It goes without saying that the pandemic has taken away so much from the restaurant world. The whole dining experience has changed (going to a takeout only format for many places), and with folks eating from to-go containers in their car or back at home. Plating, presentation, enjoying freshly prepared dishes just out of the kitchen to your table are all things of the past.
But perhaps the greatest loss might very well be communing with others over a meal. Being able to talk to other human beings (outside of your pandemic pod), from the servers to the chef, to friends & family, is such a fundamental, important aspect to a great dining experience that its loss is the most deeply felt.
We were reminded of this (and grateful) during our only formal dine-in meal of 2020 during the pandemic. Note: This was from a couple months ago, but it feels like another era, when Orange County had briefly opened up and allowed restaurants to have dine-in customers at limited capacity with proper health guidelines.
2020 was mainly cooking at home and supporting local restaurants with takeout orders (to bring home) when possible. But when Orange County allowed dine-in a few months ago, and Sushi Ii’s manager assured us of their very careful health protocols, we decided to venture out and give this a try. I was still prepared to walk out if it turned out the restaurant wasn’t following COVID guidelines, but thankfully they were as careful as the manager had said over the phone.
Sushi Ii (that’s two “i’s” (“ii”)) is a new Osaka Sushi specialist that debuted in 2020 serving Hakozushi (literally “Box Sushi”), Battera (Mackerel Pressed Sushi) and Bozushi (Rod-shaped Pressed Sushi). They had just opened their doors along Pacific Coast Highway in February, and in 1 month, the pandemic hit, forcing them to close their doors and go into takeout mode.
Thanks to @A5KOBE for the recommendation, it turns out Sushi Ii is the new home for Chef-Owner Susumu Ii (“ii”, if the font wasn’t clear), who ran Kasen Sushi for over 25 years(!). We never made it out to Kasen Sushi back in the day, so I’ll leave it up to our OG Hounds @ipsedixit @Porthos @A5KOBE @ColinMorey and others to chime in on how Kasen was back then.
Walking into the new Sushi Ii, it is a beautiful space, with a clean Sushi Bar as the main centerpiece. They had a huge sheet of transparent plexiglass hanging from the ceiling along the Sushi Bar, with a small cutout “window” (like a bank teller) where the pieces of Sushi could be delivered to guests at the bar.
They also only served 2 parties at the bar (one on each end), so there was a good ~18 - 20 feet distance between us and the other party, and for tables in the dining room, they were all 6 feet apart at least. It felt safe.
As we sat down, it was a surreal experience: Seeing a real live person (not in your pandemic pod) in front of you (through plexiglass (with a mask), friendly and greeting you was a wonderful feeling. Being able to chat with Susumu-san and the waitstaff, to see how they are doing, to see how business, life is, etc., was worth the price admission. We began the Sushi Omakase experience with:
Ayu Konbu Maki (Sweetfish Wrapped in Kelp):
Tender, gentle ocean waves of flavor, a moist filling that was balanced of sweet and savory, this was a great starter.
Kaoritsuru - Junmai Daiginjo Sake (Yamaguchi, Japan):
The only hiccup of the evening was their recommended Sake: It turns out that both Susumu-san, his assistant Chef, and his wife and other waitstaff do not drink Sake, so that probably explains why the Kaoritsuru was so underwhelming. It had a noticeable alcohol burn with a long tail, not very pleasant to drink.
Zensai Course - Unagi Shunji, Anago Yahatamaki, Shiitake no Uni Hasami, Kaki no Isobeage, Kazunoko, Igaguri:
Susumu-san’s Zensai Course, to reflect the season, was beautifully plated and a sight for sore eyes. The first and only formal dine-in meal we had in 2020’s pandemic, the plating alone made the dish more appetizing before we even took a bite.
Unagi Shunji (Freshwater Eel):
The Unagi Shunji (Freshwater Eel) bite was wonderful. Not overly sweet like some versions are wont to be.
Anago Yahatamaki (Sea Eel):
Shiitake no Uni Hasami (Shiitake Mushroom, Sea Urchin):
The Shiitake Mushroom and Sea Urchin “Sandwich” was stellar! Full of earthy, crave-worthy flavors, the Poached Shiitake Mushroom was bursting with flavor and then featuring a perfect, fresh, sweet, creamy Uni center (flawless Sea Urchin from Santa Barbara), this was one of the best bites of the meal.
