Tuesday, March 9, 2010

All Style and No Substance - Grand Opening at Mizuki Japanese Cuisine and Noodles (or, Home of the $16 Bowl of Ramen)

With the unfortunate state of Japanese Ramen Noodles in Southern California, there's always keen interest when a new Ramen shop opens up, especially one that touts a pedigree based on drawing from 12 famous Ramen restaurants in Japan. You're hoping that, finally, this time, there's going to be a top-quality Ramen shop that can stand toe-to-toe with the best Ramen that Japan has to offer. The heavy promotion across local Japanese media only adds fuel to the fire. Finally, hearing rumors that legendary chef Minoru Sano is somehow connected to this new Ramen restaurant is the last bit of incentive I need to wrangle up Jotaru and head down to the Grand Opening of Mizuki Japanese Cuisine and Noodles this past Monday.

Thinking back on it now, I should've seen the warning signs (and I did, but I was still holding out hope that we'd finally get some amazing Ramen in So Cal): There were multiple advertisements from Mizuki looking to hire waitresses, busboys, line cooks, which seems normal, until you noticed that they listed something like *40* waitress positions being available(!). When we arrived for their Grand Opening, the second warning sign appeared: Mizuki occupies a gigantic space. It's cavernous and simply huge, and there were bad flashbacks to the interiors of various trendy, hip Japanese fusion restaurants in So Cal. This is the antithesis of the amazing Ramen-yas in Japan, with their tiny 10 - 12 seat counters, serving up bowls of soul-moving Ramen throughout the day.

Seeing a dark, underlit full bar to the left made me pause: "Is this really a Ramen-ya?!" But, no matter. At the end of the day it's all about the food, so we pressed on. (Although hearing Kenny G playing throughout the restaurant added more worry as we were seated. :)

It turns out that Mizuki is helmed by Chef Maesawa Masahiro (formerly of Mama Ramen in Torrance), who did indeed train under the (in)famous, legendary "Ramen Nazi", Chef Sano Minoru of *the* Shinasobaya in Kanagawa, Japan! But then I find out he trained with him for only 1 week (~_~), which isn't a good sign. In addition, the menu draws inspiration from 11 other Ramen-yas across Japan, and Mizuki claims that their menu of Ramen represents the best aspects of all of them.

The next warning sign and a little bit of sticker shock appears as we peruse the menu: Bowls of Ramen range from ~$10 up to a whopping $16, for their Special Steak Ramen, including a... Chicken Teriyaki Ramen. At this point, I have no idea why I ignored the blaring sirens and flashing red lights going off in my head, but we quickly placed an order, starting with the basics.

We start with the A-Mizuki Lunch Set: Shio Ramen (Salt-based Ramen Noodle Soup), Fried Rice and Salad.

I take a sip of the Broth: A massive wave of insanely Salty Hot Water hits my senses immediately. This is probably the saltiest Shio Ramen I've ever had in my life. As I struggle to peer through the overwhelming sodium taste, I can make out a light Chicken Broth flavor, but it's mainly Hot Salt Water. :(

Chef Maesawa pairs the Shio Ramen with a straight, white noodle. Mizuki serves 4 types of Ramen Noodles (a positive) to match the type of Broth, and they have them custom-manufactured to their specifications off-site. Unfortunately, for all their customization, the Noodle is overcooked and extremely soft and mushy.

Mizuki also prides itself on using Kurobuta Chashu (Roasted Berkshire Pork Slices), which sounds great, but in execution, the Chashu tastes *old* already; it has the funk of sitting in the refrigerator for ~1-2 days. :( It's also very dense and chewy. I can understand why many local Ramen shops cook large batches of Chashu at one time and refrigerate and use them throughout the week to save time and effort, but today's the Grand Opening, and they still can't serve fresh Chashu on their inaugural day? Disappointing.

At least the Side Salad's Mixed Greens taste fresh and aren't overdressed. The Chahan (Fried Rice) arrives too soft, moist and mushy (not fried properly), completely soaking in grease. Looking beyond the overly greasy aspect, the bits of Peas, Green Onions, Egg, Carrots and Shoyu (Soy Sauce) give it a respectable, fresh savory quality.

Their C-Mizuki Lunch Set arrives next: Tonkotsu Ramen (Ramen Noodles in Pork Bone Soup), Gyoza and Salad.

The Tonkotsu Broth is extremely salty as well. :( Not as bad as the Shio Broth, but still overwhelming. But to make matters worse, it tastes really flat. It's dull and muted, lacking the pungent wow factor that makes the best Tonkotsu Broths really stand out. The fried and fresh Green Onions, White Sesame Seeds and Beni Shoga (Pickled Red Ginger) help round things out, but it's not enough to save it.

