Thursday, October 23, 2008

Waiting for the Smoke to Clear at Sea Smoke

It was a typical, sunny and warm Southern California day as I stood in front of a barren-looking strip mall, buried deep within miles of new housing developments and rolling hills. I paused for a moment to think about what brought me all the way out to San Clemente, remembering the chain of events but excited nonetheless. (Essentially, one of my long-time favorite chefs in Orange County - Chef Takashi Abe (pronounced "Ah-Beh") - had sold his eponymous restaurant in Newport Beach and I had lost contact with him. Years later, I found out he opened up Bluefin, which I visited recently, only to find out that Abe-san was busy opening up Sea Smoke, his newest restaurant (he was absent on both of my visits to Bluefin). So today, I finally made it out to his newly opened restaurant to see what he's been up to. :)

Upon entering Sea Smoke, the decor was... interesting. Dark outer walls with pure white booths and multiple white paper lanterns hanging from the ceiling (I suppose to mimic "clouds" or the "sea smoke" idea). The sole waitress on duty was busy folding napkins right at the entrance, in front of anyone entering, which is something you'd expect to see at an informal Chinese restaurant in the San Gabriel Valley rather than at a restaurant by Chef Takashi Abe.

I inquired to see if Abe-san was in today, but alas, he wasn't. Inquiring further, he seems to be bouncing around between his restaurants at different times, depending on the day. While it was disappointing not being able to taste the creations of the former Matsuhisa chef, I looked forward to seeing how the Chef de Cuisine, Yuji Nishimura would fare. At Sea Smoke, Chef Nishimura mans the kitchen and most of the cooked dishes, while leaving the Sushi and Sashimi at the hands of various Sushi Chefs up front (two of which came from Abe, Newport Beach).

Perusing the menu, this was definitely a more casual, mainstream approach, geared towards families as well (which makes sense given the surrounding residential communities), judging from the "Sashimi Pizza" and "Kids Bento Box" special. Still, the menu retained quite a few famous dishes from his more elegant Bluefin restaurant, including the Scallop and Uni Ravioli and King Crab Tempura, so there was still hope that all wasn't lost. In addition, they were offering Omakase (Chef's Choice) set meals, which is what I ordered today.

Before receiving the first course, the meal started off a bit odd with the Manager arguing with the two Itamae (Sushi Chefs), in front of the customers(!) about schedules and money. It was very uncomfortable and unprofessional hearing them arguing over what days they wanted to take off and mentioning money being owed, all within a few feet of the customers.

The Omakase set meal began with an opening course of 4 appetizers, displayed nicely and playfully in a long, thin serving plate. Starting from the left, I began with their Cold Sweet Potato Soup. Served in a cute little cup, it was made from a distillation and puree of Satsuma Imo. A pointed smokiness and earthy sweetness pervaded every sip of this soup. Excellent.

Unfortunately, things went downhill from there. The next appetizer was their Lobster Kushiyaki, presented in a playful, very colorful display of various fried, dyed noodles covering the Lobster itself, which was coated in a refined Sweet & Sour Sauce. For a Kushiyaki skewer, it lacked any real smokiness that one might expect from traditional Kushiyaki, and the Sweet & Sour angle felt out of place. The Lobster itself was fresh and its meat was lightly sweet.

Next to the Lobster was their Eggplant Gelee. Unlike the Lobster, the Nasu (Eggplant) had a really nice smoked flavor, beautifully encased in a gelee rectangle.

The final item on the appetizer tray was their Ground Chicken, Mango. This was 2 small cubes of Ground Chicken sandwiching a slice of Tomato and topped with Mango Sauce. This felt more appropriate at a watered-down, mainstream eatery than at an Abe-san restaurant, with a pretty basic, mealy, Ground Chicken "mini-patty" and a touch of sweetness from the Mango Sauce.

The next course arrived within a few minutes: Sashimi Salad with 3 types of seafood. Visually, it was nicely presented, returning more to Bluefin form than what I'd seen so far: Mixed Greens were encased by a Cucumber cylinder, and the Sashimi was artfully arranged around a pool of their Maui Onion Soy Vinaigrette. I began with the cooked Tiger Shrimp, from the Philippines, which tasted fresh, but lacked the natural sweetness that I was hoping for.

Their Mebachi Maguro (Big-Eye Tuna) was "local" according to the Itamae. It tasted relatively fresh, nothing upper echelon, but decent, with a meatiness and clean flavor with each bite. Trying it with a little of the Maui Onion Soy Vinaigrette made the Maguro more edible in this case.

I saved the Hamachi Toro (Yellowtail Belly), from Tsujiki, Tokyo, Japan, for the finale, hoping that it would be something like the amazing Hamachi Toro experience I had at Maki Zushi a few months earlier.

