Saturday, December 29, 2012

Sushi Murasaki - 12/28/2012

2901 W MacArthur Blvd Ste 108
Santa Ana, CA 92704
(714) 241-1000

Sushi Murasaki is often included in discussions of Orange County's best sushi restaurants. I first tried the restaurant back in 2008 and found the experience a bit lacking. While the sushi showed some promise, the quality varied from piece to piece and the cooked food was absolutely atrocious. Since then I've been hesitant to go back but this time I figured I'd sit at the bar and do things the right way.

Wakatake Onikoroshi "Akino Ki-Ippon"
The regular Demon Slayer is one of my go to sakes, with a soft round sweetness and silky texture the sake has an easy-drinking balance. This is their Autumnal hiya-oroshi release which means the sake hasn't been pasteurized a second time. Sake is typically pasteurized twice which takes away some of the flavor but makes it safer to transport during the hot summer months. The hiya-oroshi is a bit more nuanced than the regular version with grape and floral notes accompanying the soft silky texture.

Sunomono - Vinegared Cucumber with Sesame
Right after we sat down, Dai-san presented us with a small dish of cucumbers. The tangy crunch was effective for whetting the appetite for the meal to come.

Maguro - Bluefin Tuna
The bluefin tuna was a bit heavy on the soy though the flavor dissipates as the tender fish dissolves on the tongue, leaving behind a lingering twang punctuated by the spice of the chopped wasabi

Hirame - Halibut
The hirame felt a bit thicker and more substantial than the typical cut with the classic mild flavor that highlighted the spicy tang of the radish.

Hamachi - Yellowtail
Once upon a time yellowtail was my favorite sushi fish, the delicately scored meat melts in the mouth leaving behind a lovely oily smack.

Tai - Snapper
This was one of the more unconventional tai preparations I've had in sometime. Instead of salt and lemon, Dai topped the fish with oil and soy giving it a flavor reminiscent of Chinese steamed fish. An accent of toasted jalapeno gives the bite a distinctive vegetal heat.

Hotate - Seared Scallop
Next up was a beautifully seared scallop. The bivalve retains the jellied texture and sweetened flesh while the charred salt and pepper gives the scallop a crunchy crust and savory counterpoint.

Kampachi - Amberjack
Dai's nigiri had some of the most vivid marbling that I'd ever seen on Amberjack. The flavor lived up to its fatty appearance with a dollop of yuzu kocho providing spicy salty tang to counter the weight of the fish.

Ebi - Grilled Tiger Prawn with Liver Sauce
I've never been a big fan of the dense staid texture of cooked shrimp but I did like the iron-tinged heft of the cream sauce Dai paired with the prawns.

Aji - Spanish Mackerel
The mackerel was fantastically dense, almost gummy in texture. The bite of the ginger is very intense initially but as it fades the fish oils become more apparent.

Sake Toro - Salmon Belly
This was one of the most expressive pieces of salmon belly nigiri that I've ever had. A quick kiss of the blowtorch renders the fat, imparts a rich smoky essence, and gives the fish a lightly charred crust.

Toro - Fatty Tuna
Following the salmon toro we get the real thing: a slab of light pink tuna belly threaded with tiny veins of white. The meat posesses an intense richness but with an almost sweet cast to it, Dai certainly saved the best for last.

Awabi - Abalone
The 10-piece omakase dispensed with we asked Dai to just to serve us whatever he recommended. The piece of abalone I was given was surprisingly thick yet still quite tender while the thin ring of nori highlighted the shellfish's natural essence.

Mirugai - Giant Clam
I've been craving geoduck for the last few days and this snappy sweet morsel would have hit the spot were it not for the bits of shell.

Anago - Sea Eel
This was one of the few preparations of eel that didn't come drenched in sauce. Personally I thought the light dusting of salt was the perfect accent to emphasize the Anago's inherent salinity. Despite the light color the eel also had a bit of crust and caramelization to it.

Uni - Sea Urchin
Even before it was served I noted the faded mustard yellow color on the uni, never a good sign. While the roe had some sweetness upfront a creeping brackish funk on the finish suggested the urchin was none too fresh.

Gyusashi - Seared Kagoshima Wagyu
Dai was a bit surprised when we asked which prefecture the beef came from but he quickly recovered his composure and gamely answered Kagoshima. The intense marbling of the beef is complimented by an intense smoky beef-y char. The brush of soy and daikon topping add a much needed sense of restraint to the beef. After the one-dimensional Wagyu at CUT it was nice to experience such a complex and balanced preparation.

Dassai 50
Our second sake was a half bottle of Dassai 50. Compared to the Onikoroshi the Dassai is substantially sweeter with almost tropical fruit notes on the nose and the palate.

Kusshi Oyster
One of the most memorable pieces of the night. The oyster came gunkan style and topped with tart accompaniments accentuate the Kusshi's fantastic melon-like sweetness.

Engawa - Halibut Fin
This was one of the softer pieces of engawa that I've had. Though tasty, I keenly missed the crunchy snap which is one of the most appealing features of this rare treat.

Ika - Squid
Squid used to be a constant on my sushi dinners but it fell out of favor after a time. The thick strips of raw squid had an almost plump firmness but ended with a sweet creaminess and spicy kick from the ginger.

Sauteed Wagyu - with mushrooms and wasabi
We asked Dai if he could do something different with the Wagyu and after a moment his partner Tsutomu headed into the kitchen and when he came back he brought this plate with him. The meat was nicely cooked with plenty of fat but lacked the nigiri's finesse. The meat also had a fair amount of gristle, perhaps this was made from the trimmings left after prepping the Wagyu nigiri.

Kohada - Gizzard Shad
The addition of shiso here was a stroke of genius adding a luscious floral fragrance to an otherwise pedestrian Kohada.

Seared Toro - Seared Fatty Tuna
We opted for a second piece of toro seared this time. After passing through the thin curtain of tangy char and smoke one finds the same lush fatty goodness of the raw toro.

Spicy Blue Crab Hand Roll - with Habanero Masago
The typical blue crab roll is little more than rice, crab, and mayo wrapped in nori. Murasaki's preparation adds a spicy masago and cucumber. The sweetness of the crab is intricately bound with the habanero's heat which is in turned tempered by the rice and the refreshing succulence of the Julienned cucumber.

Toro Negi-maki - Fatty Tuna Cut Roll with Kampyo
The meal ended with a cut roll filled with toro mixed with scallion ginger and Kampyo. The finely minced tuna exudes a fishy savor but the pickled radish helped keep the richness in check.

Tamago - Egg
This was a classic Tamago, cool, hammy, and lightly sweet.

Raspberry Panna Cotta
I found the panna cotta a bit lacking, though the raspberry has a light tartness the custard itself felt a bit watery.

Creme Caramel
This dessert was more my speed; creamy with plenty of burnt sugar goodness.

Towards the end of the night co-owners Tsutomu and Dai posed for a couple pictures. Unlike some other itamae, these two don't take themselves too seriously which helps put newcomers at ease.

What a world of difference sitting at the bar makes; aside from the uni and mirugai, the sushi was all very impressive. While the issues I had with my last meal were still present, they were nowhere near as prominent this time around. Overall I'd say Murasaki falls a bit short of the top spots in Orange County but still well worth a visit. For the best experience, I'd steer clear of the cooked dishes and let Tsutomu and Dai work their magic at the bar.

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