Friday, August 1, 2008

The Ridiculously Affordable and Excellent Japanese Chef's Tasting Menu - Kappo Hana

I remember first hearing about Kappo Hana opening up 2 years ago from a friend, who mentioned that it was "pretty good." At the time I glanced at their website and the menu showed off some classic dishes found at many Kappo restaurants, as well as some of the usual Teishoku (Dinner Sets) found around So Cal. Flash-forward to last week, and I found myself craving food from a good Kappo restaurant, and I suddenly remembered Kappo Hana.

(FYI: The "Kappo" moniker connotes the idea of the Culinary Arts, of a restaurant that's adept at the ability to cut, boil, stew or fry. I suppose it's like seeing a "Bistro" "Cafe" or "Osteria" moniker attached to restaurants from another culinary background in that it denotes a certain type of dining experience.)

Upon being seated and looking at their menu and specials, I found out they served Kamameshi (something like a Japanese Paella)! This is a pretty rare treat in Southern California, with Rice, Vegetables and various Meats or Seafood put together into a "Kama" cooking apparatus and the wooden lid is weighted with a giant stone and the whole thing stewed until ready to eat. I was excited at this prospect and quickly ordered their Seafood Kamameshi while I perused the rest of their menu. (^_^)

What was just as exciting was discovering that Kappo Hana has a portion of the menu that changes almost every day! Chef Eiji Nakakita and his wife (who runs the front of the house), Miki Nakakita, print out an "Ippin Appetizer" menu which reflects whatever dishes the chef creates for that day, depending on what he can source at the time. Very nice. :)

The one final shock that hit me was a small blurb on the back of their menu that mentioned that they also serve Kaiseki meals (labeled by some as "Japanese Haute Cuisine" via an elaborate Chef's Tasting Menu) with a 3 day advanced notice! After the disaster of last month's Kappo Seafood in Torrance, I was hesitant but curious to see how Hana would do (more on this later), but we were trying Lunch first.

The first dish that arrived was off of their Daily Specials menu: Nasu Ebi Hasami Age Oroshi Ni (Stuffed Eggplant with Shrimp). Getting Kappo-type Small Plates for lunch is definitely a rarity in So Cal, so I was excited. :) It was simply and nicely presented, and within the first bite, I could tell that Eiji-san and Kappo Hana were serious contenders: The Japanese Eggplant was layered with freshly ground-up Shrimp (like a sandwich) and then fried together, and then stewed! The Eggplant and Shrimp were a perfect pairing, with the Eggplant retaining some firmness, yet still soft (so it wasn't the typical overcooked mush that's usually attributed to Eggplant), and the broth was delicious! Nice and light, and perfect with some steaming Rice. (^_^)

We also tried their Tori Karaage (Fried Chicken), a classic dish to see how this dish turned out. The Karaage had an excellent, crispy skin; just a touch too salty for my tastes, but decent.

Their Yakitori Tare (Chicken Skewers in a Tare Sauce) arrived next. The Chicken was nicely cooked, still very moist and flavorful, with a good smoky edge. It seemed to be roasted using regular charcoals instead of Japanese Binchotan, but still had a good aroma. The problem was the Tare Sauce, which was more of a Westerniazed Teriyaki Sauce than I'd like. The Chicken itself was great, and next time I'd order it with Shio (Salt) instead of Tare, which would solve that problem. (^_~)

At this point the Seafood Kamameshi (Seafood "Japanese Paella") arrived. It had such a cool, rustic presentation to it! :) Kamameshi was actually a type of cuisine developed out of the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake that struck Japan. In the ensuing days, a restaurant owner gathered whatever ingredients he had on hand and cooked it together with rice in that type of contraption (with a Stone on the lid to keep the pressure up), for all the refugees of the Earthquake. It was from that tragedy that Kamameshi was born.

The Seafood Kamameshi consisted of freshly cooked Rice with Ninjin (Carrots), Eringi (King Trumpet Mushroom), Sansai (Zenmai, Warabi, Kikurage) (Mountain Vegetable mixture), Sake (Salmon), Ikura (Salmon Roe), and Ebi (Shrimp).

