There are expensive restaurants, and then there are restaurants that are worth the expense. Hamamori is one of the latter: a high-end sushi joint where you'll drop the Benjamins faster than you can say “omakase,” yet still come away thinking “I'm glad I did that.”
Set on the highest floor of South Coast Plaza's Crystal Court where Bangkok Four used to be, the restaurant is James Hamamori's latest, most personal ode to raw fish. For his new, glass-enclosed digs, the chef behind the Wasa Sushi mini-empire pulls a Steve Wynn by naming it after himself. But unlike the Vegas mogul, Hamamori works the floor. He'll be one of the guys preparing your meal.
And what a meal it is. Every morsel is picture-perfect; every taste, divine. The food is so blindingly good you'll find yourself excusing its one inescapable flaw: It will take a budget equal to a month's rent to get full. But you don't buy a Lamborghini, and then complain about the gas mileage.
Instead, you start devising a savings plan during dinner so you can come back. In the meantime, you relish every extravagant bite Hamamori produces. It all starts with his list of Signature Sashimi, raw seafood that's sauced and plated to impress.
The scallop is arranged in a pinwheel: six thin slices of it are briefly burned under a torch and draped in a silky-savory miso sauce. A slice of black truffle on top not only confirms the dish costs as much as five Double-Doubles, but it also justifies it.
Hamamori's halibut sashimi is just as pricey and just as pretty. Each milky oval hides under a shower of sun-dried mullet roe called karasumi. These brown crumbles look and taste like bacon bits-a substance so addictive you wish some was also included in Hamamori's miso-caesar salad. The chef, however, has craftier plans for that dish: He fries tofu cubes as crouton substitutes.
Although the caesar isn't the only salad they have, nothing is as fun as eating deep-fried veggies on a stick. Hamamori does exactly this with the okaki-crusted asparagus; but don't mistake it for standard tempura or a county-fair retread. Instead, regard it as art. A thick stalk is skewered, then covered in crushed Japanese rice crackers. The tips are left naked—exposed so they may bloom in the hot oil. The end product looks like a mixed-media sculpture crafted from flora and gravel, with a skull-rattling crunch to match.
Proteins are offered in equal parts turf and surf. The beef is predominantly Kobe, and the pork Kurobuta. If your appetite leans toward the latter, the hirokatsu is as good as a breaded, crispy pork cutlet gets. But to capitalize on the true porcine potential of the beast, opt for the kakuni instead. Here, braised pork-belly cubes are crisped up in a sauté pan and served with a dot of Chinese hot mustard. A bite-sized chunk melts tenderly into a soft, porky pudding.
As decadent as the Kurobuta items are, nothing beats the silly theater of the Kobe ishiyaki. First, thinly sliced beef tongue and skirt steak are laid out, followed by a heated, polished lava rock. When placing it on your table, the server gives out dire warnings about how hot the surface is, as if it's impossible to notice. For proof, she plops a piece of meat on top, and it sizzles on contact. After a few seconds, you pluck it off and dip the beef in the Himalayan rock salt, the Fiji apple or the seasoned soy sauce. The steak almost dissolves on the palate, while the tongue chews like bologna.
If your credit limit hasn't been breached by this point, it will when you start loading up on sushi. The delicacies are hand-formed by the man himself. Indulge in his uni, in particular. It's one ingredient Hamamori seems most proud of, pairing it with the Hamamori Special Oysters and giving it first billing in the “Uni N Toro” nigiri. Better yet, enjoy it plain to best appreciate the top-notch quality. Like a freshly extracted scoop of ice cream, the ripples on its surface are clearly defined and vibrant.
In the likely event you're still hungry after all this, I suggest scrounging your pockets for loose change. It won't buy you anything at Hamamori, but there's a Del Taco across the bridge at the mall.
Hamamori, 3333 Bear St., Ste. 320, Costa Mesa, (714) 850-0880; www.hamamori.com. Open for lunch, daily, 11:30 A.m.-2 p.m.; Dinner, Mon.-Sun., 5-8:30 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 5-9:30 p.m. Dinner for two, $100-$160, food only. Beer, wine and sake.
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.