Thursday, November 1, 2001

For This Chef, Fusion Works
Miki Izumisawa lets her creativity show in the sushi she makes in Laguna Beach. The underlying quality makes it all work.

By MARTIN BOOE, Special to The Times

     Miki Izumisawa, the chef at 242 Cafe Fusion Sushi, is a bit of an anomaly. She's a female sushi chef, a gender and occupation combo that doesn't show up often.
     The bigger point is that Izumisawa is extremely talented. In addition to turning out very fine sushi, she produces a number of innovative dishes. (She used to work at Nobu, which is a pretty good pedigree.)
     "Food is like art," she told my friends and me while she was making sushi rolls behind the bar. Later, she told us she sometimes goes into the woods for inspiration. As it turns out, she'll be padding around the forest for the next couple of weeks, so her restaurant will be closed until Nov. 12.
     But hang on to its address--242 N. Coast Highway, Laguna Beach--because this place is worth checking out when she comes back.
     The space itself is an attractive, bistro-like affair. It's compact and cheery, with the usual sushi bar seating and a few high tables.
     Though "fusion" is a loaded term these days because a lot of gastro-atrocities have been committed in its name, particularly in the form of cluttered, silly dishes, it's not a bad thing if you take it as a license for creativity ... and if you've got the stuff to back it up, which Izumisawa does.
     The first sign that we were in good hands was the tuna carpaccio. Frankly, I'd ordered it out of morbid curiosity; there's plenty of acceptable Franco-Japanese food around, but seeing an Italian word on the menu rang an alarm bell. It's a long way from sushi to Italian raw beef, as I've discovered from the other fish "carpaccios" around town.
     But there was nothing to worry about. This was the first fish carpaccio I'd had that worked. It was lightly dressed in a good olive oil infused with hot peppers, then sprinkled with toasted sesame seeds and finely chopped green onions. The tuna itself was excellent, as ought to be expected, but what made it great was the full range of flavor sensations.
     One night we arrived late at the restaurant and had to scramble to get our orders in. The words "sushi soup" certainly catch the eye--it sounded too weird to pass up.
     It turned out to be an unusually successful gambit: three or four slices of deep-fried sushi roll bobbing in a clear, crisp dashi broth. Texturally speaking, the effect was that of a Japanese analogue to chicken soup with dumplings, with the sushi rolls sitting in for the dumplings.
     This could be my imagination, but with the next arrival I began to detect a pattern.
     I began to suspect that Izumisawa was cooking in some parallel universe, creating dishes that were classic American comfort food in broad outline, but with an Asian twist; the regional cuisine of some notional border between Japan and the Midwest.
     That next dish was baked scallops with creamy sea urchin sauce. Served in a ramekin, here was an intriguing parallel to the old-fashioned American casserole.
     Sea urchin, one of nature's stranger edibles, here took on the role of cheese, adding body and sharpness to the dish, which was rounded out by a rice filler, egg, olive oil, vinegar and sake. (I'll admit I had to ask what was in this dish.)
     My suspicion was further bolstered by a special that night, seared albacore in a creamy seaweed sauce.
     You might compare this, strangely enough, with oysters Rockefeller, with the albacore standing in for the oysters and the rich seaweed sauce doubling for spinach. A high note of smelt made it all the more pleasing.
     Another interesting morsel is the tempura shrimp heads, which I wasn't aware I'd ordered, but we were in a feeding frenzy. They're dipped in tempura and fried to crackly perfection, a remarkable textural sensation. As long as you're OK with the idea of eating shrimp heads, that is.
     The sushi is wonderful here, of course. I've always found it rather difficult to talk about the nuances of sushi because, when it's done right, you're essentially talking about the nuances of various fish. Suffice it to say that the quality of the seafood at 242 is first-rate. The nigiri sushi is finely shaved and makes its stand on delicacy rather than bulk. Sweet shrimp, yellowtail, octopus--they're all good, and the various combinations of sushi and sashimi, running $18 to $19, are actually a bargain, with a dozen or so pieces to the plate.
     Like so many items here, the sushi rolls have a lot of flair. I particularly liked the Godzilla roll, which combines eel, spicy tuna, smelt egg, "krab" and avocado: a successful melding of many points on the flavor spectrum.
     Also good was the crunchy roll, packed with crisp tempura shrimp, "krab" and spicy yellowtail. ("Krab" is, as most people know, is a crab-like form of the Japanese processed fish product surimi. It doesn't have the real crab flavor, but it's perfectly fine in a lot of applications. I just wish they would tell us what fish it's made from.)

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 242 Cafe Fusion Sushi, 242 N. Coast Highway, Laguna Beach, (949) 494-2444. Open for lunch, noon-2 p.m., dinner 5:30-10 p.m. Closed Mondays. Selections run $5 to $19. Beer, wine.

Copyright 2001 Los Angeles Times