought this out and I was thinking "oh no.....just what I need, another crab cake slathered in tartar sauce." This dish again floored me. Mild and complex was the crab corokke. But the star was the sauce. It resembled tartar sauce but not as creamy. More chunky. More substance. More complex. It was like a salad you would buy at Bristol Farms or something. Not as strong as tartar sauce. Yet it payed homage to tartar sauce. It complemented the corokke perfectly but did not over power. After finishing the fritter there was a lot of sauce left over. I ended up eating the sauce on its own as it could have easily stood on its own as a chilled salad.
On of the specialties at Uoko are the live Ama Ebi. You can not get them fresher than this. Caught in Santa Barbara. Tomo was gracious enough to pick out one we named "Skippy". Skippy was a girl though. She was loaded with eggs. She was served to me alive with the shell taken off and I was told to bite the tail off while it was alive on my plate. It twitched in my mouth and the whole bar was cheering and toasting me with beer. Sweet, delicate flavor with perfect firm, silky texture. I won't put up photos of this so PETA doesn't come knocking on my door. I apologize to Skippy for such a drawn out death, but then again it is your fault for tasting so good.
The other shrimp was prepared regularly. Tomo name him Steve. He gave me an extra tail for Mrs. Dog as well. We will call him John Doe as he was not named. The heads were deep fried. The roe in Skippy was incredible. Salty goodness that was like a million individual explosions in my mouth! May the 3 of you rest in peace and please know that your deaths were not in vain. You made me very happy that night!
Next was Tako. Perfectly tender. Not too salty like a lot of places. Drizzled with eel sauce. The sweetness was a good call. This was like eating candy. I admired Tomo's skill in bringing me back to "tradition" with this dish.
Next was halibut. Tomo said that I was in for a surprise. I received 2 pieced of Halibut and 1 piece of Halibut fin. The halibut was mild with a slight kiss of ocean saltiness. Hints of lemon and spiciness from the red stuff on it. It had a poznu sauce which opened my taste buds with its citrus magic. The fin might as well have been another species of fish. Chewy and more gelatinous. Served with nothing except a brushing of lemon. I wanted it to keep coming, but I was full. Damn you stomach!
Tomago is typically eaten at the end of a meal. When I try a new sushi bar I usually order it first. Its one of the only things a sushi bar makes. A lot of the other sushi is up to mother nature. If I taste the Tomago and its bad, I will order tempura and udon or I will simply ask for the check. Its a testament to the skills of the sushi chef. I have been known to walk out of a bar after tasting one order of bad tomago. Yes I am a sushi snob. At Uoko, the chef who makes the tomago "brands" his personal seal into the "loaf". It looks like a pieces of branded cattle. Each chef makes it slightly differently with his special recipe. Tomo's tomago is perfect. Not too sweet, but sweet enough. You can fell the many layers as you chew it in your mouth. Surprisingly complex. Flavors of egg, mirin, sake, and sugar danced in my mouth. No need to try this first at Uoko. After this we received the traditional oranges drizzled with plum wine. But in addition we got a log of tempura banana and a scoop of plum wine ice cream.
2 people $83.00 with 2 pitchers of beer that were $15.00 each. I would put Uoko up with the most expensive sushi bars in the world. You may not have the over the top decor of those places, but your taste buds will short circuit your eyes and make you realize that when you eat here...it doesn't matter! When you open your wallet you will be overjoyed because you will still be able to see shades of green. Or was that the 3 pitchers of beer (Tomo bought me one)?
Uoko 23600 Rockfield Blvd, Lake Forest, 92630 - (949) 837-7231