Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Sparkling Rough Waves at the Crystal Cove - Bluefin

Before I knew Shibutani-san and Shibucho, my only source for fresh Sushi in the Newport Beach / Costa Mesa area was in a tiny, stylish little restaurant near the waters along Pacific Coast Highway, known as Abe, named after Chef-Owner Takashi Abe (pronounced "Ah-Beh"). Whenever I was in the area, we would try to stop by and have an Omakase course with Abe-san. The fish was always fresh and Abe-san provided some traditional and fusion flair (in a good way) to his dishes. It was with great sadness that I heard that he sold Abe, and sure enough, when we went one other time after he sold it, the quality had gone downhill considerably.

Flash-forward a few years later and I heard that Abe-san had opened a new restaurant further down PCH known as Bluefin. I finally had the opportunity to visit Bluefin, and was looking forward to seeing Abe-san again. :)

Bluefin is located along a beautiful stretch of Pacific Coast Highway, within the Crystal Cove Promenade. From the moment you see the exterior sign, it reflects the simple, refined elegance that Chef Abe was aiming for with his restaurant: The ivy-covered exterior, and the subtitle "Fine Japanese Cuisine", all reflect the core philosophy behind Bluefin.

One thing to clarify is that Bluefin isn't "Abe 2.0": Chef Takashi Abe sought to bring more than just Sushi to the table with Bluefin, and as his website explains, he's combining traditional Japanese cuisine with modern European influences. It's "Japanese Fusion," but thankfully not in the "Philadelphia Cream Cheese Crazy Dragon Rolls" sort of way, but in the Nobu Matsuhisa sort of way, which makes sense, considering Abe-san worked under Matsuhisa for four years prior to his Abe restaurant. (On a side note, it's interesting that Abe-san even lists Bluefin under the "Kappo" sub-category in one Japanese Directory here in Southern California, reflecting his focused goals on the type of restaurant he was developing.)

The decor at Bluefin is classy, stylish, and a fusion of a high-end Japanese restaurant in Tokyo with affluent Newport Beach, complete with an illuminated Sushi Bar and simple tables filling out the rest of the restaurant.

I was disappointed to hear that Abe-san wasn't in, but decided to see how the Sushi (and his Sushi chefs) would fare. For my first visit, I was seated in front of Hiroshi-san, and asked in Japanese for a traditional Omakase course with Sushi and Sashimi only (note that Bluefin's "Omakase" that's on their Lunch and Dinner Menu reflects their core style, featuring some Sushi, Cooked Dishes (something from their Fusion Menu) and Dessert).

(Note: I'm using the English Names as translated on the Menu.)

The first course began with a Sashimi Plate of 4 selections. We began with Aoyagi (Orange Clam) from Washington. The Aoyagi was very soft (too soft and slightly mushy), and I bit into a piece of shell(!) which was off-putting.

The next piece was much better: Hon Maguro (Bluefin Tuna) from Boston was very fresh and tender. It didn't move me as much as the Moroccan Hon Maguro I had at Maki Zushi, but it was excellent.

The next fish was probably the highlight of the meal: Shiokko (Baby Amberjack) from Japan. The Shiokko was buttery, fatty (in a good way), and just a little bit toothsome. The texture with each chew was great, and the overall flavor was outstanding!

The Hirame (Halibut) from the East Coast was decent; it was fresh but the knifework felt lacking, and the overall cuts provided felt too thick at times and a bit too chewy.

The next dish was a strong recommendation from my Itamae, despite it being a cooked dish, Hiroshi-san said it was one of the "best items on the menu." Intrigued, I trusted him and awaited the Saikyo Misoyaki Tara (Roasted Cod with Saikyo Miso) from the East Coast. I've recently had Saikyo Misoyaki dishes at a few Southern California restaurants, but usually it's made with Gindara which I vastly prefer. Bluefin's Saikyo Misoyaki was cooked very nicely, with a good Saikyo flavor that wasn't in excess. The Tara worked with the Miso, but Gindara would've been the better choice. The plating and side vegetables were nicely done.

The Nigiri portion of the meal started next, with Hon Maguro Nigiri (Bluefin Tuna Sushi) and Ohtoro Aburi (Seared Ohtoro), both from Boston. Like before, the Hon Maguro was consistent with the Sashimi version I just had, a good cut, fresh and with no tendon or gristle. The rice was OK, but nothing special like the custom grain used by Mori-san.