Kaki no Isobeage (Deep Fried Persimmon wrapped in Seaweed):
The Kaki no Isobeage was another excellent bite. Beautiful sweet, earthy, ripe Persimmon Fruit wrapped in Seaweed and then deep fried to near perfection (not greasy nor oily).
Kazunoko (Herring Roe):
A wonderful textural contrast, super crunchy (inherently), Sushi Ii’s Kazunoko (Herring Roe) had a delicate Dashi backnote and was a great way to liven up the taste buds.
Igaguri (Shrimp and Sweet Chestnuts):
But the biggest surprise of the Zensai Course was the Igaguri, which was a playful and beautiful recreation of the star ingredient, Sweet Chestnut’s natural outer shape, but all edible. The Shrimp was sweet and delicate, but the Chestnut flavor was incredible! There’s a sturdy creaminess, nuttiness, and with layered nuance of flavors. I have no idea how Susumu-san does it, but this was outstanding.
In the very first Zensai / Seasonal starter course, I was grateful and thoroughly enjoying what had been missing throughout 2020: Communing with a fellow human being (outside of your pandemic circle) over a meal, discussing the intricacies of the dish, preparation, etc. Susumu-san was able to chat about the seasonality of the ingredients, how wonderful the Chestnuts and Persimmons were.
Hakuro Suishu - Dewasansan 39 - Junmai Daiginjo Sake (Yamagata, Japan):
We had picked up this excellent bottle of Sake to support the Sake industry, and the Hakuro Suishu “Dewasansan 39” delivered! This Junmai Daiginjo Sake was full, sweet, rich, but with a very clean finish. It’s maybe a bit sweeter than what I usually enjoy, but drinking this in a real Sushi Bar setting with a knowledgeable itamae, enjoying each bite, made all the difference. It was a fantastic Sake on this evening and paired nicely with many of the bites.
Ohtoro - Fattiest Tuna Belly (Mexico):
In a bit of a shocker, Susumu-san started off the Sushi portion with Ohtoro(!). The progression was curious, but the Ohtoro (Fattiest Tuna Belly) was straight up excellent! Gorgeous, luscious, ridiculous!
The Shari (Sushi Rice) was very good, not overly mushy, nor too hard, a good balance of Vinegar that worked well with all the Fish we had this evening. It’s not as good as Mori Sushi’s legendary Shari, or Yoshizumi’s but this was the best Shari we had in 2020. Easily.
Shima Aji - Striped Jack (Kyushu, Japan):
Nice balance of light creamy fattiness with lean, it had been almost a year since we had Nigiri Sushi in a sit down setting, freshly prepared. And it was glorious!
Amaebi - Sweet Shrimp (Santa Barbara, U.S.A.):
Another wonderful bite, Live Amaebi (Sweet Shrimp) from nearby Santa Barbara, this was plump, silky, meaty and so bright and inherently sweet. Wow!
Hirame Kobujime - Halibut Wrapped in Konbu (South Korea):
Next was the Hirame Kobujime, or Halibut wrapped in Konbu (Kelp) for flavor infusion before serving. This felt like it should’ve been a starter bite, as it was light, delicate compared to the previous bites we had, but it was still enjoyable as is.
Saba - Mackerel (Norway):
A beautiful looking preparation, Susumu-san’s Saba (Mackerel) was one of the highlights of the evening, a great briny (in a good way), naturally oily, wonderful bite of happiness.
Kohada - Gizzard Shad (Kyushu, Japan):
One of my most anticipated bites, Susumu-san’s Kohada doesn’t reach the heights of greatness like Maru-san’s legendary version at Mori Sushi, nor Mori-san’s wonderful preparation we had a couple years ago at Shiki, but this was still enjoyable.
Uni - Sea Urchin (Santa Barbara, U.S.A.):
Flawless. Despite 2020 being so awful and supply chains and other situations around the restaurant industry being so fractured, the Uni that was served on this evening was wonderfully sweet, bright, creamy and with no oceanic tinge whatsoever.
