Monday, June 30, 2008

Top Class Sushi... in Orange County(!) - Maki Zushi

I still remember reading Das Ubergeek's ebullient review of a new Sushi Restaurant in Orange County back in February 2008. And when Das Ubergeek speaks it must be something noteworthy. :) Then I glanced at their website which looked like some crazy Fusion Sushi restaurant and I hesitated. Flash-forward to mid-June, and I finally remembered Maki Zushi and happened to have been in the area for lunch. I stepped inside and grabbed a seat at the counter with a few friends.

At first glance at the Lunch Menu and the paper Sushi Menu, I was flabbergasted: I saw the typical gaijin menu items like "Chicken Teriyaki" and the Sushi Menu in front of me had 50 (FIFTY) different types of crazy Rolls. Then again, this restaurant's name was "Maki Zushi" (which means "Rolled Sushi"), which would explain this. Did Das Ubergeek write down the wrong restaurant name? This place serves all these Crazy Rolls... how in the world could it serve real, authentic sushi?!

But then I saw the board behind the sushi bar listing some rare fish and lots of fresh seafood, even stating the country it was flown in from. This could be good. And then all my fears were laid to rest: I was greeted by a jovial, friendly Itamae - Chef Yoshio Sakamoto - who runs Maki Zushi. I introduced myself to Sakamoto-san in Japanese and let him know that we’d be putting our dining experience in his hands: “Omakase kudasai.”

I then noticed as I turned over the paper Sushi Menu that the *other* side of the menu was the front side of the paper menu, listing in big, bold letters "HARDCORE SUSHI" and then listing a beautiful, long list of authentic, rare fish and seafood. Whew! At the same time, I noticed the logo on the chopsticks in front of me:

Intrigued, I asked Sakamoto-san about the name and why he serves both types. He stated that all the serious Sushi Restaurants in Southern California only serve traditional, authentic Sushi, and that he wanted to open a restaurant that could cater to both crowds (the truly authentic diehard Sushi fans, and more mainstream customers who loved rolls), and he wanted to *excel* at both facets. Through the course of my visits I noticed that his assistant, Robert, spends 100% of his time on the Fusion Rolls, while Sakamoto-san prepares the authentic Sushi.

We started with some complementary Wasabi Kyuuri (Wasabi-marinated Cucumbers), which looked innocuous enough, but had nice, spicy kick to them. Each bite was filled with the refreshing flavors of very fresh Cucumber and sinus-clearing Wasabi. :)

I saw the Wasabi paste and felt a little saddened that there wasn’t fresh-grated Wasabi. That disappointment didn’t last very long as within a minute or so, Sakamoto-san put out a small plate of what at first looked like salsa verde. He smiled and said, “Hon Wasabi (Real Wasabi).” I dabbed my chopsticks in the mixture and tasted it... Wow! Wonderfully spicy and so fresh! Sakamoto-san’s Hon Wasabi was a mixture he created of finely-diced Wasabi Root (instead of grating), mixed with a little Garlic.

And then Sakamoto-san proceeded to blow us away with the very first dish: Hamachi Toro(!) (Yellowtail Belly) from Tsukiji, Tokyo, Japan. I’ve never had Hamachi Toro before, so this was a real treat right from the start. I also noticed the cut was different from what I normally have for Edomae style Sushi. I picked up the first piece and placed it in my mouth and closed my eyes…


As the wave of euphoria from the buttery goodness washed over me, I could tell that this was going to be a special place already. Simply amazing. I love Hamachi (Yellowtail) in general, but this ultra-soft, wonderful Hamachi Toro was on another level.