Mizuki pairs the Tonkotsu with a straight white Noodle, but it's also overcooked (like the Shio Ramen). It lacks the svelte, thin wonderfulness of a good Hakata Ramen.

Their Gyoza (Pan-Fried Pork Dumplings) use a store-bought Dumpling Skin, but their own house-made stuffing. Sadly, these Gyoza are limp, soggy and lukewarm. (They are also offered in a curious "Large" size order, which contains 30(!) pieces.)

Their To Nyu Ramen (Soy Milk Ramen Noodle Soup) is the last to arrive.

Made with a base of their Shio (Salt) Broth with Organic Soy Milk, it sounds like it has potential. The first sip reveals a slight mellowing of the massive Salt shock from the Shio Broth; there's a light creaminess and more depth of flavor. But after 2 more sips I had to stop. The Salt from the Shio base just creeps up and overwhelms again.

Their Aji Tamago (Boiled Marinated Egg) uses an Organic Chicken Egg, which is a nice touch. But it's completely hard-boiled (as opposed to the more wonderful Hanjyuku (Flash-Boiled) preparation). It tastes fresh, though, with a light Soy Sauce infusion.

While the entire experience was underwhelming, I had a friend from Tokyo still in town, and decided to return for a 2nd visit in hopes they've improved. I try their Shio Ramen (Salt-based Ramen Noodle Soup) a 2nd time, and? It's still ridiculously salty. :( One sip was enough (and I hate wasting food).

Their Miso Ramen (Miso Ramen Noodle Soup) arrives next.

The Miso Broth is thick, viscous, very salty and very earthy. There's the funk of fermenting soybean and overall it's a decent Miso flavor, but it tastes very one-dimensional at times.

Mizuki pairs the Miso with a thick, curly, yellow Noodle, which has more heft and chew to match the Miso. It's decent, slightly too soft at times, but works.

Their Chashu (Roast Pork Slices) taste even older than the last visit.

The final pillar of core Ramen flavors arrives next in the form of their most expensive Ramen item on the menu: The $16 Tokusen Sute-ki Ra-men (Special Steak Ramen), served with their Shoyu Ramen (Soy Sauce-based Ramen Noodle Soup) topped with a Steak.

My Tokyo friend is incredulous, but we start with the Shoyu Broth: There's a thick layer of oil (taking a cue from Santouka Ramen, except that it's not hot at all, failing to trap in any extreme heat to keep the Soup piping hot), which reveals a better-than-average savory flavor. It's thankfully, the least salty of all the basic Ramen Broths served at Mizuki, but still a bit too heavy-handed.

Chef Maesawa pairs the Shoyu with a medium thick, straight, white Noodle. It is, sadly, overcooked like every other bowl of Ramen we've tried so far.

But to add insult to injury, the star of the $16 bowl of Ramen - their Special Steak - is served completely well-done. It's so overcooked, that the Beef is completely chunky and chewy, loaded with gristle, and it's covered in a sweet Tare Sauce that seems to try to cater to the mainstream Teriyaki fans. I've had better Steaks at Norm's (no hyperbole, it's *that* bad). :(

The rest of the Ramen menu features variations of Ramen, all using one of their 4 basic core Broths (Shio, Shoyu, Miso or Tonkotsu), with choices like Kimchee Ramen or Negi Ramen (Extra Green Onions piled onto their Shoyu Ramen base). And as hard as I tried, after the utter failure of their Steak Ramen, I couldn't bring myself to order their $12 Chicken Teriyaki Ramen. My friend from Tokyo was polite enough to quietly push away the bowl of Ramen, unfinished, and later confided in me that it was really bad (and my 'dachi is really positive and upbeat usually).

Service is haphazard, with waitresses running all over the place, covering each other's stations. But since it's their Grand Opening week, it's understandable that they're still trying to figure things out. The kitchen takes a while to serve their food at times: On my 2nd visit, with the restaurant at only ~25% capacity, the first bowl of Ramen took about ~15-20 minutes to come out. Prices range from $9.75 - $15.75 for their Ramen Noodles; Toppings range from $0.75 - $4.50 (for 2 slices of Chashu(!)).

Mizuki Japanese Cuisine & Noodles is a spectacular disappointment, with the kitchen unable to nail even the most basic Shio (Salt-based), Tonkotsu (Pork-Bone), Shoyu (Soy Sauce) and Miso Ramen flavors. For a chef who's trained under one of the best-of-the-best Ramen Chefs in Japan (albeit for 1 week), and for the restaurant claiming to draw inspiration from 12 famous Ramen restaurants across Japan, it's baffling. I'm still trying to figure out what market segment the ownership is aiming for: Mizuki is currently serving the most expensive bowls of Ramen in Southern California, with inferior execution. They also serve Sushi Rolls (Godzilla Rolls(?!)), Tarako Yaki (Grilled Cod Roe), Assorted Tempura Platters, Fresh Oysters, and Tuna Tortillas(?!).

