Ikko: Freestyle Japanese Izakaya in Costa Mesa

Japanese Restaurant Orange County

Ikko operates next to a copy store, but is an original Japanese concept.

Throughout the past year, I’ve slowly worked my way through Los Angeles Times food writer Linda Burum’s guide to Southern California’s top izakayas (Japanese pubs). Unfortunately, the flavor of the food doesn’t always match Ms. Burum’s tantalizing descriptions. A notable exception: Ikko Kobayashi’s “freestyle Japanese” restaurant. Ikko is situated in a strip mall next to The Camp, an eco-friendly mixed use development. The restaurant only houses six tables and ten seats at a sushi bar, but the chef manages to pack plenty of flavor in the small space.

Chef Ikko has an impeccable eye for fresh seafood. At this stage of my eating development, it’s fairly unusual to find an unfamiliar ingredient. At Ikko, there were a number of sea creatures listed on the specials board that I hadn’t heard of, including fish that I’ve never even seen before, like Alphonsino, Flying Squid, Chicken Grant, Pen Shell, Golden Thread and Blue Fin Sea Robin. Thankfully, our waiter was well-informed and was able to describe each of the unusual items.

Japanese Food Orange County

We started with “Today’s Catch” ($14) sashimi, red snapper-like Crimson Sea Bream seasoned artistically with sherry vinegar drops and three kinds of oil: beet, basil and garlic. The fish was impeccably fresh, and the oils provided wonderful flavors.

Japanese Food Orange County

The chef crowned Japanese eggplant tempura ($9.75) discs with dollops of spicy tuna and wasabi smelt eggs. Delicately fried eggplant matched surprisingly well with the seafood, and wasabi-infused fish eggs provided a juicy jolt.

Japanese Food Orange County

Although Ikko offers advanced seafood preparations, we wanted to try some land-based animals for balance. Smoked duck breast with Tokyo onion green sauce ($7.50) was served cold, rosy fowl slices topped with onion threads, served with hot mustard and wasabi dabs and red peppercorns. It was good that the spicy elements weren’t integrated with the duck, so we could regulate the amount of heat we wanted.

Sushi Orange County

I was excited to try some of Ikko’s exotic fish and ordered two kinds of sushi. Golden Thread (2 for $6) was like whitefish, sprinkled with sea salt for crunchy seasoning. Bluefin Sea Robin sushi (2 for $6) was like mackerel. Both bites were good, and sushi rice was expertly prepared.

Japanese Food Orange County

After five dishes, we were eager to sample more of Chef Ikko’s experimental Japanese cooking. We began Round Two with a plate of simmered beef tongue with miso demiglace sauce ($7.95). I was a bit wary of the rarely-seen cow organ, but the meat turned out to be similar to pot roast or boneless short rib, but fattier. Miso demiglace was rich, but powerfully flavorful.

Japanese Food Orange County

Linda Burum praised baked radish pancake with sea urchin, salmon roe and shrimp ($8.95) in her write-up. It was an interesting concept, a glutinous pancake topped with so many overtly oceanic creatures. Creamy urchin and bursting salmon roe proved to be a little too of-the-ocean for my palate, but I was glad to have tried it. The pancake itself was stellar.

Origami Orange County

With some basic folding skills, Ikko’s chopstick wrappers became paper airplanes.

To drink, there were some sakes with entertaining names, including Onigoroshi (Devil Killer) and Suigei (Drunken Whale). Normally, if a drink’s good enough to slay Lucifer or to inebriate Moby Dick, I’m in, but I still had to drive an hour back to Los Angeles, so I abstained.

Thanks to Chef Ikko, not only did I expand my knowledge of ocean life, but I was enamored with the flavors that he was able to generate from those rarely-seen ingredients. I’m looking forward to taking another look at his specials board in the future.

Ikko: Freestyle Japanese Izakaya in Costa Mesa


Joshua Lurie

Joshua Lurie founded FoodGPS in 2005. Read about him here.

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