Friday, June 6, 2008

Sagami - Lunchtime Izakaya in Irvine?!

I still remember my first visit to Sagami ~5-6 years ago when I was visiting a friend in Irvine, and we wanted to grab something quick that wasn't "fast food." My friend mentioned a place with really good Chicken Teriyaki Bowls that were tasty. And they were: For ~$5 you could get a Chicken Bowl that included a HUGE amount of grilled Chicken that was great for the price. Sagami was a typical Japanese Take-Out restaurant in a homogenized strip mall / food court area in the heart of Irvine, CA.

Then, late last year, Sagami shuttered its doors and said it was remodeling. When it reopened, it expanded and became a sit down restaurant with a clean decor, black-lacquered wooden tables and a much-expanded menu that included traditional Japanese Teishoku / Boxed Lunches serving popular American favorites like Chicken Teriyaki and crazy Rolls, but also traditional types of Udon and Soba noodle dishes. They raised their prices slightly (which seemed to turn off some people on Yelp and some of my local friends), and when I visited them a few months ago it was decent food for lunch.

But now, Chef-Owner Reiko Inoue and her husband (and Co-Owner) Sushi Chef Kenji Inoue have added the latest touch to the revamped Sagami: A Shusai (what they label as "Japanese Tapas"), Izakaya-style Menu, which they serve for *Lunch*(!) and Dinner (basically all day). Intrigued that a former Japanese Take-Out "Fast Food"-style place could so drastically change their menu and vision, I decided to try their new Izakaya-style menu. What resulted was a rather extensive menu of hits and misses and a good start down their newly revamped restaurant and vision.

(English names are as listed on the menu.)

First up was a classic: Agedashi Tofu (Fried Tofu w/ Dashi Sauce). Sagami serves this up with Bonito Fish Shavings, Green Onions and Grated Daikon Radish over the Dashi Sauce. The first bite... and "Wow!" A nice, lightly fried Tofu and slightly crispy outer texture, combining perfectly with the Green Onions and rest of the sauce. This was almost as good as Kappo Honda's version (but not as good as Yakitori Bincho's)! Still for a former Take-Out Only restaurant with a new menu / vision, this was very surprising. Eat it with some of the broth poured over a bowl of rice. Excellent!

Next up was Hotate Bataa Yaki (Scallops Sauteed w/ Butter). This sounded like a great dish, but upon arrival it represented the up and down nature of the kitchen and its dishes so far: The small baby Scallops tasted of freezer burn and were really pungent. A nice idea, but this dish was severely limited by the quality of the Scallops here.

Continuing on was a rare treat in Southern California: Kisu no Tempura (Kisu Tempura)! Kisu is Sillago fish, and this was the first time I saw it on a menu in So Cal. It was served with two pieces of Kisu fish and one piece of Shungiku Tempura (known as "Japanese Basil" or Garland Chrysanthemum). The Kisu Tempura turned out to be surprisingly good, nicely battered and fried up at the right temperature so that it didn't soak up too much oil, or become overfried / burnt. You had the option of dabbing it in the side of Yuzu Shio (Yuzu Citrus-infused Salt), or the standard Tempura Sauce with Daikon and fresh-grated Ginger. Both options were great, depending on your preference. The Kisu fish itself was very tender and rich, and the Shungiku was tasty.

Next up was another classic Izakaya dish Buta Kimuchi (Pork Kimchi). This is traditionally fatty slices of Pork sauteed with Kimchi and is a favorite for its bold flavors that go well with Beer, Sake or Shochu at Izakayas. One of the angles that Inoue-san has been trying to cater to is the need for "healthier / less fatty" cuisine. To this end, Sagami offers Brown Rice or White Rice, and for their Pork dishes, a leaner, less fatty cut; in addition to offering an option for White Meat-only Chicken (Breast) for Chicken dishes. It's important to bring up because taste-wise, this is another surprise and hit for Sagami: It tastes just as well-executed as the version at Kappo Honda, but much less fatty and oily. Since Sagami uses a lean cut of Pork for this dish, those used to the traditional pork belly / bacon version, might be disappointed. Despite the leanness of the Pork slices here, it wasn't too "tough" or "chewy" at all. It was a little drier than what I'd like, but as a healthy alternative to the traditional version, this is great, especially if you're craving it during lunchtime in the Irvine area. :)

The next dish was Gindara Saikyo Yaki (Black Cod Miso) (it's also known as Sablefish or Butterfish in America). Visually it looked rather simple and maybe even dried out, but taking one bite, and this was clearly the highlight of the day! Inoue-san perfectly cooked the Gindara fish: A perfect lightly browned exterior and extremely buttery, mouth-watering goodness within! I could eat this all day and be happy. Highly recommended!

The next dish we tried was another popular dish in traditional Japanese eateries: Hamachi Kama (Yellowtail Collar). This is the collar area of the Yellowtail baked. The best Hamachi Kama I've had over the years have been perfectly cooked Hamachi, with juicy, moist interior, and some variations have the chef's application of light seasonings to enhance the simply baked fish. Sagami's version was serviceable, but overcooked. The inside of the Hamachi Kama was slightly dried out, and it tasted less than fresh, but nothing like the Scallop dish earlier.

Another highlight, though, was the Miso Kushi Katsu (Miso Katsu). This is a recreation of Chef Reiko and Kenji's favorite hometown dish, from Nagoya, Japan. Essentially the usual cuts of Pork (Tonkatsu) are put on skewers, cooked, and topped with a special Miso sauce popular in Nagoya. Each bite of the perfectly crispy exterior of the Pork Katsu combined with amazing sauce of Miso, Mirin and some other spices Inoue-san didn't tell me was amazing! It was fragrant, lightly sweet, but perfectly married to the savory goodness of the Tonkatsu. Very nice!

