Written by: Lee Walters
Photographs by: Lee Walters Photography and P. Pham Photography
Opening about a month ago in the up-and-coming trendy East End District of Santa Ana, Kiyomizu has brought a traditional, authentic Japanese stand up bar/restaurant to Orange County.
Intimate and quaint, there are five actual seats at the surround bar with an additional 15 spots for standing where diners can watch as their hand rolls — don’t call it sushi but more on that later — are prepared by the chef in front of them. A couple of seats at a built-in at the front window are also available if you’d rather people watch than chef watch.
Arriving around 6:30 p.m. on a recent Wednesday and not sure what to expect, I was greeted by the chef who took center stage. Simple and understated décor is welcoming and not overly pretentious. Taking a seat at the window, the one waitress on duty quickly provided a standard set up consisting of chopsticks, a small paper plate, napkin, menu and metal dipping tray.
Perusing the one-page menu, gyoza caught my eye and was the first item ordered. Similar to what many of us think as dumplings, these are smaller in size but are a close cousin. Served as a portion of six with a side of gluten-free, pure soy sauce, this dish is big enough to share. They are steamed and fried which provides the diner with the soft mouth feel of a steamed dumpling, along with the crunchiness of a fried one. Filled with ground chicken, mushroom, and peas, each bite was very flavorful and the soy sauce, devoid of the overly salty taste most soy sauces have, was a nice accompaniment.
As a consumer of chicken wings from Coast-to-Coast, that seemed like a logical choice to try next. This dish was served and quickly had me rethinking what a wing can be. A portion of four wings, this dish is big enough to share, but after the first bite you’re not going to want to. Brined for 24 hours and then marinated an additional 24, these wings are coated and then deep-fried at a perfect 355 degrees Fahrenheit. As they were placed in front of me, my first thought was they had been dredged in a finally powdered Panko breadcrumb coating. I soon learned they are actually prepared with a gluten-free, potato starch coating. Yes, gluten-free chicken wings! Perfectly cooked, the 48-hours of prep time well worth it, they were meaty, not at all greasy, and were unlike any wing enjoyed in the past. Served with a dipping sauce made of lemon, Miso, and Kewpie, (a Japanese mayonnaise that’s a little thicker than American-style mayo), that’s topped with a dollop of wasabi relish, these are a can’t-miss, small plate or “Not A Roll” as Kiyomizu refers to them.
When a kitchen experiments, thinks outside-the-box and comes up with a dish unique in its own right it’s usually a cause for celebration. Usually! Unfortunately, the Papaya SPAM, my next course, and just such an experimental dish, misses the mark. A mixture of julienned SPAM, young green papaya and jalapeno, seasoned with garlic, soy sauce, and sesame seeds, having grown up on SPAM my curiosity was piqued when this dish arrived. The SPAM and jalapeno were nicely seasoned, but after a couple of bites of the papaya, which tasted bitter and off-putting, I found myself cherry-picking out the SPAM and jalapeno. As the papaya dominates the dish this one needs to be rethought, reworked or removed. Papaya may be an acquired taste, but based on this dish I’ve yet to acquire it and can’t recommend it.
The star of this menu, and the reason Kiyomizu was opened in the first place, was to bring Japanese hand rolls to Santa Ana and Orange County. General Manager Peter Pham sources his scallops, yellowtail, and albacore twice a week from a distributor who has it flown in from Japan. The difference between hand rolls and sushi lies in the preparation. Following the traditional Japanese method, the chef takes a scoop of warm rice, one of the major differences between hand rolls and sushi, spreads it on a premium Nori, edible seaweed dried into a sheet, making a valley within the rice. The fish, or other filing such as blue crab, scallop or lobster, is then placed in the rice valley and the Nori is rolled up. The effect of preparing the hand roll this way is each bite presents the flavor of the Nori, along with the warm rice and the filling allowing all of the flavors to be enjoyed simultaneously without any of the ingredients overpowering the others.
All of the hand rolls are made to order with the diner advised to enjoy as soon as they are served which keeps the Nori crisp, unlike sushi that has been prepared ahead of time, which can cause the Nori to become limp and soggy.
My first hand roll was the Daily. The fish filing changes, as implied by the name, daily and is based on what the freshest fish Pham’s distributor can provide. Yellowtail was served this day. As promised, the Nori was crisp and broke easily as the rice and the Yellowtail greeted my palate. The fish was definitely the star of this roll as it was firm, fresh and very flavorful. The taste of seaweed and warm rice perfectly melded with the Yellowtail. Served with the aforementioned soy sauce, not wanting to interrupt the flavors, it sat unused.
Next up, the scallop hand roll. Once again the Nori was crisp and flavorful with the warm rice and scallop filling an excellent combination. Kiyomizu uses the larger, Hotate scallop in lieu of the smaller Bay scallops prevalent in many restaurants. Sliced and topped with a little lemon and kewpie, along with a cherry tomato, which was a little unusual and surprising to bite into, it all works. The acidic flavor of the perfectly ripe tomato balances nicely with the fresh and firm scallop mixture. The Blue Crab hand roll was my last but definitely a must-try. Premium Blue Crab is brought in and marinated overnight in Sake and spices. It’s then mixed with Kewpie, lemon, soy and Sriracha sauce. Each bite of this hand roll was filled with the ever-present Nori, rice and the sweet and succulent crab combination and was probably my favorite roll of the evening, although all of the ones presented were excellent. A slight hint of Sriracha sauce was noted, but it doesn’t dominate the flavors of the roll nor make it too spicy. If you like crabmeat this is the roll for you as it’s chock full of it.
Overall, my experience at this new Japanese hand roll restaurant was very positive. The menu is simple, straightforward and affordable with single hand rolls running $3.50 to $7; the “Not A Roll” selections running $2.50 to $9; and combination hand roll plates of 3, 4, 5 or 6 rolls offered from $10.50 to $21. A good selection of soft drinks, Japanese beer, wine, Sake and Shochu, Japanese liquor distilled from a variety of ingredients, are also available at surprisingly affordable prices. Green Tea and Black Sesame ice cream are offered for dessert at $2 per serving.
Some diners may take issue with the limited seating and only time will tell if there is a push back on the lack of seats. If you absolutely must sit down, get there early, as there was a steady flow of customers and all of the five, seated spots were quickly snapped up as soon as one became available. Vegetarian options are available off-menu and the chef will work with anyone who comes in and makes a request. Pham plans on having a weekly Happy Hour of sort, or more of a “special item here until it’s gone” promotion, in the future letting regulars and Instagram/Facebook followers know ahead of time when those will be taking place and what the “special item” is for that day.
There are two televisions mounted in the small space that no one seemed to be watching along with some music quietly playing in the background, but this doesn’t really seem like the kind of place you’d hang out for hours watching a game. More of a place to stop in, have a few hand rolls, don’t call it sushi, and/or “Not A Roll,” seated or standing, and continue to the movie or concert you’re on your way to. All items are available for take-out if you’d rather grab it and go.
Parking is available in front or near the restaurant, all metered, or there’s a parking garage directly behind the restaurant that charges $1 an hour.
Kiyomizu is open Monday through Friday, 11 a.m.to 3 p.m., and then 5 p.m. to 10 p.m.; and Saturdays and Sundays from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
305 E. Fourth St.
Santa Ana, CA
657.232.2868 | www.kiyomizurolls.com