An authentic slice of Japan at Sushi Hana re
The hostess sees me peeking through the window, so she opens the front door. “May I help you?”
“Two for dinner?” I ask. I can see that almost every seat in the restaurant is already taken.
“Just a moment,” she says. She walks across the very small room to whisper something to the chef. He shakes his head from side to side. She returns with an apology written on her face. “I’m sorry. We are full tonight,” she says.
It would be easy to overlook Sushi Hana re, as I did for months. Opened last September, the restaurant is hidden behind The Lab in Costa Mesa in a corrugated tin building that appears to be nothing more than a storage shed. I leave hungry and curious.
I call the next morning to ask about a reservation the following day. Someone I presume is the chef answers the phone. He sounds distracted but cordial. He tells me he can squeeze me in at 6 p.m. but I’ll have to leave by 8 because the restaurant is full already and he really shouldn’t be adding anyone else. “Will you be OK with that?” he asks, apologetically.
When I arrive, the dining room is empty. Hana re is tiny, merely 10 seats at a sushi counter plus two tables off to one side, which apparently are used only when someone prefers, for whatever reason, not to sit at the counter. The capacity remains capped at 10 or so diners at a time.
The sushi counter is a remnant of the former Zipango, whose owner later divided the space into two restaurants. The larger portion of the building is now a trendy poke bar, the yang to Hana re’s yin. The chef is Atsushi Yokoyama, who helped open Zipango years earlier before leaving to work at Bluefin in Crystal Cove, eventually launching his own catering business. He returned to his old stomping grounds last year to helm Hana re.
For the first hour, we have the undivided attention of the chef and two hostesses. The menu is short: a handful of seasonally available sushi and sashimi, plus a few cooked luxuries like foie gras, lobster miso soup and Japanese A5 Miyazaki beef. The menu is prefaced with three boldfaced options for omakase: sushi for $58, the Hana re omakase for $95 or a chef’s omakase, with a market price that starts at $140.
I inquire about the latter. “Sorry. There’s not enough time tonight for the chef’s omakase,” Yokoyama says. “Is the Hana re omakase OK?”
The omakase begins like a traditional kaiseki, with something cold and slippery. It’s a chilled soup, a slightly viscous broth made from squash. At the center of this cold slurry is a nub of steamed shrimp topped with caviar and a single leaf the size of a clover.
The chef watches as we take our first bites. He nods gracefully, smiles, then sets about crafting the next course: a trio of corn custard with snow crab and baby okra, a steamed Japanese conch in its knobby shell, and a lump of octopus sashimi layered with purple shiso and a dollop of Parmesan foam.
Next comes tuna, lightly seared. This is quickly followed by Japanese snapper steamed in dashi broth with shimeji mushrooms. The skin of the fish is vivid pink. The flesh underneath, snowy white. The delicate aroma is held captive by a tight-fitting lid, released under our noses.
The meal progresses quickly while we’re still the only ones in the restaurant: roasted duck with Japanese sweet potato, followed by a series of sushi that includes sea trout, gizzard shad, ten nen aji, shima aji and tachiuo. This is the first time I’ve seen tachiuo anywhere other than Sushi Shunka. It is a fish with a spectacularly menacing face, a surreal, serpent-like creature with big, gnarly monster teeth. Melted to a crisp with the brutal flame of a hand-held torch, the taut white flesh takes on a deeply smoky character that is uniquely delicious.
Halfway through our nigiri, the dining counter suddenly fills up with four other couples, at which point I expect the chef to start rushing. Instead, he becomes the embodiment of Zen as he assembles several plates at once, no two couples’ menus being exactly the same, all the while a constant smile on his lips. The two hostesses gracefully manage the flow, answering the door, offering sake, removing dirty plates, wiping the counter after even the tiniest unseen droplet of soy sauce is spilled.
The meal ends with tamago, a sweet egg omelet. As he did with our first course, the chef pauses what he’s doing, for a split second, to observe. The tamago is sweeter, creamier, silkier than any I’ve ever tasted. It’s more like cheesecake than an omelet – and I love it.
The chef smiles when he sees our reaction.
I’ve since been back for the lengthier menu. I dare not give too much away by detailing every little surprise. Just make sure to ask for the foie gras and the Miyazaki beef, which aren’t necessarily included automatically. And, if it’s still in season, you might want to experience the tori gai, a giant cockle clam from Hokkaido that is delightfully chewy, almost elastic, yet somehow slightly crunchy at the same time. You’ll want to call ahead.
This is without question the most graceful omakase experience in Orange County. It is a restaurant meant for enthusiasts. It is expensive. They don’t make spicy tuna rolls here. They don’t serve boiled edamame. You come to appreciate nuance and subtlety. That said, Hana re does not rise to the ethereal level of, say, Urasawa in Beverly Hills or Masa in New York, but it is very good indeed.
There is simply no other restaurant in OC that reminds me of dining in Japan as much as this place does.
Sushi Hana re, The Lab, 2930 Bristol St., Costa Mesa; 5:30-10 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays 714.545.2800 :: hanaresushi.com