Tuesday, August 3, 2010

The Down-To-Earth, Hearty Japanese Dishes of Okan

Over the years, my ~quarterly visits to my friends in San Diego has usually resulted in us ending up at a national chain restaurant when it comes around to lunch or dinner; the result of my dear SD friends being not really into the food scene. The past couple years have steadily improved, when I decided to look to my SD Hounds for some recommendations to save me from mediocrity. (^_~) And now, thanks to another great rec from kare_raisu, cgfan and other SD Hounds, I've come to understand the simple, delicious cooking of Wa Dining Okan. :)

Literally situated in a tiny corner of a strip mall, next to Nijiya Market, it's easy to miss the front entrance of Okan if you're not paying attention. Once inside, it's not that much bigger - the dining room is the size of some larger restaurants' waiting areas - with a dimly lit, warm, cozy atmosphere. As we arrive, it's completely packed with a waiting list, but thankfully we made reservations.

Helmed by Chef Yoshi Kojima (a native of Yokohama who learned how to cook in his native city before moving on to Los Angeles to further develop at "various Japanese restaurants" in the area (according to the manager)), the menu at Okan is simply massive and impressive. I'm worried as we peruse the items, as the larger a menu is, the harder it can be for a chef to properly master every single dish. Still, I'm excited at some of the delicious sounding specialties and we quickly place our order.

From their Seasonal Menu, we begin with their Renkon no Kinpira (Stir Fried Lotus Root).

The Renkon (Lotus Root) is lightly smoky, just cooked through while still retaining that enticing crisp crunch. It's lightly salty and sweet at the same time. Excellent. :)

The next starter is Zanmai Ni (Simmered Royal Fern in Broth).

It's always nice to see Zanmai on the menu, and its appearance at Okan signals something more significant out of the kitchen than the usual mainstream offerings. :) The Japanese Royal Fern's flavors are very well balanced: As with the Renkon, Kojima-san uses just the right amount of salty and sweet, as well as an enjoyable balance of textures.

Another surprise is their Daikon to Mizuna no Wafu Salada (Radish and Mizuna Wa-Fu Salad).

Normally served with Spinach, our waitress informs us they're serving this Salad with Mizuna Vegetable tonight (which I prefer). While the Mizuna and Daikon Radish slivers act as great complements to each other, it's the usage of some Katsuobushi (Bonito Shavings) and Jyako (Japanese Whitebait) that really elevates this dish. The slightly smoky, ocean breeze that hits the palate as you take each bite makes this one of the more enjoyable Salads I've had recently.

Our next dish arrives within minutes of the Salad: Iwashi no Kosoyaki to Tomato no Sote- (Sauteed Marinated Sardine and Tomato with Pickled Vegetables).

The Iwashi is deeply briny (in a good way), and the bits of Tomato and Italian Squash feel a bit extraneous. I love tart dishes, but this turned out to be one of the least favorite dishes for my guests.

One of my all-time favorite dishes in Japanese cuisine is Buta no Kakuni, so I'm eager to see how Chef Kojima's version turns out. It's interesting that in Japanese, it's listed simply as Buta no Kakuni, but on the English menu they proclaim it to be Braised Pork Nagasaki-style.

My first bite yields a wonderful, fresh, ultra-tender, succulent piece of slow braised Pork. (^_^) It's a touch too sweet for my tastes, but not cloyingly so. It doesn't surpass Tomo-san's wonderful Buta no Kakuni at Izakaya Bincho, but it's still one of the best Buta no Kakuni offerings in So Cal. :)

Continuing on is their Unagi Maki (Egg Omelet with Eel).

The Eggs are bright and fluffy, with a very cloud-like texture (excellent!), but sadly, the amount of Unagi (Freshwater Eel) used is very precious. None of us could really taste any Unagi unless we picked out the tiny amount.

So far, the plates have been generally well-executed and surprising, but the next dish represents what happens when a kitchen is too ambitious: Negima (Chicken Thigh and Green Onion Skewers) from their Yakitori menu.

It's unfortunately not uncommon in So Cal to see various Izakaya or Kappo restaurants attempt to serve a full menu of Yakitori items, but they've generally fallen well-short of adequate, let alone good (it's like going to an Al Pastor Taco specialist and expecting their Ceviche to be great).

The Chicken turns out to be a disaster: Super overcooked, dried out chunks of Chicken (dark meat, no less), and completely burnt Negima (Green Onions) result in the worst Yakitori I've had in years in So Cal. (>_<) But it's not fair to expect a small plates kitchen to be Yakitori grill masters, so I'm not too surprised. Looking at the variety of Yakitori arriving at neighboring tables, we hold off on ordering any more from this sub-menu. With outstanding Yakitori from masters like Nabe-san at Yakitori Yakyudori (when he's there), or Tomo-san from Yakitori Bincho or Masa-san from Torihei, there's no reason to seek out this sub-par offering at Okan.

The next dish does little to break the streak: Tori no Karaage Negipiri So-su (Seasoned Deep Fried Chicken with Spicy Soy Sauce).

