Part of the Kaiseki seven-course meal showcases Dobin mushi soup, from top, a sashimi trio and abalone fried soft style at Newport Beach’s Kitayama.
“Appetizer,” she says matter-of-factly, unfolding the box to reveal what looks like the interior of a two-story dollhouse where each room is filled with several intriguing bites. On one of the shelves is a tiny bowl filled with gelatin-like globules. “Jellyfish pickle,” she says, pointing to it.
CINDY YAMANAKA, ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER
Rating: 2 stars
Where: 101 Bayview Place, Newport Beach
Hours: Lunch, 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. Mondays-Fridays. Dinner, 5:30-9:30 p.m. nightly.
Best place to sit: The booths, or the private tatami rooms around the perimeter of the garden. For sushi, the counter.
Don’t miss: Sushi, tempura soft-shell crab, Kobe beef sukiyaki, kaiseki.
About the kaiseki: Served for dinner only; must be ordered at least three days in advance.
About the noise: Whisper-friendly and romantic. More lively at the sushi counter.
Cost: Lunch combos, $9-$13; appetizers, $2-$10; entrees, $16-$65; prix fixe menus and kaiseki, $34-$100. Corkage, $12.
What the stars mean:
0 = poor, unacceptable
1 = fair, with some noteworthy qualities
2 = good, solid, above average
3 = excellent, memorable, well above norm
4 = world-class, extraordinary in every detail
Reviews are based on multiple visits. Ratings reflect the reviewer’s overall reaction to food, ambience and service.
“Shrimp ball,” she says, pointing to a flattened pancake coated with what looks like a confetti of green, orange and yellow caviar.
“Glass noodle with fish egg,” she says, pointing to a thimble-size tangle of clear noodles tinted orange from tobiko roe.
She motions to a slice of duck breast in a puddle of brown sauce. “Duck with wasabi.” And finally, “Giant clam,” she says, waving toward two slices of pickled geoduck clam.
This is the first course of the nine-course kaiseki menu at Kitayama, a sprawling Japanese restaurant hidden behind a wall of ivy just off Bristol Street and Jamboree Road in Newport Beach. Surrounded by a lovely garden and waterfall, Kitayama is bigger than most Japanese restaurants, and far more romantic. The dining room is made up mostly of private booths that are shrouded with sheer curtains.
Kaiseki is a formal Japanese dining ceremony that dates back several hundred years. It’s a meal that almost always begins with something cold and slippery – meant to surprise and delight – then progresses through a framework of time-honored techniques, textures and temperature shifts.
Following this ancient formula, sashimi arrives next, a duo of blue fin tuna and kanpachi, along with a beautiful torchon of monkfish liver, which is not that different from foie gras. The tuna is so deeply red, it looks at first glance like raw, bloody beef. The fish is exceptionally fresh.
Before we’ve had a chance to finish these few bites, our waitress shows up with the next course, a clear soup of enoki mushrooms and tofu, served in cast-iron tea pots. She instructs us to extract and eat the mushrooms first, then drink the broth like tea, which we pour into doll-size cups.
The soup is scaldingly hot, so extremely hot that we need to let it rest to prevent it from burning our mouths. But before the soup can reach a safe temperature, the waitress arrives with the next course, miso-glazed Chilean sea bass. We’re not sure what to do at this point. Ideally, each course would be savored slowly and methodically, each dish a meditation on texture, temperature and seasonality. But everything is piling up.
The waitress doesn’t seem the slightest bit concerned about the pace. At this point, she’s just dropping off dishes and darting away. She is clearly in the weeds. I’ve never seen a woman move so quickly in such a tightly wrapped kimono. It is far more comical than graceful – and that’s a shame because grace is hugely important to kaiseki.
Our request to slow things down is met with a chuckle. Thankfully, the food is very good, despite the gruff pace. We race through course after course, desperately trying to keep up. A lobster soup is large enough to be a meal on its own. Before we can finish it, the tempura has arrived. Oddly, it doesn’t look like tempura. There is no discernible batter – like the one I encounter on a wonderful soft-shell crab at the sushi counter on another visit – just a half-dozen lumps of white, deep-fried abalone nestled on a polished abalone shell, served with a finely pulverized seaweed salt for an extra rush of umami.
A petite steamer basket of exquisite Japanese pork belly and steamed mountain potato comes next. The meat is velvety soft, dressed with a white gravy spiked with wasabi. I want this dish to last as long as possible, but I eat it quickly, knowing full well the next dish, the prized Kobe beef, is already on its way.
A thin, almost microscopic speck of the expensive beef hides beneath a mound of chopped chives, red onion and needle-like strands of yuzu zest. It’s a beautiful presentation that I can’t resist posting to Facebook. And then I take a bite.
Onion. Nothing but onion. The meat is obliterated by the onslaught of raw onion. The intended climax of our meal is a resounding fail. The disappointment comes and goes quickly because the sushi course arrives before we have time to commiserate. Sushi is often served as the rice course, the final course, in a kaiseki, and the sushi at Kitayama is excellent.
This sushi course is a plate of five nigiri, all of which I’ve enjoyed at the sushi counter on a previous visit: a piece of salmon wrapped with a gossamer sheath of daikon, a nearly translucent slice of tai heaped with shredded shishito pepper, plus beautifully unadorned bluefin tuna, supremely fresh sea urchin and a strip of tataki-style calamari, each clutching the perfect bite-size nub of rice.
The way Kitayama is laid out, the sushi bar feels like a distinct restaurant within the restaurant. Service at the counter is almost non-existent, though, sparsely attended by backup waitresses clad in white shirts and dark pants instead of by the more experienced, more mature kimono-clad waitresses who chaperone the dining room.
The kitchen also offers a full roster of cooked food, including sukiyaki and shabu-shabu, which are both cooked at the table. I particularly like the sukiyaki, where the Kobe beef actually proves worthy. A waitress comes to the table and presents a bamboo tray filled with ribbons of dramatically marbled beef. “I show you the meat,” she says. “Now I cook it.” She takes it to an empty nearby table so the fat doesn’t splatter all over us. Once she has added the broth to the cast-iron pot, she brings it to our table and lets the sukiyaki finish cooking in front of us.
Kitayama is a lovely but socially awkward restaurant. I wish the staff would strive for a more refined level of hospitality instead of treating everyone like cattle. Dishes are dropped off with a loud clunk. Dirty plates are removed with all the grace of TSA agents.
There has never been anyone at the front door to greet me when I arrive. The bartender has to yell into the restaurant for someone to answer the door. And then when the manager or hostess does show up, they curtly bark, “Table or sushi bar?” It sounds more like a scolding than a question. And when it’s time to ask for the check at the sushi counter, the chef shouts through the restaurant, “Check please!” And after several minutes when nobody has responded, he hollers again, much more crudely, “CHECK PLEASE!”