Sushi Wasabi - Tustin
When foodies talk about who does the best traditional sushi in Orange County, three names will inevitably rise to the top: Shibucho in Costa Mesa, Kasen in Fountain Valley, and Sushi Wasabi in Tustin.
Among those, the one that usually floats above the cream is Sushi Wasabi. Whether it is the best or not, Chowhounds, Yelpers, and food critics agree on one thing: the owner and chef is a die-hard stalwart of tradition -- a lone samurai standing in defense of an artform under attack from all sides. After all, everyone does sushi these days, or some form of it, but not everyone can be called an itamae.
Sushi Wasabi's Katsu Aoyagi is, in the truest sense of the word. And he's as serious as one gets.
In fact, he is so rigorously old-school, his reputation precedes him.
How so? Both he and Shibutani-san of Sushi Shibucho will refuse to make you a California roll, but only Katsu-san puts it in writing.
His mission statement -- scrawled in calligraphy and framed next to his sushi bar -- reads:
TRADITIONAL SUSHI BAR
We follow the art of traditional sushi practice. Sushi bar is limited to the fresh catch of the day - continually served. No need to place an order. We offer sushi and hand rolls of Japanese tradition. (No California rolls. If self selection is preferred, please be seated at a table.)
SUSHI BAR IS "OMAKASE" STYLE. TRUST ME.
We sat and almost automatically, our "omakase" dinner began.
With his face hidden beneath a baseball cap, he toiled with quiet concentration and made eye contact only when he presented each course. When he did, he uttered a few proud words to tell us about what the item was and where it came from.
Chilled Canadian albacore steaks was his first offering, soaking in a puddle of tart ponzu and sliced scallions. This was followed by big eye tuna from Tahiti -- a cut of soothing coolness that made me shiver. Any fresher and he'd need a spear and scuba gear.
After that, it was a creamy New Zealand red snapper, served with spritz of ponzu. The piece, like the tuna that came before, featured loosely-packed and smaller-than-normal balls of rice. This was deliberate, since the rice was meant to function as a chaser to the fish, not the other way around.
Next was the item for which he is most well-known: the blue crab hand roll. It's from Texas, he told us, and there were gobs of it -- enough to fill a cup -- dressed in mayo and wrapped with rice inside crispy nori. Sweet and unbelievably succulent, it was worth its weight in gold.
About now, more customers trickled in. Soon, there would be no empty bar seats left. But Katsu-san's pace and output was not slowed. We watched in slack-jawed amazement as this sushi dynamo served ten people, by himself, remaining as cool as his cucumber rolls.
His method wasted no movement, and employed fish he'd pre-cut beforehand. It is this fact, however, that provides the few Sushi Wasabi detractors ammunition against him.
But pre-cut or not, the next piece he gave us was dreamy. It was the back and stomach of a yellowtail from Japan; a slab of flesh so rich and fatty, it filled my mouth like Häagen-Dazs. He followed this with a hot dish; tender scallops baked with onion strands and mayo, splashed with ponzu.
Then, it was chopped toro nigiri, which reminded me of Hawaiian shaved ice since it melted cooly on my tongue like a snow cone. Afterwards, there was Santa Barbara uni. Jiggly and blubbery, the warmth of the rice hastened its transformation into a custardy mouthful of liquid.
He hand-formed Scottish salmon into aerodynamic bullets, topping it with sweet sea kelp and toasted sesame seeds. Its oily unctuousness prepared us for what was to come: bulbous Kumamoto oysters from Seattle that burst like a sea-water-filled balloons.
The next course that came was albacore stomach sack, which I ate without remembering to take a picture. But it, too, was doused in ponzu sauce, like the oysters.
By then, I realized I'd discovered my only problem with the meal: his repetitive use of ponzu was beginning to fatigue my palate.
He didn't relent with the final course, either. A thick and firm Japanese scallop was also brushed with the same, citrusy brew.
We threw in the towel at that point -- not because I was afraid there would be more ponzu, but because our bellies were close to exploding.
The total per person was $71.33 before tip, which was just about what we expected for a meal we expected to love. And we did love it...though not as much as Katsu-san seemed to love ponzu.
14460 Newport Ave # E
Tustin, CA 92780
*Want other perpectives? Read reviews by Gustavo Arellano, KevinEats, and Julian Hsu.
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