Miki-san instructed us to mix all the ingredients together and scoop out the mixture into rice bowls to eat. It was wonderfully delectable and down-to-earth, and soul-warming. This was born out of "refugee food" in a way, but it was the type of comfort food that just warms you up inside, and brings a smile to your face. (^_^)

On another visit, we tried out their Aigamo Ro-su (Tender Young Roasted Duck Cooked in Soy Sauce). The Duck was really tender and flavorful, and sauce on top was a Mirin, Soy Sauce base that added just the right touch of sweetness to the savory Duck.

Their Tebasaki Shio (Chicken Wing, Salt Flavor) was nicely executed as well, similar to the Yakitori we had previously, but instead of the overpowering Tare Sauce, the Shio (Salt) was just the right complement.

Finally, we tried a Kawari Hiyayako (Colorful Cold Tofu, as they labeled it), which was fresh chilled Tofu with Tororo (Grated Japanese Yam), Okura (Okra), Yaki Nasu (Roasted Eggplant), Negi (Green Onions), and Shoga (Ginger). The Chilled Tofu tasted very fresh and paired nicely with each of the facets of the dish, except the Nasu (Eggplant) which had too much of a charred aroma permeating each bite of it. Besides that, the Okura, Tororo, Negi and Shoga really added to this refreshing dish.

This time we tried their Unagi Kamameshi (Freshwater Eel "Japanese Paella"). The Unagi is pretty rich and its juices soaked into the fresh-cooked Rice lending a beautiful unctuous quality to the Rice. :)

With the general quality and skill of the kitchen confirmed, I decided to give their Kaiseki course a try last night. In Japan, Kaiseki is probably the most beautiful and elegant of all the different facets of Japanese cuisine, essentially a detailed, focused "Chef's Tasting Menu" focusing on Plating, Meaning, as well as the actual Taste of the food. Service and Ambiance plays a role in the whole experience as well.

While I knew now (with my previous two visits) that Kappo Hana wasn't going to have the amazing private garden of the 300 year-old, venerable Hyotei, I was eager to see what Chef Eiji's Kaiseki course would turn out to be.

With the 3 day advanced notice, our table was reserved, and they printed out a custom menu of our Kaiseki meal, complete with our names printed on top (a nice touch). Our first course - Otoshi (Appetizer) - arrived, consisting of 6 items arranged individually:

The Tamago Koshuyaki (Baked Egg with Yamanashi Raisins) was a decent Tamago-yaki, showing off some of the skills of Eiji-san, and the Yamanashi Raisins were *so* flavorful and more complex than regular Raisins. Yamanashi Prefecture is famous for its Grapes, and they were nicely paired with the Baked Egg.

The Sake Kinuta (Salmon Wrapped In Daikon Radish) showed off some beautiful knifework by Eiji-san, hand-cutting thin layers of Daikon and wrapping the Salmon in larger and larger concentric circles. I enjoyed how the rings of the Salmon continued on with the rings of the Daikon outside of it. Taste-wise, the Salmon was fine, but a bit too overpowered by the fresh Daikon Radish.

The Maguro Sumiso (Tuna with a Miso Vinaigrette) looked like it might've been a bad piece of Maguro, with some white tendon/connective tissue showing, but upon eating it, there was none of that! The Maguro was extremely tender and fresh, and blended perfectly with the lightly-poached Negi (Green Onions) and the house-made Miso Vinaigrette on top. Excellent.

The Renkon Kinpira (Sauteed Lotus Root in a Special Soy Sauce) came next. The Lotus Root was nice and crisp, with a good firmness and snap with each bite, but softened by the light sauteeing. The house-made Sauce added just a touch of sweetness without overpowering the dish.

The Ikura Okura Mentai (Squid with Okra and Pollock Roe) was another standout, with thin strands of Squid mixing perfectly with the Okra. The Mentaiko added a nice light spiciness and fun grittiness (more like "tiny crunchiness" :) to each bite.

