Thursday, July 12, 2007

Bluefin, Newport Coast

Bluefin is Chef Takashi Abe's restaurant in Newport Coast. I remember when I moved to Irvine, I had read raves about his former restaurant in Newport Beach, the eponymous Abe. But by the time I finally managed to get there, he had recently sold out to a kindly, but less capable restauranteur. The decor on the outside was little bit run-down. I could see cracks in the concrete steps, and rust in the lamps. The dishes there looked like the pictures adorning the walls, carefully prepared and presented dishes, blown up to 11x14. But they tasted like a little something was missing- almost bland. The temperatures were off- sometimes you can guess that a dish should have had hot and cold components, and if they're left just a bit too close together, a bit too long, they become uniformly warm. Not so good. And really, all this did for me was to put a question in my mind about whether the food had been better before or not. Maybe this Abe guy had seen better days.

Those questions were answered the first time I ate at Bluefin. Bluefin was the new restaurant- a bit smaller than the old one, no longer free-standing, but instead a member of the Crystal Cove Promenade. It is a long rectangular space, carved on one side into tables, and on the other into a lengthy sushi bar with a translucent illuminated stone ledge, and a ridged water sculpture behind the chefs. The effect is dark (so much so that I had a bit of difficulty seeing what I was eating, and actually swallowed gold flakes on a dish without being able to appreciate them visually first), modern, and sleek, not at all aged or worn.

The food was sublime. I rate Bluefin at the very top of the contemporary, fusion Japanese cuisine in Orange County (Sushi Wasabi gets that nod for more traditional sushi). We've been there three times now, over the years, the most recent time just this week. Each time we have the omakase, which at Bluefin is a 6-course menu including an appetizer sampler, sashimi salad, two cooked dishes, sushi, and dessert. They differ quite a bit each time, but my wife and I agreed that last night's was the best we've had.

For me, the highlights were the sliced duck breast, held into place by a dollop of mashed potatoes, topped with a rich, soft, perfectly cooked (read: not overcooked) serving of foie gras. I had to deconstruct its tower of greens to eat it, but Miss Manners has my back on that one. Also excellent was the lobster appetizer, which was in a sauce that I still cannot quite describe, other than to say that it was a light cream sauce that accentuated that crisp snap you feel when jawing into a freshly cooked piece of lobster tail. Yum.

My only complaint, if you can call it that, was that the dressing in the sashimi salad, while good, masked a bit the very freshness of the fish included. Several thin slices of hamachi and It almost seems a shame to mask the very high quality of the fish at all, so you can imagine the inner horror I experienced when my neighbor, a very kindly older gentleman, asked Chef Daisuke to chop up "live scallop" (bought live, shucked that very morning, returned to its shell for serving) into little bits, and mix it with lots of green onions, masago, and a spritz of lemon. Any other place, and this would be a great way to enjoy scallop- but it was live, that morning!

In the sushi platter, the stars were the ruby red maguro (tuna), and the smooth uni. This maguro was so richly dense and completely lacking in any kind of fiber, that it almost seemed like it wasn't a fish at all. The uni was clearly uni, but without the fishiness and liquidity that make it unpalatable at lesser places. I traded my piece of mirugai for a second piece of the albacore, which instead of being drenched in ponzu, was topped with almost like a light tartar sauce. It was intriguing, and I wouldn't mind having that again.

Dessert: this was a dollop of vanilla ice cream, served in a tiny fish shaped bowl atop a much larger plate that had berry reductions around its rim. Sharing the plate was a martini glass filled with ever so light clear gelatin that was so soft that it practically melted in my mouth. It was lightly sweetened, had more than a hint of yuzu and alcohol, and was topped with fruit. Like an amuse bouche, but at the end of the meal. A refreshing way to end the meal.

And just so I don't leave my poor neighbor, who actually was very entertaining company, and spoke a few phrases in Japanese surprisingly well ("mou chotto gari kudasai", although I might have chosen "sukoshi"), coming off seeming like a rube, he left us with a parting piece of advice on finding out we were young parents: "If you can teach your kids two things, they'll be fine: one, 'life isn't fair', and two, 'I don't deserve'." I'm still kicking that one around in my head three days later.

Elmomonster's yummy review.

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Comments on "Bluefin, Newport Coast"

Blogger elmomonster said ... (July 13, 2007 at 5:17 AM) : 

Truly one the all time best restaurants in OC.

Blogger elmomonster said ... (July 13, 2007 at 5:17 AM) : 

Great review BTW!

Blogger Julian Hsu said ... (July 17, 2007 at 11:03 AM) : 

Thanks elmo- it's been a while since I've written a review... Bluefin is definitely one of my favorite OC Japanese restaurants, although I still give the edge to kaiseki at Kitayama.

Blogger Chubbypanda said ... (July 17, 2007 at 10:56 PM) : 

That's some excellent child rearing advice. I wish more parents would take it.

Lol. With you and Elmo raving about it, I really should get over there one of these days. Just need to save up some money...

Blogger kdoc said ... (July 19, 2007 at 11:17 AM) : 

I like Bluefin a lot, and agree with most of the superlatives...

Two main complaints:

1) They are consistently very late in seating you despite reservations and they often seat people without any plan. I have seen 2 people seated at a 4-top many times, and often these will be the same people lingering over... nothing, just talking (sorry-having a flashback to a particularly bad experience). I have seen Abe almost yelling and angrily gesticulating at his hostesses over these issues.

Add to this that the space really is very small and there is nowhere to wait, and that can cause a lot of congestion, as well as frustrated customers.

2) The sashimi can be sloppy at times, with large tendons and other rough spots running through it.

However, to me, this is as close to the Matsuhisa experience as it comes in OC.

Blogger Julian Hsu said ... (July 19, 2007 at 2:30 PM) : 

Funny you should mention that, kdoc.. My wife and I were standing outside, watching all the people in there sitting there, doing nothing, for about a half hour before we were seated, although we didn't have reservations.

We were thinking that this kind of thing wouldn't happen in Asia, with the possible exception of dim sum. I don't know- it makes my skin crawl how people will sit there, and navel-gaze four an hour within 10 feet of people who have been waiting excessive amounts of time to eat in a tiny, popular restaurant.

Yes, we know how much you're spending to sit there. No, it doesn't include first and last month's rent for the table you're at. Even if you're drinking Kubota Manjyu.

The tendons, though? That's a shocker. I've had that happen to me at Wasa, which is why I don't order the toro there anymore, but not once at Bluefin as yet.

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