And of course, the $16 bowl of Steak Ramen. If they're trying to create a high-end luxury item, they might as well raise the quality of the Steak to USDA Prime or maybe Grade A2 or A3 Wagyu, learn how to properly cook a Steak so it doesn't turn to Beef Jerky, and raise the price accordingly. It's great that they have 4 different types of Noodles and are using Organic Eggs, but without executing on the basic flavors of the Broth, it's all for naught. People have wondered if it truly takes a lifetime to master creating a good bowl of Ramen. Mizuki is proof that 1 week with a Ramen Master isn't enough (not even close). Mizuki Japanese Cuisine & Noodles is big, bombastic and all over the place. If they can just settle down and focus on mastering even 1 style of Ramen, they might be on their way to creating a good neighborhood eatery.

Rating: 3.4 (out of 10.0)

Mizuki Japanese Cuisine & Noodles
2981 Michelson Dr., Suite E
Irvine, CA 92612
Tel: (949) 251-0555

Hours: Open 7 Days A Week, 11:00 a.m. - 12:00 a.m. Midnight



weezermonkey said...

Oh, my. That's bad. :(

Exile Kiss said...

Hi weezermonkey,

No doubt. :( I feel bad writing about it, but my experiences there were that bad. I really hope they improve over the next few months.

Beef No Guy said...

More than 2 or three different flavored bowls/preps/broth is asking for trouble.

Douchifying comfort food by spending $$$ on decor (and dumbing it down while overcharging) over getting basics down never works.

One week training? I hope he got his kitchen cleaning skills down...

ila said...

oh no! that's too bad. there's always been bad buzz about mizuki though, so i should've guessed.
that parking lot was already crowded pre-mizuki, but now it's just another reason i'll never get to my dentist appointment on time (my dentist is in the same plaza)!

Exile Kiss said...

Hi BeefNoGuy,

Yah, you always hope that a good Ramen-ya can focus on 1 or 2 great recipes. Going beyond that makes things significantly harder to properly master.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi ila,

So you felt the bad vibe as well before they opened? I hope they can right the ship before it's too late.

Max Y. said...

So all that advertisement about Minoru Sano heading the project was a lie? The ads also implied that they were going to be serving ramens from 12 top chains in Japan (another lie). I told my friends on Yelp about this place a couple months back when I first saw the ads, and now, I'm sorry I did. I just wonder if Chef Sano knows that his name has been used to promote a substandard restaurant.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Max Y,

I know, I'm really bummed as well. :( When I heard Chef Minoru Sano was supposed to be tied to this, that was one of the reasons I was excited about the opening. But I verified with 2 servers and the manager that Mizuki's Chef Masahiro trained under Chef Sano... for 1 week.

And if drawing from the 12 famous Ramen-ya in Japan includes the Chicken Teriyaki Ramen, then I guess it does draw from them? It's disappointing.

Max Y. said...

Hi Exile Kiss,

I don't have the original Bridge USA ad in front of me, but I'm sure that the ad implied a lot more than just "drawing" from 12 top chains in Japan. It made the reader believe that they were going to be serving the actual ramens from those restaurants (and they mentioned all 12 by name!!). And Chicken Teriyaki Ramen?! I'm sure that you already know this, but no self respecting ramen chef would do that to a bowl of ramen. It just seems like Mizuki did a lot of deceiving in preparation for the opening, and that is very upsetting.

On the other hand, your review was insightful and very well written. Thank you for sharing your experience with the rest of us.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Max,

Oh, I totally agree. I also remember the original Bridge ads, and I was thinking that they were actually bringing these famous Ramen over. Sigh. Thanks.

Cookie Chomper said...

a glowing review is good, but a negative one is even more entertaining. I couldn't help but chuckle a bit while reading this..sadist? maybe..
Keep it up!

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Cookie Chomper,

Thanks. :) It really pains me when I have to write a negative review about a restaurant; it's someone's livelihood. But Mizuki is really bad.

Gastronomer said...

What a travesty! You'll have to trust your instincts next time around.

Kenny G = DOOM

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Gastronomer,

I know, I know. :) Thanks.

greg said...

One of the best reviews I've read in a long time, and it totally blows away the one I posted on Yelp. I'm definitely bookmarking your page, and I can't wait to read the rest of your reviews. You're extremely insightful and your photography is also very nice. Keep up the good writing.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi greg,

Thank you for the kind words. :) It brings me no pleasure to write a negative review, but it had to be said. I'm hoping they improve over time.

Keizo Shimamoto said...

ouch. sorry to hear that. i think it's about time u get ur ass back to japan!

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Keizo,

Ohisashiburi! :) Hai, hai, soon. Can't wait to visit you. (^_^)

Banana Wonder said...

