Mitsui - Irvine
In Irvine, there are more Japanese restaurants than there are McDonald's. It's true! My estimate puts sushi bars and Japanese joints outnumbering the Golden Arches by at least ten to seven.
Developers at The Irvine Company must have a standing arrangement that for every shopping center built here, there should be at least one Japanese or sushi bar in it. Some are better than others. And most aren't even owned or operated by Japanese. But you can bet that as Irvine's border expands to meet the proposed Great Park at the former El Toro Airfield, there will be a few more places for citizens to get a California Roll and Teriyaki Chicken.
At the southern border of Irvine, occupying a coveted corner of a neighborhood shopping center, Mitsui is the youngest of the breed. Immaculately designed with jutting bamboo poles acting as room dividers and art, it's the kind of place that serves sushi rolls with inexplicable names like Dejavu, Monkey, and Playboy.
The rest of the menu runs the gamut of Japanese restaurant mainstays and there is, of course, a sushi boat listed among them.
The proprietors of Mitsui know their clientele well. The target market is Quail Hill, a posh new neighborhood that now dots the last undeveloped, grassy hills of Irvine where previously, I assume, there were only quail. And what better way is there for a restaurant to curry the favor of its intended customer base than by serving up something called the Quail Hill Roll.
We didn't try the Quail Hill Roll that night, but it left us wondering if our own neighborhood sushi joint, S. Sushinoya, offered up a Northpark Roll.
Instead, we opted for the familiar Rainbow Roll Combo ($15.95), which was typical of other incarnations I've had before. Shrimp, tuna, salmon, whitefish, and mackerel hugged the top of a California Roll, cut into bite-sized pieces. The ingredients were fresh, cold, and briskly invigorating. It was just the thing to cool down our sweaty heads after the scorcher of a day we endured.
The platter also included four pieces of nigiri which were good, so long as I temporarily erased the memories of omakase at Sushi Shibucho.
Worthy of its name was the Spicy Tuna Roll ($6.95). Each morsel looked like a stunning broach with a red ruby center which packed a wallop of flavor. Its raw tuna nucleus, chopped and mixed with Sriracha, smacked us unexpectedly with its capsaicin punch.
Next up was the House Special Roll ($10.95) which was a California Roll blanketed with thick slabs of albacore, smeared with avocado, sprinkled with shaved red onion and scallions, and finished with a drizzling of mayo-ponzu sauce.
The mass was just about impossible to handle with a chopstick, tumbling like a deck of cards before it reached the vicinity of our lips. But once conquered, it melted in our mouths with ease. The tart sauce complemented the subtle albacore, while the avocado added richness and body.
After the cooling comfort of the sushi rolls, we were ready for the bliss that is deep fried seafood. The Fried Oysters ($5.95) were standard issue, but nonetheless greaseless and golden, freshly plucked from the deep fryer. Dunks in tonkatsu and hot mustard really brought out its briny soul.
We should have stopped there, because the Unagi Tempura Roll ($8.95) disappointed. Eel, crab, smelt roe and avocado was rolled inside sushi rice, which was then coated with tempura batter and deep fried. The resulting dish was dazzling at first, but in the same way deep fried ice cream is dazzling -- a novelty that sounds better on paper than in practice.
The first bite was intriguing, with the hot, crunchy golden crust calling out to itself. But the second was less appealing as I noticed that the heat of the oil had compacted and transformed the sushi rice into an unpleasantly gummy and dense paste. The aforementioned fillings were also similarly beaten into submission, rendering its flavors mute and impotent.
The lesson learned?
Irvine sushi joints: everywhere. Cold sushi: good. Fried sushi: bad.
6731 Quail Hill Pkwy.
Irvine, CA 92603