Katsuya has arrived in Laguna with a bang, and if you enjoyed the ironically titled Hush for its high-decibel ambience, you won't be disappointed with the restaurant that has taken its place. Designed by minimalist Phillip Starck, its hard surfaces bounce the frequencies to ever-higher levels as the evening wears on.
You enter this Cal-Japanese hot spot directly into the capacious bar area where everyone seems to be having a very high time sipping their specialty cocktails. From there you can proceed up the steps to the main dining room or onto the large glass-enclosed patio. The highlights of the décor include giant images of a geisha's facial features — one is an eyebrow, one is painted lips, etc. Tall tumulus stones flank the dining room and are painted with kanji calligraphic characters that spell katsuya, which means victory and is also the name of the executive chef Katsuya Uechi.
We sat on the patio, which was a bit quieter, and tried to puzzle out the extensive menu. There is certainly something for everyone as categories include: robata (grilled food), starters, soups and salads, sushi and sashimi, sushi rolls, hot dishes and desserts, as well as a three-course teriyaki pre-fixe, an omakase (chef's choice) dinner and a tasting menu. In each major category there is a box listing house specialties in that category. We did our best to try a bit of everything.
The robata grill heats to 1,200 degrees so the food is flash-seared, sealing in all the juices. We enjoyed the spectacular, juicy, earthy, many-lobed maitake mushroom accented with a sweet glaze — it's good tasting and good for you too. Less interesting were the canned artichoke hearts.
We sampled three chicken preparations, including: negine,chicken breast skewers with yakitori sauce; sasami, skewers with mild wasabi sauce and tsukine; and meatballs, none of which were particularly exciting.
Katsuya shines when it comes to creative fusions and tasty sauces, but the quality of the raw fish itself, though good, is not the perfect sashimi that you might want to eat on its own with a dab of soy sauce.
One example of their inventive combinations is the signature crispy rice with spicy tuna, which features a little mound of grilled rice with a delicious crunchy bottom topped with minced ahi and finished with a thin round of jalapeno. This was one of our favorites, as was the baked snow crab handroll wrapped in soy paper. Again it was the rice that delivered most of the delicate flavor. The sushi rice had a lovely fluffy texture, less dense than traditional Japanese vinegar accented rice. Mixed in with the crab was the mild and creamy "chef's secret sauce."
Yellow tail sashimi was our least favorite, as it was in a pool of strong ponzu sauce that completely masked the flavor of the thin strips of fish. Much better was the salmon sashimi rolled around "onion chutney" and topped with a dab of black lumpfish caviar. The chutney brought a hint of sweetness and the caviar a bit of salt to the velvety fish.
A crab and avocado combo was wrapped in the thinnest possible piece of halibut, too thin to be tasted — not too much of interest there.
Sweet and juicy rock shrimp tempura was tossed with a nice creamy glaze and served with a refreshing sunomono (cucumber salad) with shreds of chicken breast. Deep-fried soft shell crab had a crunchy, not much "crabby" taste. The best part of the dish was the yummy fried seaweed mounded on top.
From the hot kitchen, a signature dish is miso-marinated black cod, the highlight of the evening. It was served in a portion that was almost entrée sized and included a small side of very good garlic broccolini and two little squares of potato gratin.
Katsuya's pastry chef, Masami Komiyama, puts out a wide variety of desserts, including a dense fudge-y chocolate cake.
Katsuya is Japanese food designed to suit the American palate in a trendy, hip setting.
ELLE HARROW and TERRY MARKOWITZ were in the gourmet foods and catering business for 20 years. They can be reached for comments or questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Information: (949) 793-4030 or sbe.com/katsuya/laguna-beach
Where: 858 S. Coast Hwy., Laguna Beach
When: Lunch: 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. daily
Dinner: 5:30 to 11 p.m. Sunday through Wednesday; 5:30 p.m to midnight Thursday through Saturday