The last item for the Appetizer course was the Sato Imo Goma Sauce (Japanese Yam, Sesame Sauce). It sounded plain, and I was thinking it'd be a boring piece of Yam, but Eiji-san's skills really stood out here. The Sato Imo was cooked to just the right texture and consistency, so that taking a bite made it give way to a creamy goodness, with none of the "chalkiness" that you'd expect. The made-from-scratch Goma (Sesame) Sauce was amazing! The combination of those two elements together, so simple, yet so complex, made this almost like eating a gorgeous, fresh Caramel, but in a "naturally sweet" sort of way. Wonderful! :)

The Sashimi Course came next, with Maguro (Tuna) and Tai Kawashimo Zukuri (Red Snapper) from Tsukiji, Tokyo, Japan. The Maguro was a beautiful ruby-red, and was very fresh, but sadly there was just a tiny bit of tendon/gristle in each piece. It was the same for my guest. The Tai Kawashimo, however, was *amazing*! Chef Eiji left a bit of the skin on, to add to the flavor of the Tai, but I've seen this fail so many times, even at Urasawa and Ryugin, that I was prepared to have some chewiness with my Tai. Imagine my surprise when I bit into one of the best preparations of Tai I've ever had! The Tai Kawa (Red Snapper Skin) gave way to a mellow silkiness, with no tendon or gristle. Definitely one of the best dishes of the evening!

The Yakimono (Broiled) Course came next, with the centerpiece being the Gindara Saikyo Yaki (Black Cod with Saikyo Miso). The Black Cod was one of the better Gindaras I've had in the past year, perfectly cooked, moist, buttery goodness, with not a single portion of it overcooked. The Saikyo Miso they used was excellent, lightly sweet and earthy.

The Gyuniku Asupara Maki (Beef and Asparagus Roll) was a nice interpretation of thin layers of Beef wrapped around spears of Asparagus topped with their Tare Sauce. This was decent, but the well-done Beef and overly sweet Tare Sauce took away from the enjoyment.

The Tori Yawata ("Stewed Chicken Wrapped with Seasonal Vegetables") seemed simple enough but showed off more of Chef Nakakita's skills: Whole chunks of Marinated Chicken formed the exterior of a "roll" that encased today's fresh vegetable: Carrots. The Chicken held together as we picked it up with chopsticks, and the light Mirin-infused flavor was spot on.

Karifurawaa Amazu (Cauliflower in Sweet Vinegar) was an eye-catching red hue, and added a nice color contrast to the plate. Taste-wise, it was a bit too vinegary for my tastes.

Finally, the Kurumi (Walnuts) were some beautifully caramelized Walnuts with Brown Sugar, simple, fragrant and surprisingly complementary to the rest of the items on this plate.

The Agemono (Fried) Course came next: A simple basket of Izumidai Ebi Shinjyo Age (Stuffed Tilapia with Fresh Ground Shrimp), Shiitake Futami Age (Shiitake Mushroom Stuffed with Fresh Ground Shrimp), Renkon Ebi Shinjyo Age (Lotus Root with Fresh Ground Shrimp), and Okura Tempura (Fried Lightly-Battered Okra). They also provided a little bit of freshly made Momiji Oroshi (Grated Daikon with Chile Oil).

Tilapia is a cheaper, simpler fish, but Chef Eiji managed to prepare it in such a way to elevate it to something greater than it should've been. The Fresh Ground Shrimp was delicious and melded nicely with the Tilapia (without any of the "dirt" or "briny" taste). The Shiitake Mushroom Stuffed Tempura was even better, and the Momiji Oroshi (Grated Daikon with Chile Oil) infused the Tempura Sauce with just the right depth of flavor to subtly augment each piece that was dipped into it.

The Ni Mono (Seasoned / Simmered) Course came out next: Unagi Chawanmushi Ginan (Freshwater Eel Steamed Egg Custard, Silver Sauce). I *adore* Chawanmushi, but usually the Steamed Egg Custard is overcooked, especially toward the bottom of the bowl, but here, it was cooked to an amazing light, delicate consistency from top to bottom! The light Ginan Sauce on top was called Ginan because of it being able to appear silver in color depending on the lighting. Overall, the Unagi and Steamed Egg Custard were probably one of the best versions of the dish I've ever had. Excellent!

The Shokuji ("Meal") Course came next. This traditionally signals the final savory course in a Kaiseki experience, usually consisting of a rice or noodle dish. Here it was Sake Takikomi Gohan, Misoshiru, Ko no Mono (Salmon Mix Rice, Miso Soup, House-made Pickles).

