|Newly opened in the Orchard Hills Shopping Center off Portola Pkwy and Culver Drive, Ayame is a Japanese sushi bar and restaurant by the folks that brought us Zipangu. We ended up there in our neverending search for a decent neighborhood sushi joint, which gained new urgency now that Wasa in the Irvine Marketplace is temporarily closed.|
A small, bright, almost bubbly kind of decor appears to be as close to the opposite of dark, wooden, Zipangu (the restaurant names also occupy opposite ends of the alphabet), with its polished glass sushi bar and brightly lit soffit. The itamae we sat with spoke fluent Japanese with his mates, but told us he'd previously done time in Nashville. Nashville! After we talked about how much nicer the weather is here, I asked him how fresh the fish could possibly be in Nashville, and he shook his head sadly.
The sushi is fresh, nicely prepared, and the wait staff is friendly. However, selection is a bit limited if you're only into raw fish: they have the usual standards of tunas, salmon, halibut, etc., but less in the way of more exotic fresh fish and shellfish. I tend to rate the regular kinds of sushi by the maguro, on a scale of color, translucence, and heft. Basically 0 is your variants of inedible, from lack of freshness to overabundance of gristle. 1 is your Todai brand of almost FD&C Red #40, with such airy lack of substance that if you squint, you can almost see the rice through the tuna. 10 is your deep ruby red exterior with almost a purple-red interior, and a marbled sparkly sheen, that so often seems restricted to Bluefin Tuna, and when you bite it, it's almost like there's the barest hint of carbonation in a texture that is simultaneously spongy, melty, and hefty. On that scale, Sushi Wasabi is an 8, and Ayame a 5, which puts it squarely in the corner sushi place realm, not in the aspiration to greatness realm.
They did have, interestingly, a basket of fresh (live?) shrimp sitting atop the bar from which they quickly shelled, cooked, and made shrimp sushi and deep fried shrimp heads for us. Very flavorful. Their uni was passable, and most fish was more serviceable than outstanding. This is the kind of place we'd choose if we were short on time (it's almost walkable from here), impatient (it hasn't been discovered by the massive hordes yet), and with the kids. They only have one high chair right now though- something I suspect they'd fix if we overwhelmed them with family diners.. and who are they kidding really? That whole area is primed with young children. Wasa never has less than one high chair scooted up to the bar, no less, every time I've been there.
Prices are indicative of what is likely to be massive per sq.ft. rents in one of the newest centers in one of the newest developments in Irvine, which, according to the last homefinder email I received today (enough already! I live here already! I'm not moving again at least until home prices stop their freefall), is in the Irvine Unified School District and Northwood High boundaries. Unfortunately, living in a nice place, and finding an affordable sushi restaurant nearby seem to be somewhat mutually exclusive. It's not to say it's outrageously expensive, just a bit more than I'd expect: sushi prices almost all from $4 and up.
However, they do have a fairly nice kitchen menu: their monkfish liver is paired with something they call a ponzu jel'ee which really brings out the flavor. Their prime tenderloin with foie gras had a well done sauce on it, some kind of jus reduction that went perfectly with the tender buttery softness of the filet. The foie gras, well, we could've stood for it being slightly less cooked.
I think the menu items that sold my wife on this place, though, were the desserts. There was a nice green tea mousse type dessert, some ice cream for the kids, and a sampler plate that had a variety of them, including a rich chocolate cake. Japanese places tend not to do dessert well, and Wasa and Ayame appear to be two exceptions. (We went for years, maybe close to twenty years, to a restaurant called Noshi Sushi in Los Angeles, maybe a couple, few times a month, and every time, my dad insisted on asking for "green tea ice cream" for dessert at the end of the meal, knowing they didn't have it, hoping one day they'd get the hint: they never did.)
Orchard Hills Village Center
3923 Portola Pkwy
Irvine, CA 92602