Frenzy Sushi - Costa Mesa
I've never met anyone so passionate about a restaurant as Chubbypanda is about Frenzy Sushi. He's its biggest fan and most ardent champion.
So when he invited a few of us to dinner there last month, it was the equivalent of going on a Manolo Blahnik shopping spree with Carrie Bradshaw herself.
I don't know or care about women's shoes, but I adore sushi. And I knew immediately that we were in good hands when I sat down at the bar and saw how giddy Chubbypanda was. He had an easy rapport with John, Frenzy's owner and chef -- the kind fostered by mutual trust and respect between patron and sushi master.
Naturally, we surrendered all ordering duties to him, which gave me time to admire the surroundings.
In a stripmall among other stripmalls that dot Costa Mesa's 17th Street, we were in an eatery which billed itself as "Frenzy, Sushi Gone Wild." With its slapdash of a space -- lit brightly using rainbow spotlights and a framed photo of a kitten wielding a samurai sword -- the decor exuded the casual and the brazenly untraditional, matching John's surfer-dude attitude and plain black t-shirt attire.
But despite the words "Gone Wild" sprawled out on the marquee outside, the night was all about taste. Tasty food, that is.
He started us off with the amberjack belly (hamachi), which was marbled like a fine piece of Kobe beef and melted like ice cream in our mouths.
Smelt was stuffed to obscene proportions with its own roe, then grilled over fire until the skin blistered. Head, tail, and everything in between were eaten whole after a drizzle of lemon and a dip in mayo. As I chewed, the fish eggs scattered in thousands of tiny pellets, bouncing off the walls of my mouth like naughty kids in a bounce house.
The next course used the leftover skeleton of the hamachi, deep fried in hot fat. The process rendered the fish bones edible, producing golden brown shards so addictively crunchy it should be criminal. The dish was finished with a splash of tart ponzu and a garnish of green onions.
Cajun tuna tataki came lightly torched, crusted with spices, and dressed with more ponzu. It was a delicate balancing act of the spicy with the sweet, the sour with the rich, the cooked with the raw.
The fried calamari, however, was slicked with fry oil, leaving the cilantro garnish to wick away most of the grease.
Shumai and gyoza also made an appearance, going down fast and easy without leaving an indelible impression.
But the pieces of bluefin nigiri did. Silken in texture and milky in flavor, this would be my preferred source of Omega-3 fatty acids.
While the chicken karaage wasn't a poor rendition, it didn't win me over since I make this dish quite competently myself. It was neither crispy nor hot, and just distracted from the sublime sushi John was churning out.
Bluefin sashimi, cut from the same specimen as the nigiri that came before, got things back in order. Fattier, with a demure pink color of cherub, it slid down our gullets with nary a blink. Creamy, tangy, unblemished by fire, untouched by the frying pan, this was tuna as nature intended for it to be consumed: crystal fresh and raw.
The next dish was one of Frenzy's signatures, and one of its most successful. Called Biwa, it's a quail egg hugged by a layer of diced shrimp, deep fried in tempura batter. This bastard offspring of a Scotch egg and shrimp tempura would've made both of its parents proud.
"Baked butterfish saikyo miso" was one of the lovelier cooked dishes to come our way and a favorite with the group. A miso-marinated fish filet was broiled briefly to get the sugars to lightly char, and had flesh so soft it felt like pudding.
Shucked fresh from its shell and mounded on top of nori and rice in ribbons were the odds-and-ends of the scallop anatomy -- a crunchy and hauntingly sweet piece of sushi.
The scallop steak, the filet mignon of the same bivalve, was served soon afterward draped on a ball of molded rice. The flesh colored strip was almost pornographic on the pedestal, and even more so as it lithely shimmied around my mouth.
So far, the sushi we saw was a lesson in restraint and simplicity. Then came the Firecracker Roll; a lesson in excess. As busy and flamboyant as a Mardi Gras float, it contained tempura shrimp, hamachi, crab, mayo, hot sauce, nori, rice, and seaweed powder. All contributed to a rush of textures and a surge of flavor in a creation which overwhelmed by design, but brilliant precisely because of it.
Horse mackerel (aji) returned to tradition. Crowned with a dollop of radish and scallions, dribbled with sauce, it tasted of mild sardine.
After it was stripped of meat, the carcass of the fish was also fried to a golden brown, dressed in the same manner as the hamachi bones we consumed earlier in the evening. I enjoyed it, of course, since I'm a fried fish bones junky.
Mackerel (saba) seemed like it was lubed in melted butter, with oil secreting out naturally from its pores even in death. Unctuous, rich, and salty, this was a decadent treat.
At this point, our stomachs were an inch away from bursting, but even as we cried for mercy, John said, "One more". We relented when he showed us a palette of sexy, fresh Santa Barbara sea urchin. And if there's one thing I'll always agree to, it's uni. The cold, sweet, slobbery gonads of the spiny sea creature was just as good for dessert as pumpkin pie.
As promised, it was a blow out of a meal (though reasonable at $55 per person before tip), chased by sake and fun.
Frenzy, Sushi Gone Wild
369 E. 17th St. #17
Costa Mesa, CA 92627
To read Nguyen's report of the dinner:
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