As I bit down into the Hamachi Toro, the creaminess I expected was there, but it lacked the freshness and pop that Hamachi Toro should have. There was no buttery goodness and no bliss; only a decent, soft cut of fish that tasted flat.

The next course was their Kinoko Dobinmushi (Shiitake, Shimeji and Enoki Mushroom Soup), cooked in a ceramic teapot. They brought out the dish with a tiny teacup and a slice of Lime (it was unfortunate that they couldn't get Yuzu). The Dashi Broth reflected a purity in execution, with the fragrance of Kombu (Kelp), but despite it being packed with Mushrooms, there was surprisingly very little essence of Shiitake, Shimeji or Enoki. Disappointing.

While the next course was just about to come out (this one from the Sushi Bar), the Itamae's (Sushi Chef's) Cellphone began to ring(!) (more on this later). He put the finishing touches on the Sushi Course, containing 5 selections, each one of them already sauced.

Starting from the left, the first piece of Sushi was Hon Maguro (Bluefin Tuna) from Boston. I was really surprised and shocked that this pallid, dull-looking piece of fish was really Hon Maguro; it looked nothing like the vibrant, deep ruby red that Hon Maguro should be like (compare it to the Hon Maguro here (at Abe-san's own Bluefin), and here (at Maki Zushi)). This Hon Maguro was already topped with Soy Sauce, and the visual test held up as I ate it: Limp, decent, but nowhere near the freshness of the top sushi restaurants around town, and with big pieces of tendon / gristle. :(

The next piece was Akou-Dai (Red Rockfish, listed as "Snapper") from Tsukiji, Tokyo, Japan. I had never had Akou-Dai before, so I was really looking forward to this. It was garnished with a little Sea Salt and Yuzu Citrus Juice. The Akou-Dai turned out to be a really chewy, toothsome fish, like a softer Ika (Squid), but even for my first time, I could taste that lack of freshness in this fish (an unpleasant briny and fishy / pungent aroma) and like the Maguro, there was a piece of tendon / gristle in this as well.

The third piece was Katsuo (Bonito) from Hawaii. This was topped with Red Onions, Garlic and Ponzu Sauce, to which the Katsuo held up surprisingly well. The Katsuo was smoky and very meaty, and overall it was OK. The biggest problem I had with the fish was that the Itamae cut off a *huge* slab of Katsuo. It may be hard to see in this picture, but it was a messy, overly large cut.

Next was the Aji (Spanish Mackerel) from Tokyo, Japan. I found the Yuzu, Negi (Green Onion) and fresh-grated Ginger elements to be just a little too much for the Aji, taking away the focus from the normally great fish. Besides that, the Aji itself tasted slightly old and flat, lacking any of the normally wonderful freshness that you can find at top places around town.

The final piece was Mirugai (Geoduck) from Seattle, Washington. The Itamae dressed this with Lemon Juice and Sea Salt. Unfortunately, the Mirugai was very chewy, and tasted old and briny. Very disappointing.

The final savory course arrived next: Pan Sauteed Alaskan Halibut with Seared Foie Gras, Shiso King Crab Kataffi, Grilled Vegetables.

The King Crab Kataffi was first up: A nice execution on the Kataffi pastry itself, very thin and light, with a perfect crispiness. But sadly it tasted of reused, old oil (as if the deep-fryer oil hadn't been switched out in a while). The King Crab itself had a nice inherent sweetness.

I love Foie Gras, so I was really looking forward to that portion of the dish. The Pan Sauteed Alaskan Halibut sandwiched the Seared Foie Gras, and pressing down with my chopsticks, I found it strangely firm... very firm. I took a bite and realized why: The Halibut was completely overcooked, turning what should be a good, delicate fish into a hard, dry block of overcooked sadness. There was only 1 other table dining at the same time, so there was no excuse from the kitchen for this. The Foie Gras was also slightly overcooked, making the outside of the piece of Foie Gras into an overcooked "crust" of disappointment. At least the Foie Gras Truffle Oil Reduction sauce was tasty. :(

Finally, their Wasabi Mashed Potatoes lacked any hint of Wasabi at all, and tasted like plain Mashed Potatoes, and their Grilled Vegetables (Asparagus, Shiitake Mushrooms) were competent, but nothing more.

The final course in this Omakase was a dessert of Pear Compote, Tahitian Vanilla Gelato, Fresh Berries. The Pear Compote was surprisingly tart and salty(!), but when combined with the Fresh Strawberries and some of the Tahitian Vanilla Gelato, it brought the flavors around and balanced the whole dish, giving a nice alternating sweet and savory punch.