Next were Kanpachi (Amberjack) and Shima Aji (Yellowjack) flown in from Tsukiji, Tokyo, Japan. From the Hamachi Toro and now the Shima Aji and Kanpachi, I could start to appreciate Sakamoto-san’s knifework, presenting the fish with no tendon or gristle, and with the draped cut of fish sliced in the best way to showcase its idiosyncratic strengths and characteristics. Each piece of the Kanpachi was flawless: Wonderfully toothsome, but not chewy, Sakamoto-san showcased a side of Kanpachi I never experienced before at Sushi Zo or Urasawa. It was firm, yet supple, and wonderfully fresh. It’s not “better” or “worse,” but it was really nice to see the characteristic of the fish augmented by some great knifework.

And the Shima Aji was another excellent piece of fish. While less toothsome than the Kanpachi, it was still very fresh, and sweet and buttery, almost like Toro. I enjoyed Sushi Zo’s version better, but this was very good.

In my conversations with Sakamoto-san, he explained to me that Maki Zushi (Sakamoto-san) serves up Kansai-style preparation for Nigiri Sushi (he wasn't referring to Oshizushi, which is the more famous Pressed Sushi, but his philosophy for his cuts of fish and the rice), which is pretty rare in Southern California (this basically means a sweeter, less salty rice (compared to traditional Edomae style Sushi, and a longer, draped cut of fish). Sakamoto-san was born in Nara, and trained in Osaka before leaving Japan. As a true Osakan, he insisted I visit Osaka on my next Japan trip and try their Ramen, Takoyaki and Okonomiyaki, "Better than Tokyo!" he said, half-jokingly (^_^).

Next up was Hon Maguro (Bluefin Tuna) (literally "True Tuna") flown in from Morocco, Africa. This was definitely a welcome surprise: A deep, stunning Red (much deeper than the regular Maguro) is one of the characteristics of Hon Maguro, and the taste was excellent as well: Very tender, and while still “melt-in-your-mouth” good, it was firmer than the usual Maguro you find around town, but still supple.

Continuing on was Sakamoto-san's Otori Amaebi (Live Sweet Shrimp) from Santa Barbara, California. The playful Japanese name is in reference to the Uzura (Quail Egg Yolk) topped on the Live Sweet Shrimp! Sakamoto-san (like Urasawa) pulled out some Live Amaebi from a tank and showed them twitching before dispatching them. Wow, talk about decadent and *so* good! The Amaebi was flawless, lightly sweet, and a wonderful texture and preparation from Sakamoto-san, and for the piece with the Quail Egg, as the yolk broke, it combined perfectly with the inherent creaminess of the Amaebi and made for a wonderful new experience.

Next up was Tairagai (Halfmoon Scallop) from Tokyo, Japan. Seeing the shell that it was wonderfully presented in, I could see that this was the same type of Tairagai I had at Sushi Mizutani and at Sasabune, where it was translated as “Pen-Shell Clam.” Regardless of its name, it was a rare treat, and a welcome one, especially for Orange County. The Tairagai was fresh and firm, but softer than Mirugai. I preferred the version I had at Sasabune, but especially the one at Mizutani over this. Still this version was excellent!

At this point, the Amaebi Heads came out of the kitchen, deep-fried so that the entire head was a chunk of edible, crunchy, savory goodness! :)

Continuing on, Aji (Spanish Mackerel) from Tsukiji, Tokyo, Japan was presented to us. It was a different cut of Aji than what was served to me at Mori and Urasawa, this one being closer to the skin, but still very good. The wonderful mesmerizing oils from the Spanish Mackerel came through, and was almost as buttery as Toro. There was also a small piece of tendon/gristle in the second piece of Aji I had, something Sakamoto-san missed. Mori and Urasawa have a better cut and knifework (flawless), but this is the best I’ve had for Orange County and third best overall.

The Hotategai (Live Scallop) from Boston came next. Beautiful presentation (again) by Chef Sakamoto, with the fresh Scallops presented in a shell, atop slices of Lime. While Lime was never squeezed on the Scallops, the proximity to them (just resting on top of them) gave an interesting accent of citrus to the creaminess and inherent sweetness of the Hotategai.