Aji - Horse Mackerel (Japan):
Susumu-san didn’t remember exactly where in Japan his Aji (Horse Mackerel) came from, but he was still able to talk about the qualities of Aji that he enjoys, and that was just fine. The Aji itself was tasty, but not as sublime as the best versions we’ve had.
Hotate - Scallop (Hokkaido, Japan):
Ridiculous. Silky, tender, vibrant bite of excellent Scallop from Hokkaido!
Anago - Sea Eel (Shikoku, Japan):
This was OK. A straightforward, solid, preparation.
Miso Soup (with Amaebi (Sweet Shrimp) Head):
The previous Amaebi (Sweet Shrimp)'s head was prepared as a Miso Soup for us. It was a beautiful, warming Soup, lightly oceanic, earthy.
(2nd) Saba - Mackerel (Norway):
The Saba was so good, we had to order another round at this point! As outstanding as the first round.
Mirugai - Geoduck (Seattle, U.S.A.):
It feels like years since we’ve had Mirugai, but Susumu-san’s preparation had a nice light chew, meaty, muscular and very fresh.
Iwashi - Sardine (Japan):
This was simply “good” - a tasty bite by itself - but it also reflects the level of skill difference and sourcing and preparation between various Sushi Chefs. In this case, a good tasty Iwashi, but it paled in comparison to the absolutely stunning, legendary preparation from Maru-san at Mori Sushi (numerous times).
Toro Takuan Temaki (Fattiest Tuna Belly with Pickled Daikon Radish Handroll):
We asked for a Toro Takuan Handroll to finish off the evening, and Sushi Ii’s version is very good, the previous outstanding Ohtoro chopped up with bits of Takuan (Pickled Daikon Radish) for some crunchy textural contrast, wrapped up with Rice and Nori (Seaweed). This is a small minus for Sushi Ii: Their Nori wrapper was only barely crisped. The ones used by Maru-san at Mori Sushi remain the gold standard locally, being super crispy, light and delicious. But this was still a great Temaki and a nice finish.
Tamago - Egg:
The classic finisher to a Sushi experience, the Tamago is oftentimes used to measure a Sushi Chef’s skill. Susumu-san’s Tamago was outstanding! Juicy, plump, moist Egg Omelet (chilled), it was one of the better versions we’ve had.
Azuki Panna Cotta:
The Dessert course was an Azuki (Red Bean) Panna Cotta. This was OK. Desserts might not be Susumu-san’s strength, but it was still nice. The Panna Cotta was a bit too firm, and the flavors worked, but was rather straightforward.
Sushi Ii’s Omakase meal was probably the most enjoyable dining experience we had in pandemic 2020. While it was also our only fine dining meal in a restaurant in this horrible year, it was truly standout. Throughout the course of the evening, being able to converse with a venerable Sushi Chef like Susumu-san, talking about how he and his family are handling the pandemic (and he asking how we were doing), talking about his favorite Fish, him talking about how certain Fish were prepared, giving little tidbits of information… it all served to highlight what we missed the most during COVID-19:
Celebrating human interaction over a meal. The warm, welcoming staff, the friendly Sushi Chef, and freshly prepared, just made Sushi, one piece at a time. While Susumu-san and Sushi Ii might not surpass the dine-in Omakase experiences of Mori Sushi or Sushi Yoshizumi and other standouts, for 2020, this dine-in Sushi Ii meal blew away every single Sushi and Chirashi To-Go meal we had from all of the top dogs in So Cal.
Sushi Ii’s dine-in Omakase was better than Shunji’s To-Go options, better than Shin, better than Sushi Kaneyoshi, better than Sushi Ginza Onodera and Morihiro To-Go. That’s how important just prepared Sushi (Neta and Shari) are, how a Sushi Chef’s personal Nikiri (the finishing Sauce for Sushi) and other seasonings (like Yuzu, Sudachi, Sea Salt, etc.) are critical to the maximum enjoyment for Sushi (and completely missing when you order To-Go from all the other popular, hyped places).
But most important is the human element. We are social creatures and being able to enjoy a meal and chat it up with the Chef and staff (and with friends and family) is the thing we most look forward to when this pandemic is over. And for one night during the pandemic, we were fortunate enough and grateful for that during our highlight meal at Sushi Ii.
100 West Coast Highway, Suite 202
Newport Beach, CA 92663
Tel: (949) 287-6268