The Salmon Mix Rice was reminiscent of the Seafood Kamameshi I had on my first visit, with Shrimp and Salmon Roe provided with the rice as well. It was a nice way to end the Kaiseki, but didn't approach the sublime Gohan I had at the Modern Kaiseki course at Ryugin in Tokyo, nor Hyotei.

The Misoshiru (Miso Soup) was OK, but nothing outstanding, while the Ko no Mono (House-made Pickles) were beautiful and excellently made! They paired nicely with the Takikomi Gohan.

The final Dessert Course came next: Tounyu Babaloa Ichigo So-su, Furu-tsu (Soy Milk Pudding in Strawberry Sauce and Fresh Fruit). What was impressive about this dish was that it showed off Eiji-san's dessert-making skills in outstanding fashion: The Soy Milk Pudding was light and not too thick. The Strawberry Sauce was made-from-scratch by Eiji-san himself, made up of Strawberries with no artificial additives. The fresh Strawberries, Kiwi and Melon all accentuated the dessert, instead of being disparate. Very nice.

With a Kaiseki meal, Service is just as much a part of the experience as the food itself. While I wasn't expecting the level of excellence of a Michelin 2-Star Ryugin, or Kyoto's delicate, mind-blowing Service at Hyotei, I was hoping it'd be better than the disaster at Kappo Seafood last month. Luckily, even with only Miki-san and 1 waitress, the service was acceptable and decent. They would clear out dishes when we finished, and not let anything sit for too long. Ideally each dish would've been cleared out when we finished, and not because the next dish was ready and needed space to set it down, but for the most part it was good. Towards the end of the night, when Chef Eiji had finished any last orders, we even saw him come out and bus his own tables at times! Definitely a humble man, and reflective of the charm of this simple husband-and-wife restaurant.

But perhaps the most mind-blowing aspect was the price: The Kamameshi (Japanese Paella) dishes cost only $10.75 for most types (when King Crab is in season, or Matsutake Mushrooms, those will be more expensive), which can feed two people easily, and the simple, but successful, custom-made Kaiseki (Japanese Chef's Tasting Menu) course? Only $35 per person! (O_O) That's an absolute bargain considering the chef custom-makes each dish just for you for the Kaiseki experience (these aren't "recycled" courses from the regular menu). While it's nowhere near as amazing as the best Kaiseki meals in Tokyo or Kyoto, it's not $300 per person, either. It's only $35 per person (before tax and tip). (Note that the Kaiseki Meal can vary in price depending on Seasonal Ingredients (e.g., if Matsutake Mushrooms are in season, or a more expensive Fish, those might alter the price slightly).

There have been very few Kappo restaurants in Southern California that have been able to show excellence in all facets of cooking. Besides the amazing Urasawa (which is a unique restaurant in its own right), it's been few and far between. However, with Kappo Hana, Chef Eiji Nakakita and wife-manager Miki-san have created a restaurant that brings excellent Japanese cuisine beyond Sushi to the people of Southern California. Chef Nakakita trained in Tokyo for over 20 years before moving to Southern California, and his training shows through in each dish he's made. It may not be as perfect as the best Kappo restaurants and Kaiseki meals in Japan, but it's wonderfully affordable and delicious. Kappo Hana provides a good dining experience whether you're in the mood for Japanese Small Plates, Kappo-style, the humble, rustic Kamameshi, or a more elaborate Kaiseki meal. A welcome addition to Southern California.

Rating: 8.7 (out of 10.0)

Kappo Hana
25260 La Paz Rd, #A
Laguna Hills, CA 92653
Tel: (949) 770-7746

Hours: Tues - Fri, 11:30 a.m. - 2:00 p.m., 5:30 p.m. - 10:00 p.m.
Sat, 5:30 p.m. - 10:00 p.m.
Sun, 5:00 p.m. - 9:00 p.m.
Closed Mondays.


Food, she thought. said...

That's an awful long drive for me, but certainly worthy. I am putting it on my list of places to visit in SoCal.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi food, she thought,

It's a simple little restaurant with a nice emphasis on Kappo, Kamameshi and Kaiseki items. It's not "Michelin 3 Star Amazing!" or anything, but if you happen to be in Orange County, it might be worth a visit. Maybe after shopping at South Coast Plaza or visiting Irvine Spectrum. :)

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