Aoyagi (*Live* Surf Clam) from Boston was yet another nice presentation in its shell by Sakamoto-san. Having it from fresh live Surf Clam, it had a real freshness that surpassed most restaurants I’ve tried this at, better than Zo’s, and second only to Urasawa. Very well done.

On the same plate, Sakamoto-san presented Tai (Red Snapper) from Tokyo, Japan. It was presented with a bit of Shiso leaf underneath as well. This had to be one of the best examples of Sakamoto-san’s knifework yet. Flawless Tai, no tendon/gristle, and the cut he prepared for us showcased the firmness of the Red Snapper, while giving way to a tenderness that made it enjoyable to eat (with very little chewiness). It was a perspective of Tai I've never had before. This is the best Tai I’ve had in Southern California, surpassing Urasawa.

At this point we were done. We were full, and told Sakamoto-san we were OK to stop here, but he had one more surprise for us: Sakamoto-san (in true, excellent Itamae fashion) noticed our reaction when we first ate the Hon Maguro, and prepared a final dish to end the Nigiri course: Uni to Hon Maguro (Bluefin Tuna topped with Fresh Sea Urchin)! The Uni was from San Diego, California, and the Hon Maguro was from Morocco. This was just decadent absurdness, but it was SO good! (^_^) The creamy sweetness of the Uni combining with each bite of the Hon Maguro was wonderful!

At this point, Sakamoto-san proceeded to bring out a few Dessert surprises to finish off the meal (the first two were complementary). First up was the Aji no Hone Senbei (Spanish Mackerel Bone Senbei “Rice” Cracker)! This is Sakamoto-san’s freshly made, intriguing take on the classic Japanese Senbei (crunchy rice crackers, usually savory with a light soy sauce taste), only here, he made it fresh by frying the Bones of Spanish Mackerel at such a high temperature that it made the fish bones completely brittle, crispy, and crunchy! When I bit into it, it really tasted like I was eating a Fish Senbei Rice Cracker, only it was made completely from the Spanish Mackerel Bones! Wow.

Next was Live Scallop Muscle Sauteed with Enoki Mushrooms. This was basically the Muscle surrounding the Live Scallop he served earlier, sauteed with some Soy Sauce, Mirin and Enoki Mushrooms. It had a nice flavor, but was very chewy (makes sense considering this was the muscle). Considering it was just a playful complementary dish for us, I had no complaints.

Our last two desserts came at the same time. First up was the Coffee Jello and Kahlua Ice Cream. This looked like a simple scoop of ice cream with a dark bottom center, but the taste was really surprising: The Kahlua Ice Cream was rich and so fragrant with the Kahlua mixed in, and then paired with bits of the Coffee Jello made for a nice ending to the meal.

The final dessert was a Green Tea Crème Brulee sprinkled with Almond Roca. Beautifully prepared, with a nice top layer, perfectly heated, it was nice and light (using the Green Tea), and it turned into decadence with the bits of Almond Roca combined in each bite.

On another visit, Sakamoto-san wowed us with a nearly completely different set of items! As I sat down, Sakamoto-san greeted me with a wave from a *Live* Soft Shell Crab from Rhode Island. The dish looked gorgeous, prepared from the Live Crab within minutes, and taking a bite… it was *so* naturally sweet and delicious! Something you can only get from very fresh Crab meat. It was perfectly fried, and with the Masago (Smelt Roe) it was divine! (^_^)v

The next item just continued to be more mind-blowingly wonderful: *Live* Uni (Sea Urchin) from Santa Barbara! Imagine my shock when Sakamoto-san pulled out a *still moving, live* Uni in front of me! (O_o) Within minutes, he had cracked it open and served me Uni that was alive *minutes* beforehand. This was going to be fresh: And indeed this was *so* creamy and wonderfully fresh, it was nearly flawless. I'd rate it a 99.9% Fresh. Those that've read my reviews know that most Uni served in Southern California restaurants rates about a 50% (basically *really* Briny, Fishy, and Gross). I docked off a 0.1% because on some of the pieces there was just a tiny, tiny touch of Fishiness, and considering it was just alive minutes before, I can only chalk this up to the polluted waters off of our California coast. :( And after having 100% Fresh at Mizutani, I'm spoiled a bit. (^_~) But this amazingly fresh Uni surpassed all the other Sushi restaurants I've been to in Southern California.