The Ohtoro Aburi (Seared Fatty Tuna Belly) was a huge disappointment, and a foreshadowing of my Itamae's inexperience with blowtorch cooking. The Ohtoro Aburi was overcooked, turning what I'd imagine to be a good piece of the Fattiest Portion of Tuna Belly into an extremely tough, fishy (pungent) disaster.

Next up was Kinmedai (Golden Eye Snapper) from Japan. This is a rarity in most southland Sushi restaurants, and I eagerly awaited this one. It was presented with a beautiful portion of its skin still on, seasoned with a little Yuzu Shio (Yuzu Citrus-infused Salt) which was a great complement. Unfortunately, the Kinmedai given to me reflected the limited knifework from the Itamae again: Extremely chewy, with the skin being really tough and hard to break through. The actual Kinmedai meat was delicious and fresh, but the limited knife skills really hurt.

Continuing on, I was presented with Amaebi, Tobiko Yuzu (Live Sweet Shrimp with Yuzu-infused Flying Fish Roe) from Santa Barbara. This was another excellent dish, the Amaebi being super-fresh and the Yuzu-infused Flying Fish Roe adding a gorgeous Spring note to the buttery, creamy Sweet Shrimp. Excellent!

Hiroshi-san then presented Kohada and Saba together. The Kohada (Japanese Gizzard Shad) from Japan, is an inherently stronger flavored fish, but it was fresh and held up well. The Saba (Mackerel) also flown in from Japan was toothsome, inherently salty and oily, and good.

The Amaebi Misoshiru (Miso Soup with Sweet Shrimp Heads) arrived next. I always enjoy a good Misoshiru, so I was hoping for some fresh, shrimp-infused goodness, but it was not meant to be: The Amaebi Misoshiru was burnt! As you can see from the photo, the Shrimp's Head / Body was burnt, and the unpleasant, burnt, charred flavor pervaded the entire soup.

Looking at their Specials of the Day Blackboard, I noticed a "Kobe Sushi" written as a special for that day. Intrigued I chatted with Hiroshi-san about what that was. Hiroshi-san stated (in Japanese) that it was real Kobe Beef, flown in from Kobe, Japan, and that it was a "good cut." Excited, I asked him to please include it in the Omakase for me, and we were chatting about good Wagyu restaurants in Japan while I awaited my order. I was imagining a possible preparation like what I had with Urasawa-san a few months ago, but imagine my horror when he took out the blowtorch again. I was worried after the Ohtoro Aburi mess earlier, especially for a piece of real Kobe Beef, but I hoped for the best.

This was probably the worst preparation I've seen for any dish in years: Not only was the Kobe Beef overcooked, Hiroshi-san actually paused right before serving me, and turned on the blowtorch a *2nd time* to flame what looked like a gorgeous piece of marbled, real Kobe Beef into complete, utter oblivion. :( What remained was a $16 piece of well-done, tough, chewy Beef, atop some Sushi Rice. This just makes me sad. :(

I ended this course with the Tamago (Cooked Egg). I was curious to see how it fared and to see the Tamago skills of the Itamae. Perhaps fitting the experience I had, the Tamago was beautiful in presentation, too densely layered, not overly sweet (a good thing), but lacking flavor.

I knew that Abe-san wanted to create something more than a Sushi bar with Bluefin, and with their marketing to the Japanese community as "Kappo" and with their nice introduction on their website for their innovative dishes with European influences, I wanted to see Abe-san's creations from the kitchen.

On our second visit, Abe-san was again not in, busy with the opening of his new restaurant. We arrived on a beautiful day, sat down at a quiet table, and ordered off their Main Menu. We began with a recommendation from a different Sushi Chef than Hiroshi-san: Chutoro (Medium Fatty Tuna Belly) from Boston. The Chutoro arrived, and looked gorgeous. Taking a bite, and it was amazing! A good cut with beautiful, meltingly tender flavors! This was some of the best Chutoro I've had in Southern California.

We also had Kinmedai (Golden Eye Snapper) again, but this time from a different Sushi Chef, and sadly, it was still the same (but maybe worse): The knifework failed from a second Chef of theirs, with the skin being a tough, chewy mess that I couldn't break down with my teeth (I had to spit it out).

One of their most popular dishes is the Scallop and Uni Ravioli, which arrived with gorgeous presentation and plating! It featured fresh Scallop, sliced open and stuffed with fresh Uni (Sea Urchin), so that the Scallop itself formed a Ravioli-like exterior. It was clever, and more importantly, delicious! Each Scallop "Ravioli" was topped with Ossetra Caviar and 24-karat Gold Flakes, bathed in a light, beautiful Basil Sauce. This was a good sign of things to come for our meal that day.

