For years, there were two warring Japanese restaurants at Irvine Spectrum. Izakaya Wasa opened about 10 years ago and Kabuki four years after that. They were located almost directly across from each other at the Edwards Cinemas courtyard—two samurais on the verge of a duel. Both served sushi and cooked dishes, but in diametrically opposed ways.
Kabuki is from the multistate chain that has a glossy, spiral-bound, all-encompassing menu and a dining room that’s a city unto itself. Izakaya Wasa was from a tinier clan of sushi restaurants that used to include the popular WaSa Sushi in Irvine, where James Hamamori—now at South Coast Plaza’s Hamamori—first dazzled folks with his “Treasure” upgrades on nigiri that had them topped with wasabi-cream sauce, jalapeño and crispy onion. But the most important distinction between the two restaurants was that Izayaka Wasa’s menu was smaller and the dining room more intimate.
I’ve been to both. Though I preferred Izakaya Wasa, I saw the appeal of Kabuki, which was aimed at pleasing the largest possible demographic with familiar standards such as teriyaki bento boxes and California rolls. I liken it to the Denny’s of Japanese food and sushi. Izakaya Wasa’s dishes, on the other hand, were slightly more upscale and experimental.
Izakaya Wasa has now moved to bigger digs on the other side of the mall in a just-debuted courtyard that also boasts a shiny, new, glass-encased Apple Store. With the move, the restaurant also changed its name to Robata Wasa.
Though the new space isn’t to the scale of Kabuki’s, it’s close. One wall dominates the room; it’s lined with dozens of plates arranged to form the image of Hokusai’s The Great Wave. There’s a sushi bar where no one seems to want to sit. And behind that, the chefs roast sticks of kushiyaki over the white-hot coals of a robata grill, from which the restaurant takes its new name.
The refocus on the robata means that where there used to be only eight kinds of kushiyaki, there are now nearly 30. The list currently covers enough proteins to rival what’s offered at Honda Ya in Tustin. In addition to smoky chicken thigh and pork belly, you can now splurge on Wagyu beef rib-eye and salmon belly, which will cost you $12 and $8 dollars, respectively.
But the most telling difference between the old and the new is that Wasa’s signature “Treasures” are gone. And because they’re now dealing with potentially more customers spread out over a larger area, the servers wear earpieces to coordinate their efforts. With these changes, I realized immediately that this incarnation has evolved into an entirely different restaurant—one that’s more service-oriented and even more experimental.
When they greet you, the servers make it a point to bow, even the non-Japanese ones. And on the menu, there are dishes I’d never seen at the old place. There’s a horseradish-spiked salmon tartare served in a hipster jar with toasted slices of baguette that end up making it taste more French-Californian than Japanese.
An eggplant tempura, the fried vegetable stacked like Lincoln Logs, shines with a glazing of honey and comes with a frothy dipping sauce made with even more honey. Eating the dish reminded me of the fried bananas you get with coconut ice cream at the end of a Thai meal more than anything remotely associated with tempura.
And then there’s the signature main entrée of squid-ink uni pasta, which features housemade, jet-black dreadlocks of noodle tossed in a rich uni cream sauce. Since it’s full of seafood umami, it’s like a mac and cheese made for Aquaman. And it’s this fishiness from the shreds of nori, the lobes of fresh uni, and orbs of salt-bursting ikura that’s key to tempering the richness from becoming overbearing.
There’s also a pretty wonderful, creamy crab croquette that, once you breach its crunchy outer cocoon of panko, oozes a slow-moving béchamel with bits of crabmeat in it. Best of all, the dish comes with a funky fermented-goma dressing that turns the base of shredded cabbage into a salad worthy of its own dish.
You can still get sushi and rolls here, of course. But after sampling the pedestrian and slightly muddy-tasting unagi nigiri, I decided the delicate Japanese Spring Roll—which has shrimp, spicy crab, tuna, lettuce, cucumber and avocado all wrapped inside rice paper—is probably a better choice than the Rainbow or the Dragon Roll, even if it’s served with a standard Thai sweet chile sauce from a bottle. Besides, if I wanted a Rainbow Roll, I could go to Kabuki, where they’re still doled out as though Grand Slam Breakfasts.
Robata Wasa, 926 Spectrum Center Dr., Irvine, (949) 536-5064; www.robatawasa.com. Mon.-Thurs., 11 a.m.-3 p.m. & 5-10 p.m.; Fri., 11 a.m.-3 p.m. & 5-11 p.m.; Sat., noon-3 p.m. & 5-11 p.m.; Sun., noon-3 p.m. & 5-10 p.m. Main dishes, $14-$45. Full bar.
Before becoming an award-winning restaurant critic for OC Weekly in 2007, Edwin Goei went by the alias “elmomonster” on his blog Monster Munching, in which he once wrote a whole review in haiku.