Even back in the original Fast-Food-type shop, Sagami has always served limited Sushi and various popular Rolls. Now with the expansion and new direction, they've created a full sit-down Sushi Bar area, and Chef Kenji Inoue can get back to what he enjoys doing (traditional Sushi, but still creating Rolls since they are so popular, especially in the Irvine area). At the original Sagami, the Sushi was always hampered by the quality of the ingredients (the fish wasn't anywhere near the freshness of LA's top Sushi restaurants, but that's understandable). I decided to try their Kanpachi Sushi (Greater Amberjack) as a taste test to see how it's fairing now: It was decent, with no tendon or gristle (the cut was good), but it was hampered (again) by the lack of extreme freshness I've been spoiled on. :) It'll suffice if you're craving Sushi in the Irvine area for lunch, but nothing to go out of your way for.

In addition, it should be noted they can make Sushi with Brown Rice if you want it (they have Brown Sushi Rice ready to go for customers that prefer it that way).

Next up was another classic dish to test: Kara-age (Japanese Chicken Nuggets). Essentially fried chunks of Chicken, Japanese style, with their own angle on the seasonings (some places may heavily batter, or some places have no batter at all). Sadly, while it looked visually tasty, it turned out to be too salty, and the Chicken itself was overcooked, turning rubbery and chewy.

On their new expanded Shusai menu, Sagami offers up 14(!) different Japanese-style Salads, another show of the healthy angle. We tried their Wafu Ban Ban Jii (Chicken Cucumber Salad). This was a really tasty Sesame and Peanut infused dish, blending Chicken Breast with slices of Cucumber. I'd recommend sharing this Salad, as the portion was just right. If one had to finish this by themselves, they might be overpowered by too much of the peanut / sesame sauce.

Their Ebi Shinjyou (Shrimp Ball) was another wonderful dish. The simple name doesn't give the dish justice: Chunks of Shrimp mixed with Japanese Shiso Leaf and deep-fried, served with a side of Yuzu Shio (Yuzu Citrus-infused Salt). When dabbed with a little of the Yuzu Shio, the Shrimp Shiso ball becomes something wonderfully fragrant and excellent with a bowl of steamed rice! (^_^) Wonderful.

Continuing on, Sagami had another intriguing dish on their new menu: Uni Hoba Tsutsumi Age (Sea Urchin Tempura)! When the dish arrived, it was a striking dish of vibrant green. Unfortunately, this is where Sagami's limited access to the freshest ingredients possible hampered another dish: The Uni (which really has a shelf life measured more in *hours* versus days) becomes something really pungent and unappetizing when not completely fresh, and it was that way here. The Hoba leaf and Shiso were amazing and helped mask some of the Uni's shortcomings, but it wasn't enough. If given the right ingredients, I'm sure Inoue-san's dish would shine, but as it is now, it's not recommended.

Next up was their Tai no Arataki (Red Snapper Collar). Unlike the Hamachi Kama (Yellowtail Collar), this Red Snapper preparation is a simmered / stewed dish. The result is a decent rendition of Tai, but the broth they simmered the Tai in was a bit too sweet (more akin to a Sukiyaki sauce), and slightly cloying. The fish itself was moist and if you enjoy Red Snapper, then this is worth ordering once at least.

The last dish was Hokke Ichiyaboshi (Baked Hokke). Taking the classic Japanese favorite fish of Hokke (Atka Mackerel), which is sun-dried, and then baking it, I was looking forward to seeing how Sagami would interpret this dish. It was served with a Ponzu sauce and fresh-grated Daikon. I've only had Hokke a few times previous, and each time it was a different preparation, but Sagami's version was a bit too salty and pungent. However, when dipped into the Ponzu sauce, and when eaten while enjoying a Beer, it goes very well. It's meant to be enjoyed with alcohol, according to Inoue-san's assistant. One note: Hokke has a lot of bones, so those that don't care to pick at the fish should stay away.

Their Soba noodles are standard fare; decent and fills the need if you're in the mood for Soba. Their variety of Teishoku / Box Lunches are also good if you feel like selecting a few options (Tonkatsu, Ginger Pork, Chicken Teriyaki, Rolls, etc.) and they have options for various Udon or Soba with a plethora of choices. They also offer 5 different Sakes (some decent labels), as well as Beer.

Overall, it's a rather impressive "reboot" of Sagami. From Fast-Food-style Take-Out Japanese bowls, into a renovated, expanded sit-down restaurant, serving some good Teishoku / Box Lunches, and now a full Izakaya (Japanese Tapas)-style menu served during Lunch and Dinner, Sagami presents Irvine locals a decent option for authentic Japanese Izakaya-style dishes and box lunches.

There are some hits and misses, so tread carefully, but their Hirekatsu (Fried Pork Tenderloin), Miso Kushi Katsu, Gindara Saikyo Yaki (Black Cod with Miso) and Ebi Shinjyou (Fried Shrimp Balls) are worth returning for again and again. It's great for Lunch, however, when compared to the Dinner competition in the area (Kappo Honda, Honda-Ya, Shin Sen Gumi), Sagami still has a long ways to go. Sagami is at a crossroads right now: A jack-of-all-trades, but master of none. It's a challenging spot to be at for the Inoues: Their Donburi (bowls) and Box Lunches are still by far the most popular with the majority of the lunch crowd, but if they want to truly gain a unique footprint in the area, they might consider pairing down the menu and focusing more on the quality and execution. But where else in Irvine can you get Japanese Izakaya-style food, for Lunch?! (^_~)

Rating: 6.9 (out of 10.0)

3850 Barranca Parkway, Suite B
Irvine, CA 92606
Tel: (949) 857-8030

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