Continuing on, Sakamoto-san presented us with Sazae (Turban Sea Snail) from Tsukiji, Tokyo, Japan. This was a visually arresting plating, showcasing the Sazae in its beautiful shell, with the meat being chopped into bite-sized chunks. It was my first time eating Sazae, so this was another treat. It had a nice bite and crunch with each piece, toothsome and interesting. It's softer than say, Escargot.

Next up was Inada (Baby Yellowtail), also from Tsukiji, Tokyo, Japan. The Inada was absolutely heavenly, with a very nice cut showcased here, highlighting the firmness of the fish, but still so supple.

On this visit to Maki Zushi, Sakamoto-san had his kitchen make us a Fresh Miso Soup with the Amaebi (Live Sweet Shrimp) Heads, combined with some fresh Mirugai (Geoduck)(!), Daikon, Shiromiso, and other ingredients. It was excellent and soul warming.

Continuing on was Sayori (Needlefish) from Tsukiji, Tokyo, Japan. The presentation was striking, with the Sayori head presented along with the Sayori Nigiri itself, topped with some Ikura for good measure. :) It was extremely fresh, but I would say Mori's Sayori edges this one out by just a touch (on knifework and taste), and Sushi Mizutani is in another league, but this was wonderful to have, especially in Orange County.

The next piece (still unique from what I had from previous visits!) was Kinmedai (Alfonsino) also from Tsukiji, Tokyo, Japan. Kinmedai is pretty rare at most Sushi restaurants around Southern California, so it was a nice treat to have here. The Kinmedai was really standout in its texture, so fresh as well.

Sakamoto-san didn't have any Ohtoro that day, but he presented us with Shiro Maguro Toro (Albacore Tuna Belly) from Canada. It was sweet, rich and buttery - not as decadent as Ohtoro, but still very nice - with just one tiny piece of tendon/gristle in the last piece I had, but otherwise very nice. It was much better than the version I had at Sushi Wasabi as well.

As if I had seen it all, Sakamoto-san next presented us with Aji (Spanish Mackerel) from Tokyo, Japan, in an absolutely stunning presentation: The Aji was filleted and presented with its head and tail on a beautiful bamboo stand. Sakamoto-san also presented two different Ponzu sauces (both in-house made: one with a certain type of Sake infused with the Ponzu, the other one a regular Ponzu). While the Aji itself was very fresh and wonderfully presented, the fresh Ginger, Negi and Daikon overpowered the taste of the Aji. It was beautiful and fresh, but Mori and Urasawa were better.

Continuing on were fresh Kumamoto Oysters from Washington state, including 2 Special Oysters (more on this later). The Kumamotos were perfectly fresh and flawless, no complaints. The 2 "Special Oysters" were another playful gesture from Sakamoto-san: Kumamoto Oysters topped with Ikura (Salmon Roe), Masago (Smelt Roe), Uni (Sea Urchin) and Uzura (Quail Egg)! (O_O) This was pure excess and decadence, but it was SO DELICIOUS! The sweetness from the Fresh Uni, the creaminess of the Uzura, the saltiness of the Ikura and Masago and all combined with the fresh Kumamoto... it was a flavor explosion of goodness. :)

We ended with Tamago (Egg), to see how Sakamoto-san's Tamago compared to my all-time favorites. It was a good Tamago, nice layering, not too thick nor dense, lightly sweet, but it fell short of the Tamago from Mori, Urasawa, and especially Mizutani.