The next item is not on their menu, but our waitress was kind enough to recommend it, stating that the kitchen still makes this dish by request only: Same no Hire Chawanmushi (Shark Fin Steamed Egg Custard). I love Shark Fin, so I was excited to see how it would turn out! The Egg Custard arrived with beautiful plating, and opening up the lid, it revealed just how elegant and stylish Bluefin can be.

The Chawanmushi was excellent! Beautifully cooked to the right consistency, perfectly light and airy. While the Shark Fin was supposed to be the highlight, it should've been called Tarabagani Chawanmushi, because of the huge chunks of Tarabagani (King Crab) from Russia! Generous, delicious portions of King Crab intermingled nicely with the delicate Egg Custard and Fresh Uni (Sea Urchin) from Santa Barbara. Outstanding! (^_^)

The next dish was Chilean Seabass and Foie Gras, arriving with a beautiful plating layout. The dish featured a very generous portion of Broiled Chilean Seabass, topped with Shiitake Mushrooms and Seared Foie Gras, crowned with a flash-fried Shiso Leaf (delicious!) and 24-karat Gold Leaf.

The only negative about this dish was that the Chilean Seabass was slightly overcooked, but thankfully most of it remained intact, buttery and mouth-watering. This was a wonderful creation by Abe-san, with the inherent buttery goodness of Chilean Seabass, combining perfectly with the even more buttery extravagance of Foie Gras, with a great complement from the nice Balsamic Reduction and White Truffle Oil. So delicious!

Our final dish of the day was King Crab Claw Tempura, from Russia. I wasn't sure what to expect, and when the dish arrived, it looked rather soaked from the sauce. Sadly, this was a misstep from the kitchen, and probably the only disappointment amongst the cooked dishes we tried. The King Crab Claw Tempura batter was "lost," due to it being completely soaked through with their house-made Vinegar Hot Sauce. The Tempura exterior had turned to complete mush, but the inside meat was sweet and delicious. But that, too, was overpowered by the sharp vinegar notes and spicy chili pepper flavors doused on top of the dish.

Service was consistently good for each of our visits. We had to ask for refills for our Ocha, but generally, it was professional and cordial. For the real Omakase course, the total was ~$125 per person (including tax and tip). For the cooked dishes visit, it came out to be ~$77 per person (including tax and tip).

Bluefin is a nice step up from Abe's earlier restaurant, offering traditional Sushi and a variety of innovative Fusion Japanese cuisine that's befitting the clientele of the Crystal Cove Promenade and Newport Beach. But a kitchen needs its leader, and Chef Takashi Abe's absence is noticeable and unfortunate. Having been served by Abe-san at Abe, I know firsthand that when he's in the kitchen (or behind the Sushi bar), you can expect a good dining experience. Without Abe-san manning the helm, Bluefin suffers at times, with the Sushi being saved mainly by the freshness of the ingredients, instead of the skill of the Itamae, which is the restaurant's greatest weakness.

Bluefin's greatest strengths are in its Fusion Japanese dishes with European influences from the kitchen, where the inherent creativity of Abe-san's recipes shine most bright, even when he's not around. The front of the house stated that Chef Abe is busy opening up a new restaurant in San Clemente, and that he doesn't appear at Bluefin very much anymore. While he's not around, the strength of his Fusion Japanese creations leave an indelible mark at his restaurant, and provides a classy, "Southern California" atmosphere, and easily one of the most stylish Japanese Fusion restaurants around.

Rating: 8.0 (out of 10.0)

Bluefin Fine Japanese Cuisine
(in the
Crystal Cove Promenade)
7952 East Pacific Coast Highway
Newport Beach, CA 92657
Tel: (949) 715-7373

Hours: 7 Days A Week, [Lunch] 11:30 a.m. - 2:00 p.m.
[Dinner] 5:30 p.m. - 10:00 p.m.


kevinEats said...

Another good review! It's been a long time since I've been to Bluefin, but it looks like not much as changed.

Any plans to try Izakaya Zero (, Abe's place in Huntington Beach? It features a few of the same items as Bluefin.

The new one down in San Clemente is called Sea Smoke. When I was at Izakaya Zero I caught Abe sitting at the bar and he indicated that it would be a more family-oriented place. I think it opens this month actually.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Kevin,

Thanks! :) You just reminded me of the first time I read your review on Izakaya Zero; great review!

Yah, I'll have to round up some of my Izakaya Hounds and try this place out, although from your review it sounds like there are some hits and misses. Thanks for the info on Sea Smoke. I'll be curious how this turns out.

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