It's clear from the moment you step in that Takashi Abe-san has some problems to resolve: From the waitress folding the laundry right at the entrance, in the waiting area where any customer can see, to the Sushi Chef leaving his cell phone on, and receiving 4 (FOUR) phone calls during the meal, to the manager and staff arguing over their schedule and pay in front of the customers, Sea Smoke has some issues. At one point (the 4th incoming call on the Sushi Chef's cellphone), he picked up his cell (sitting atop the Sushi Bar), and squatted down behind the bar area, and had a full-on conversation with the person at the other end (rather loudly) so that anyone at the Sushi Bar could hear it. Overall, it was just uncomfortable and out-of-place.

The Menu ranges from $2.50 to $29 for various dishes / entrees, with the Omakase (Chef's Choice) set menu listed at $55 per person, but on the bill it was $60 per person. In addition, Sea Smoke is running a special promotion of 35% off(!) all Food from 11:30 a.m. - 12 Noon, and 5:00 p.m. - 6:00 p.m. until the beginning of December, so with the partial promotion (since the Omakase ran beyond the time slot), it ended up being ~$50 per person (including tax and tip).

As the newest restaurant from former Matsuhisa alumnus Chef Takashi Abe, Sea Smoke is suffering from an identity crisis, not to mention poor quality food and service issues. If Chef Abe wants to make a simple family-style restaurant that caters to the San Clemente residential clientele nearby, then more power to him. But when he's offering some of Bluefin's most famous dishes, and puts up a Daily Specials Board proclaiming Fresh Fish from certain parts of the world, and offers up an Omakase course, there are certain elevated expectations at that point.

Beyond that, even if he wants to cater to both crowds (which is doable), there's no excuse for the unprofessional, amateur acts by the front of the house, and lack of quality of the food itself, not to mention the poor execution by the kitchen. It's clear that either Chef Abe doesn't care too much about Sea Smoke (leaving it as a simple, informal "family restaurant"), or he's spread too thin running between all his different restaurants. It pains me to say it, but Sea Smoke is a disaster right now, and desperately needs Abe-san's attention.

Rating: 4.0 (out of 10.0)

Sea Smoke
831 Via Suerte, Suite #101
San Clemente, CA 92648
Tel: (949) 276-5331

Hours: [Lunch] Mon - Fri, 11:30 a.m. - 2:00 p.m.
[Dinner] Sun - Thurs, 5:00 p.m. - 9:00 p.m.
Fri - Sat, 5:00 p.m. - 9:30 p.m.


kevinEats said...

I was afraid that something like this would happen. Things have been going down hill for Abe ever since he sold his eponymous eatery on the peninsula; it's too bad that he had to sell out. Yours was an even more dour pronouncement than tangmeister's!

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Kevineats,

Yes, I was really looking forward to Abe-san bringing things back up, but it sounds like each venture is going further south for him; definitely disappointing.

The worst part about it is that the concepts for each of his ventures are sound; he just needs better quality control / oversight. If he had a stronger "2nd in command" at each of his restaurants now, things would be much better for it.

Epicuryan said...

I agree with both of you. Abe has lost his magic with his newer restaurants. A shame since my first trip to Abe was a revelation.

I was even more disappointed with Bluefin when it first opened, but it did improve with time, maybe the same will happen with Sea Smoke.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi tangbro1,

Definitely a shame about Abe-san and Sea Smoke. While I always hope a restaurant can turn things around, in Sea Smoke's case, it would take a massive change on all levels to right that ship.

edjusted said...

I've never been to any of Abe's restaurants but some of my relatives used to go to the Newport one all the time. I'm curious what you think of Nobu? I've only been to the one in Vegas at the Hard Rock Casino and was extremely underwhelmed by the food. The service was top notch, but the sushi and sashimi was really ordinary.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Edjusted,

Yah, Abe's eponymous restaurant, "Abe" in Newport Beach was his best, but he's sold it now. :(

Nobu in Vegas? Terrible. I've never been a fan of any of the Nobus, and totally agree with you: Overrated, Overpriced, not very good.

Anonymous said...

Live in San Clemete and have been to Sea Smoke 4 times since it opened, including tonight.

I am a fan of Bluefin but really can justify $150 plus tip for two.

Anyway, I agree Sea Smoke had issue when it first opened (as you've all described) however, I can say that each time I go ther eit is getting better, and the quality is definitely superior that when it first opened.

It appears they are listening to the early comments and attempting to make adjustments to gain an identity and meet the expectations people expect from Abe in terms of quality and atmosphere.

So, fo rthose whose first experience wasn't the greatest at Sea Smoke, I encourage you to give it another try. I'm sure you will notice a marked improvement.

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