Service (from the waitstaff besides Sakamoto-san) was decent, with the waiters and busboys busy just trying to keep up with the lunch crowd for each of our visits. Sakamoto-san was wonderful, though, always attentive to our needs and checking in to make sure we were OK. We averaged $120 per person (including tax and tip), with no alcohol, so at that range it's more expensive than Sasabune or Nozawa, and about the same range as Sushi Zo for price.

Maki Zushi is a wonderful discovery for Southern California, and especially Orange County, featuring some truly top quality, authentic Sushi from Chef Yoshio Sakamoto. Sakamoto-san presents an interesting Kansai-style philosophy to the traditional Nigiri Sushi, and his knifework and cuts of fish are top-class as well, really showcasing the strengths of each fish. I would say that Sakamoto-san needs to fine tune his pacing a little as during one of our visits he ended up preparing and presenting us with two or three items within minutes of each other, when we were still busy working on the first of the items. Besides that, his knifework still needs a little refinement compared to Mori, Urasawa or Mizutani, but it's still upper echelon in Southern California.

But most importantly, Sakamoto-san is a jovial, friendly Itamae, and someone approachable, down-to-earth, and always aiming to please, unlike some of the more notorious Sushi Chefs around town. Maki Zushi is truly Top Class Sushi, and Orange County's best destination Sushi Restaurant worth visiting regardless of where you are in Southern California.

Rating: 9.0 (out of 10.0)

1641 Edinger Avenue
Tustin, CA 92780
Tel: (714) 259-0783

Hours: Mon - Fri, 11:00 a.m. - 10:00 p.m.
Sat, 12:00 p.m. - 10:00 p.m.
Closed Sundays.


Tangbro1 said...

Hey Exile Kiss,

I am always on the lookout for good sushi in Orange County. After reading your mouth-watering review I think I will be going to Maki Zushi this weekend.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Tangbro1,

Thanks. :) Let me know how your visit goes.

Charlie Fu said...

What was the price for both visits if you don't mind me asking?

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Charlie,

I posted that in my review already :) - we averaged about ~$120 per person (including tax and tip already).

LuccaLucca said...

Wow! I first came across your blog when I was researching places to eat in Tokyo. My husband and I will be there in a couple of weeks and I have a reservation at Mizutani and trying to get one at Ryujin. Needless to say, I was estactic to find out that you live somewhere in So. Cal area. So far we have tried three of your recommends, Shin Sen Gumi, Mitsuwa this past weekend, and Maki Zushi. We loved them all but Maki Zushi was the best. I'll go into details of our meal on another day. Too much to write while at work but I just wanted to say Thanks for all your comments and research. You have made our dining experience a lot of fun. I have a several of questions though..

1. Do you weigh 500lbs?

2. Can you be with someone that was a vegetarian? (not speaking of me).

3. When eating sushi do you put the whole peice in your mouth or bite into it?

4. Do you put soy sauce on your sushi?

5. How do afford to eat all these great meal all the time?

That's all for now.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi luccalucca,

LOL! :) Thanks for your comments and funny questions. :P

1. No, LOL. :P Remember that this Maki review is from multiple visits (and I had companions each time (there's no way anyone can eat this much in one visit :).

3. I may not fit the entire piece of sushi in my mouth in the first bite / at once, but I'll finish one piece without putting part of it back on the dish.

4. It depends on the Itamae and any recommendation they may have.

LuccaLucca said...

Thanks for answering most of my questions. Looking forward to trying some of your other finds. Can't wait to write to you about our Japan trip.

Craig said...

Wow this place looks amazing!

I am curious, have you been to Sushi Sushi in Beverly Hills? I think you would really like it. Here is my yelp review to give you an idea:

I would love to read your review of it... you are the best!

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Craig,

Thank you! :) I've been meaning to try Sushi Sushi for a while, but haven't gotten around to it yet. Thanks.

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