Sunday, September 21, 2008

Sea Smoke - 09/07/2008

831 Via Suerte
San Clemente, CA 92673

A few years ago Abe's eponymous restaurant (now under new management) was easily my favorite sushi restaurant. Now that Abe has taken a page from his former teacher Nobu and started his own little restaurant empire in the OC, I feel compelled to try each restaurant as it opens. Historically this has turned out poorly, both Bluefin and Izakaya Zero were disappointing during their early days, although Bluefin did get much better with time. Supposedly, each restaurant seems to be designed to serve a different market with Sea Smoke taking the family niche between upscale Bluefin and casual Izakaya Zero

The interior isn't quite as nice as Bluefin's reflecting the more family positioning of the restaurant. The hard plastic chairs and bare tabletops are a far cry from the padded wood backed seats at Bluefin. One plus of Sea Smoke is quite a bit larger, offering some modicum of privacy.

I started with one of my favorite Japanese beers, Yebisu. The beer is an all malt beer and as one would expect has a smooth maltiness and moderate bitterness on the finish, a bit richer than more mainstream Japanese beers. I finished the second half of the meal with a sake flight, which I found a bit disappointing for a daiginjo flight. My companion had a couple martinis, both very sweet and syrupy with barely a trace of alcohol

The menu borrows heavily from Bluefin's menu, with many familiar courses including my old favorite, Halibut Carpaccio. Unfortunately the restaurant doesnt offer omakase yet, so we were forced to order a la carte. We started with a mix of sushi and appetizers

Hamachi - Yellowtail
Soft, delicate texture and that characteristic yellowtail flavor, no problems in my book.

Hamachi Toro - Yellowtail Belly
The texture of the fish was so hard, I almost thought they forgot to defrost the fish. Flavor-wise the belly is of course much fattier, maybe a bit sweeter and fishier as well.

Seared Toro - Seared Fatty Tuna
The seared toro was surprisingly good. The light cooking melted some of the fat which gave the fish a nice oily sheen and enhanced the richness of the fish.

Uni - Sea Urchin
Looking at the uni it looked runny, almost like it had been melted, a clear indicator of the freshness, or lack thereof. The texture was semi-liquid and the uni had a distinct bitterness.

Ankimo & Caviar - Pate of Steamed Monk Fish Liver Served With a Miso Mustard Sauce & Crowned with Caviar
This has been hit or miss at Bluefin, sometimes the liver is soft and fatty like foie gras other times it has been tougher with a mild livery flavor. Fortunately this was on the good side. The sweet and spicy miso sauce can be a bit overpowering but the caviar's brine really accentuates the natural flavor of the ankimo.

Sea Smoke Roll - Seared Kobe Beef with Foie Gras Mousse Pate & Japanese Mushrooms Topped with Fresh Wasabi
The roll also comes with a little garlic chip that totally dominates the entire dish. Without the garlic chip, the smoky flavor of the meat definitely takes center stage. This dish definitely needs some work to balance the flavors.

Halibut Carpaccio - Sashimi of Halibut Dressed with Olive Oil, Yuzu & Shaved Black Truffle
This might be Abe's signature dish, as it is offered at all of his restaurants. I actually preferred the version that used truffle oil as the truffle flavor was far more intense. The peppercorn and the sliver of ginger on each piece of fish was cut a bit large and that it had a tendency to overpower the rest of the flavor. Interestingly that never bothered me at Restaurant Abe or at Bluefin.

Amaebi - Sweet Shrimp
The sweet shrimp here was top-notch. Two large translucent pieces of shrimp, flavored with a bit of the brains and innards, similar to what I had at Urasawa. This might have actually been better as the metallic flavor of the brain wasn't as apparent in this instance. Besides the shrimp was the shell of the shrimp head, fried so nicely that it was like munching on a potato chip. Interestingly our waitress asked if we wanted the head fried or in miso soup, this is the first time I have had sweet shrimp head in miso and it was very good. The shrimp adds a nice layer of complexity to the soup.

Not feeling quite full we ordered another round of sushi and appetizers.

Awabi - Abalone
Another disappointment. I am starting to get the impression the restaurant doesn't move too much of the less common sushi and it is probably a good idea to stick to basics. The abalone was dense and chewy no firmness or flavor to speak of.

Kanpachi - Amberjack
A bit softer and milder than the yellowtail above. Very nice.

Tai - Snapper
I would have preferred if this came with some sea salt sprinkled on top as that would have gone better with the shiso than soy sauce. The fish itself was very clean and crisp, the mark of good snapper.

Toro - Fatty Tuna
My friend an I originally wanted an order of raw toro and an order of seared toro, but our waitress mistakenly brought out two orders of seared toro. We decided to get an extra order of raw toro just to compare. Again the fish quality was solid although I detected a bit of tendon. Of the two preparations I definitely preferred the seared version. The raw toro just didn't have the explosive flavor that the seared toro did.

Sashimi Pizza - Crab, Tuna, Salmon, & Albacore with Miso Guacamole on a Thin Crust
I feel kind of embarrassed for ordering this but I wanted to try some new dishes. This tasted neither like sashimi nor pizza with the overall flavor more akin to a taco with a vague fishiness. No doubt the contribution of 4 different types of seafood.

Miso Cod - Broiled Butterfish Marinated in "Saikyo Miso"
I love butterfish, flaky, moist, and bursting with flavor. Miso cod seems to be a staple at many sushi restaurants. This had all the hallmarks of a good preparation, but the fish was the slightest bit overdone. This may seem a bit nit-picky but when comparing between nearly identical dishes the small differences matter.

Chilean Sea Bass & Foie Gras - Broiled Chilean Sea Bass, Sautéed Foie Gras with White Truffle Oil & "Yamamomo" Garnish
Another staple since the halcyon days at Abe. This dish has gotten steadily worse with each incarnation. The culprit is the foie gras, way too lean and dry with a strong flavor of liver. The truffle oil is lost among the foie and the naturally oily fish.

For a new restaurant, Sea Smoke wasn't bad. There were a few gaffes by the staff and some of the dishes were off the mark but overall the food was pretty good, especially given the competition in the area. I suspect the use of items from Bluefin's menu helped speed along the growing pains. The price for the meal was a bit high considering this is supposed to be a family restaurant. I doubt I'll be back as I can get the same meal at Bluefin which is closer, or better yet I'll just get omakase at Zo or Mori for the same price.


Tubs said...

Hey that's a great post. Question, how can you tell that fish is well prepared after it has been cooked? You seem to really know your fish and texture you must explain that to me one day!!!

Tangbro1 said...

I'd like to say I have some sort of formal criteria but I tend to judge off the cuff. Some fish like the black cod, I have just had a lot of times so I have an idea of what to expect.

I think personal preference has a lot to do with the opinion as well. I like fish to be more tender or supple, while Kevin prefers firmer fish.

Food, she thought. said...


zomg...that looks delicious. two questions:

1) i must know if they are open for lunch, as I am often in the Oc on business (i can find this out myself)

2) were the martinis made with soju?

Tangbro1 said...

I would actually recommend their upscale sister restaurant Bluefin for lunch. They have an omakase for $35 that has an appetizer, salad, cooked fish, and sushi.

I don't think the martinis were made with Soju, but I'll double check the menu photos when I get home.

hsumh said...

That is one sexy dude in the pic!! :P

Exile Kiss said...

Hi tangbro1,

Kevin mentioned that you got a chance to try out Sea Smoke as well. Good review and I'm happy your experience turned out better than mine (which was a disaster - and this is with their Omakase course :(.

Keep up the good work.