Sending you glasses and glasses of water to counter all that salty ramen broth! Eeehk!

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Anna,

Thanks for the agua. :)

Chris said...

Unfortunately another ramen-ya fails So Cal doesn't it...

Anyway I have one nit picking I want to bring up - I've been reading your blog for a while (this is my first comment, and don't take it the wrong way, I am a fan of your posts!) and notice that you always seem to mention a 1-2 day funk of meats sitting in the fridge. While I understand as a consumer you want the freshest, best available product, the simple fact is that almost all establishments in the world including Momofuku and Thomas Keller's establishments (okay, this list is only American, but I'm sure other countries practice it) have certain foods that are highly time consuming on prep (sous vide, slow braise) that they say benefit from an overnight refrigeration (they may even freeze it) and simply reheat/sear it when they receive an order. So I'm wondering if the places you eat at are doing this poorly, allowing funky flavors to seep in while they are refrigerated, or can you just detect meat that has been previously refrigerated/frozen no matter what?

But rest assured I am not criticizing you in anyway, I'm just wondering because I often read upon recipes that tell you to stash the goods in the fridge until ready to be eaten, and would like to know the perspective of the consumer. Granted I'm only in college, but still I really would like to pick up these little tid-bits to teach myself along the way.

Anyhow, keep up the great posts!

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Chris,

Great question. :) Yes, there are definitely recipes around the world that rely on slow preps and allowing flavors to seep in (Coq Au Vin, some Canard de Confit recipes, etc.). That's not what I'm talking about.

It's the off-smell and deterioration of the proteins after it's been completely cooked and refrigerated / frozen and reused the following day(s). Try a simple test: The next time you make, say, a Baked Chicken or Braised Pork, after you finish cooking it, eat some of it immediately. Notice how fresh and bright the flavors are (or should be if you got fresh meat (sadly, some local markets sell some product that's not as fresh as it could be)).

Now leave some of the meat you just cooked and refrigerate it for 1-2 days. Take it out and reheat it and taste it. You should notice it's not as fresh, bright or pure as when you just finished cooking it and sampled some of it. That's the refrigerated / reheated / reused "funk" I'm talking about. It's different from a long-prep recipe that's still infusing / seeping into the ingredients and dish before it comes together the first time.

And usually I talk about this on dishes that *should* be served fresh. Visit most of the top Ramen-ya in Japan and they make their Chashu (Roast Pork Slices) fresh, for that day only. They sell out before they're done for the day and it's gone for the rest of the day. Menya Kissou's Chashu is legendary; so fresh, succulent, mouth-watering. :) Locally, out of the ~40 times I've visited, Foo Foo Tei in Hacienda Heights (not the copycat Monterey Park locale) they make their Pork Belly Chashu fresh *every day* as well. It's delicious and the best part of their Ramen. Murakami-san (chef-owner) is an obsessed madman :), devoted to that fresh Chashu and his Homemade Japanese Curry (so good). :)

It's just in the case of some dishes (like Chashu for Ramen), it's *so* much easier (and saves time, effort & money) for a local Ramen shop to cook it in large batches, wrap them up and refrigerate and use them throughout the week, and it tastes bad and is frustrating once you go to restaurants that serve it only made fresh that morning. It's a big difference.

Other examples include Zha Zi Ji ("Crispy" or "Fried Chicken") served at Cantonese restaurants. Sadly, too many of these places serve you leftover Chickens that were unsold the day before (already pre-cooked to save prep time), and then Fried the next day(s) and served to you. You can taste the bad funk immediately if you're looking for it. Same for Buta no Kakuni (Slow-Roasted / Braised Pork Belly) at Japanese restaurants locally: Some places will reheat the leftovers (or they make large batches) and you can taste it in there.

Hope this helps. Thanks.

edjusted said...

Wow, I put off reading your full review until after I had a chance to try it. I really really hope they're just getting the kinks worked out. I tried the tonkotsu and it wasn't that salty, and the noodles were just *slightly* overcooked, but it definitely wasn't mushy. I really hate mushy ramen noodles...to me, it just ruins it.

I had no idea Sano Minoru was just barely involved. Actually, I'm not even sure his name should've even been mentioned if the tutelage lasted one week. Geez.

Ah well, great review as always. I'm still going to cheer for them since they're the closest ramenya to where I live :P

Exile Kiss said...

Hi edjusted,

Thanks for your review. I'm glad to hear their Noodles aren't completely overcooked now (only slightly overcooked). Yah, on each of my visits the Noodles were just overdone.

I agree with you in that they shouldn't have even mentioned Chef Sano's name. It's a little misleading and adds even more disappointment to this restaurant.

You should take one for the team and try their $12 Chicken Teriyaki Ramen and let me know how it is. :P (~_~)...

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