Back in April, ed had the chance to visit San Diego, and Kirk, Cathy, and he realized that we had the same evening free to get together for dinner. The main question was, where? If memories serve, Cathy and ed had the same thought: let's get Kirk to guide us through a meal at Okan.
In general, both ed and Cathy are intrepid explorers of restaurants. But we had read about multiple menus, nightly specials, unfamiliar dishes, and a generally Japanese speaking clientele. For ed at least, the option of going it alone seemed problematic; plus Kirk always knows the good stuff (which is why all of us read this blog).
The only downside to getting together for this meal is that it is harder to concentrate on the food when carrying on interesting conversations -- often about great food from elsewhere. Therefore, you will hear from all three of us in this post.
That's shredded gobo root and carrot alongside the big crunchy chunks of bamboo shoot. The flavor, if memory serves, was focused and simple and good. The thick cut of the slices emphasizes the goodness of the shoots.
The first brought out were two dishes, one of bamboo, not pickled, just fresh cooked and chilled bamboo shoots. Pleasant and crunchy. The other dish was non-fried/raw (?) gobo. (Fried gobo will be in another dish further down in this post) Cathy liked both and thought they were refreshing and fresh tasting. She is inserting two bad photos to show portion sizes...sort of. She and ed didn't pull out their cameras at first. Kirk was amused when both of them started snapping away.
Next came eggplant stewed in miso (help, am I right?): Again the preparations seem very basic and simple. Although Kirk and Cathy liked the dish well enough, ed tends to prefer eggplant that is more heavily seasoned since it is so much like a flavor sponge.
Then came some stew with tofu and God knows what else: Hmmm. Cathy thinks it was pork and carrots or yam with kuro konnyaku(yam noodles?) and the tofu. Whatever. She thought it tasted like home. A home that made really good, fancy, deep flavored stew.
When the Gobo root salad appeared, it looked amazing: Of all the things we ate at night, and we ate a lot of things, this was for ed the most memorable and outstanding. Nonetheless, like virtually every other dish, this was extremely focused, direct, and simple. The shredded Gobo root was sweet and crunchy and addictive. The lightly dressed greens (mizuna???) underneath were provided a wonderful contrastive tang, added to different type of crunch, and made the plate truly beautiful.
When this huge salad was first served to us, ed thought there was no way that all three of us could ever finish it. However, throughout the meal, all of us would go back again and again for the salad, using it almost as a palate cleanser and refresher, like gari at a sushi bar.
It was a light, delicate, yet wonderfully flavored crunchy. It also was about ten inches tall in its initial presentation. Cathy could have eaten it all herself but then would not have had the ability to try so many of the other items Kirk had ordered.
Cathy could have eaten two dishes of chicken skin. By herself. If nobody was around.
Cathy could taste some sort of marinade for these wings. Not spicy but nice flavor. You know there was no sauce to add to anything, and nothing needed to have the flavor upped or changed for this entire meal.
Coming from the desert, ed insisted on some fish dish. What arrived was a sizable chunk of mackerel braised in soy sauce: ed found the fish to be rich and deeply flavored. For him, this was another hit.
Cathy liked it. Cathy liked everything. We forgot to take pictures of the sake! It was in the cutest little self chilling carafe. It was *really* good. The top one on the sake menu. Kirk said something about it not being able to be purchased in the States. Cathy does not remember details...on with the food.
While the restaurant is certainly not a sushi bar, the one raw seafood preparation that we were served was visually striking and unusual: The octopus slices were paperthin, and the contrast between them and the individual suckers was nice.
Cathy's first taste of sashimi included octopus. She had it on her 18th birthday at work. This was even better because of the presentation. The delicateness made her have to eat it slowly and concentrate on the flavor as well as textural contrast. Here is her photo, and you can see the sake glasses in the background.
The bacon was not bacon-y flavored at all and somehow brought out a sweetness in the asparagus. Cathy usually only buys the thinner fresh asparagus stalks and will continue to do so. Those fat ones have to be prepared differently. This is a perfect vegetable. This preparation-and presentation- was perfect.
Slices of grilled duck breast, complete with a tasty strip of duck fat (ummm-duck fat), showed up next: Again the focus was on showing off the quality ingredient and not masking or altering its flavor.
Cathy liked this one also. The duck was on top of grilled green onions which did not impart a flavor onto the duck, but if you ate the onion, the bit of duck grease flavored it just enough to make the simple grilled scallion's sweetness come through.
The meal ended with unagi prepared inside of tamago: At this point, ed's mouth was suffering from taste fatigue, and his brain was overloaded with food discussions and perhaps sake as well, so he doesn't remember much beyond a basic sweetness and a certain complexity of flavor.
All in all, all of us enjoyed the meal. The food, in retrospect, seems to ed to be much like a Japanese rock garden or a rural Shinto shrine - simple, focused, beautiful, and rustic. The restaurant repeatedly presents simple down-home preparations that show off the quality and flavors of the ingredients used. Kirk says that Okan means Mom's. Well, it certainly isn't ed's mom's cuisine. Nor did Cathy grow up with anything like this. It was wonderful- and Cathy was so glad to go out and socialize with "the guys" .