Unlike the Yakitori skewers, it's not "bad," but it's decent at best. The outer crust tastes fresh (no recycled oil here), but the frying skills need to improve: The Chicken is semi-dried out and dense and muted. It's a step above the average Izakaya in L.A. / O.C., but when you get heavenly Karaage from Bincho and Torihei, it makes it hard to appreciate this version.

It's probably coincidence, but the streak continues with their Agedashi Tofu (Deep Fried Tofu with Tempura Sauce).

It's surprisingly salty, and there's too much Katakuriko (Potato Starch) for the exterior. It sadly is also very soggy. With some extra Steamed Rice or a drink, the sodium levels are balanced out, but on its own, this is another dish where I've been utterly spoiled by legendary Agedashi Tofu (not counting Japan) from Chef Tomo at Izakaya Bincho.

Things rebound nicely with one of their daily specials: Buri Kama Tofu (Braised Yellowtail Cheek with Tofu).

I always enjoy a great Kama preparation and Okan's version is excellent! The Buri is tender and not overcooked at all. It's vibrant, delicate and the pairing with the Tofu and their proprietary braising sauce is perfect. :)

Looking over their menu, I remember being mesmerized by so many interesting (and rarer) dishes that don't appear as often on local menus. One of the dishes is their Aburi Gyu Tan Chashu (Roasted Beef Tongue).

Thick slices of Roasted Beef Tongue arrive, like a Beef Lover's version of the ideal Chashu slices for a bowl of Ramen (^_~). While the lukewarm temperature is off-putting at first, the freshness and tenderness win me over. There's an enchanting light smokiness, along with an even hand on the spices. Delicious! :)

We finish off the evening with another rare offering: Kamameshi (referred to by some as "Japanese Paella", it's a type of Rice dish cooked in a Kama cooking pot, mixed with other ingredients). Today's Special Kamameshi turns out to be Gokokumai no Kamameshi (Flavored Rice with Chicken and Mushrooms cooked in a "Kama" Kettle).

(Note that they make this dish to order, from scratch, so expect a good ~25 - 35 minutes before it arrives.) Once the Kamameshi arrives, it smells incredible. :) Fragrant chunks of Chicken mixed with Shimeji Mushrooms are cooked together with 5 different grains of Rice.

The Rice turns out to be a bit bland for my tastes, but still fragrant and a good way to end a meal (and I have a light palate). In So Cal, I prefer the offerings at Kappo Hana more, but if I'm down in the area, I'll be glad to order Okan's version. :)

Service is the one area where Okan needs the most improvement in. It's not that any of the servers are "bad," but it's that they don't have enough help. To be fair, we were dining at Okan when it was at 100% capacity, but it was really tiring trying to get refills (or more drinks of any kind) from any of the waitstaff. We'd have to ask 2-4 times, each time, to get anything. But they were all very friendly and hardworking; just overwhelmed. There were no busboys in the dining room, so the waitresses were busing the tables as well as handling all the food and drink orders. It should be noted, the manager was super accommodating and really welcoming. She made every one of my guests and me (and it seemed every table) feel welcome, and she thanked us as we were leaving.

Prices range from $2.75 - $24, with most dishes in the $6 - 7 range. We averaged ~$36 per person, including tax and tip.

Okan is a wonderful hidden gem in San Diego. Tucked away in a literal corner, Chef Kojima and staff deliver an ambitious menu, full of surprises and rare offerings, along with an extensive, rotating daily specials / seasonal menu. While their massive menu leads to some disappointments (Yakitori skewers, Karaage, Agedashi Tofu), their Braising skills are beyond reproach, with some great dishes in just about every other facet, from their Renkon (Lotus Root) to Zanmai Ni (Simmered Japanese Royal Fern) to the Buta no Kakuni (Braised Pork Belly) and more. It may get a bit too cozy at times (their tables are too close together), but I'm glad to have a humble, intimate restaurant with great small plates in the area. It's a perfect excuse for me to visit my SD friends more often. :)

Rating: 7.9 (out of 10.0)

Wa Dining OKAN
3860 Convoy St., #110
San Diego, CA 92111
Tel: (858) 279-0941

Hours: [Lunch] Mon - Sat, 11:30 a.m. - 2:30 p.m. (last order 2:00 p.m.)
[Dinner] Mon - Wed, 5:30 p.m. - 11:00 p.m. (last order 10:30 p.m.)
Thurs - Sat, 5:30 p.m. - 12:00 a.m. Midnight (last order 11:30 p.m.)
Sun, 5:30 p.m. - 10:00 p.m. (last order 9:30 p.m.)



nods said...

I have always wondered about the place every time I go to Nijiya. Thanks for the extensive review.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi nods,

Definitely give it a try. I really enjoyed my meal there and would definitely go back the next time I'm in the area. :) Thanks.

ila said...

curious. we'll be heading down to San Diego this weekend, so we'll check it out! thanks for the rec ;)

Exile Kiss said...

Hi ila,

Nice! :) Let me know what you think of Okan. Thanks.

burumun said...

Ohh I'm heading to SD this Sunday. Well, Escondido so not sure if I'll actually make it all the way to SD or not but I'll definitely keep this place in mind :) Thanks for the report!

Exile Kiss said...

Hi burumun,

Nice! :) I hope you can visit Okan on this visit. If you do, let me know what you think. :)

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