Most sushi venues tend to be on the simpler side, allowing the sushi itself to shine. This is hardly the case at Fashion Island’s Sushi Roku. And though the restaurant is spectacular inside and out, it has plenty on the menu to match. A pioneer of Cal-Japanese cuisine when it opened in Los Angeles in 1997—using French black truffles, chiles, and Italian cheeses that startled at the time—Sushi Roku now has six locations, from Santa Monica to Scottsdale.
In Newport Beach, the restaurant’s commanding facade is imposing. It’s obviously designed in keeping with its retail neighbors, but the Greco-Roman columns, even contemporized, seem out of place at a Japanese restaurant. Inside, the eye-popping decor starts at the entry with a chic chandelier, a starburst of white-fabric rectangles, and continues above the bar with a lit sculpture of colorful cubes. By day, natural light streams in through huge expanses of glass. Oh, gosh, did I forget about the food?
After several meals here, and a sushi repast aside, I’m tempted to order these four courses on every visit: the fluke kumquat sashimi, and the blue crab tartare with uni and caviar, both on the cold appetizer list; the Prime ribeye Japonais, and the Zen S’mores dessert—all dishes that are perfect for sharing.
The fluke is at once delicately sliced and succulent, topped with a tiny dollop of homemade kumquat jam and a cilantro leaf, and beautifully presented in a nap of yuzu vinaigrette.
Thoughtful use of salts is a menu hallmark. For this dish, black lava salt is sprinkled on the plate’s perimeter.
A bite of uni, a bite of osetra caviar, a bite of crab; when the blue crab tartare arrives, I imagine tasting these individual forkfuls, their flavors playing off each other. So I look on with horror as our server says, “Hope you like sea urchin!” as he mixes the three together tableside with gleeful abandon. My heart sinks—then quickly soars with my first glorious uni-imbued bite.
The ribeye entree—sauteed, then grilled over binchotan charcoal, a kilned Japanese oak—is tender, sumptuously fatty, and flavorful as only a ribeye can be, its sauce intense with large slices of fresh garlic. We’re thrilled with its sides of garlic green beans and Japanese-style potatoes, which get a kick from umeboshi, the salty pickled plums.
Zen S’mores bring any Sushi Roku meal to a fun and visually stunning close. The deconstructed classic is artfully arranged like a Zen garden on a bed of graham-cracker “sand” that looks meticulous enough to have been raked. Surrounding a small, contained flame are marshmallow halves, chocolate and green-tea truffles, and marshmallow cream sauce, with skewers for assembling your treat according to taste. You then can toast it over your own “campfire”—only I’ll take this version over the original anytime.
Plenty else on the menu is delicious, too. Among the cold appetizers, consider premium tofu three ways: with black truffles; caviar and lemon oil; Tokyo scallions and sesame, plus smoked pink salt on the side. Another dish, hanabi, which means fireworks, offers a dazzling counterpoint of cool spicy tuna and warm crispy rice. Among hot appetizers, the uni udon, Japanese-style pasta, offers another splendid option for sea urchin fans. And the filet, foie, and asparagus robata-style skewer explodes with hot, juicy flavor.
But a word about the A-5 wagyu-beef toban-yaki appetizer, the highest-ticket item at $59. On one occasion, it’s a sizzling slice of heaven on earth. On another, it’s gristly, sorely in need of its condiments, and easily overshadowed by the ribeye Japonais at $41.
We find other glitches, too, but they’re rare. Among the sushi hand rolls, for instance, we figure the lobster roll to be a slam dunk, but it’s a one-dimensional flop. One of our foursome compares its hollandaise-y miso sauce to face cream. Lobster lovers all, we find little to love.
On another visit, we order the banana flambé dessert, but it’s sold out. We’re encouraged to try the mango panna cotta instead.
We wait, and wait, and wait, only to be told that it didn’t turn out and it’s the last one of the night. At this point, there’s no way we’re going to order a third time. Our server is very apologetic.
In the lively dining room, decibels can be high and the people-watching fun. The sushi bar, on the other hand, is quiet on several visits. This is a shame when you consider that if you order yellowtail sushi at the table—while you’ll get quality fish, beautifully cut and simply presented—far more care goes into it at the sushi bar.
Dining at the sushi bar feels like an omakase tasting even when it isn’t, with each chef adding his own garnish. Following a series of tasty bites that include salmon eggs, octopus, monkfish liver, and sea urchin, our chef suggests a savory-and-sweet pairing of eel.
Wherever you sit—bar, sushi bar, dining room, or patio—the Ume and Matsu selections of sushi—six or eight pieces, respectively—offer a superb glimpse into the restaurant’s character. The dishes are created anew twice a year by Sapporo-born executive sushi chef Hiroshi Shima, who has been with the chain nearly from its beginnings.
The Hawaiian big-eye tuna on the Ume is topped with Parmesan shavings, our octopus, with a chile, and the salmon carpaccio with truffles. Such ingredients in this context no longer startle, but finessed as they are here, they still feel adventurous. Sushi purists might head elsewhere; I know I’ll be back.
327 Newport Center Drive