By Frank Sabatini Jr.
The Octopus Restaurant Group based in Los Angeles has nudged a tentacle into Uptown’s ubiquitous sushi scene with the hope of perhaps giving us something we haven’t experienced before.
For some, the flashy design elements and modern presentations of Japanese cuisine at H20 Sushi and Izakaya in Hillcrest provide a novel and exciting safe haven from the staid sushi haunts of the past two decades. With a full cocktail bar in place, it arrived in July to one the neighborhood’s nicest modern structures, in a spacious storefront left vacant by D Bar.
Others, however, may be dissuaded by H20’s corporate soul, which lacks a chef-driven kitchen compared to Asian kitchens specializing individually in yakitori, noodle pots, tempura and sushi. Here, in the presence of attractive LED lighting, a large screen devoted to music videos, and beaded curtains dangling from the towering ceiling, you can have it all.
The menu is big and pictorial — nearly identical to those at H20’s other two locations in Orange and Los Angeles counties. Visiting as a trio, we approached it one page at a time, starting with the carpaccio category.
We chose the garlic tuna and yellowtail, both of which better qualified as sashimi since neither fish was sliced paper-thin. The tuna was pleasantly accented with chive oil, roe and coarse black pepper clinging to the seared edges. If the citrusy yuzu listed in its description made it onto the plate, we didn’t notice, although I did detect bright traces of it with the yellowtail, which unanimously appealed to us mainly because of the fresh jalapeno slices on top. They imparted a desirable crunch against the somewhat mealy texture of the fish.
In keeping with the tradition of an authentic izakaya (sans the low tables and floor mats), there are numerous yakitori and small-plate options.
The yakitori is sold in single skewers. Each holds about four morsels of various foods, such as chicken gizzards, fried squid, steak, okra and more. Our favorite was the shiitake mushroom sporting a meaty, charred flavor rivaling that of the glistening pork belly on another skewer. As for the bacon-wrapped asparagus we also tried, the salty cure of the meat obliterated the earthy essence of the diminutive, green spears underneath.
A “small plate” of Scottish salmon collar was easily shared. Cut from the fatty section right below the head, we received two pieces because the kitchen had run out of the standard size filets. They were moist, tender and non-fishy — not any different from your everyday cut of salmon, should you balk at the thought of eating a “collar.”
That plate was followed by a row of sweet, fried shrimp, with each crustacean mounted in soup spoons containing zesty jalapeno-avocado sauce. Equally lively were the stuffed jalapeno poppers that exceeded our expectations.
Stuffed with cream cheese, they featured little pockets of spicy tuna and Sriracha aioli, and sat on a few squiggles of eel sauce. We liked that the peppers were firm and snappy, although as one of my tablemates suggested, they would have tasted extra superb if charred briefly on the grill.
When perusing the specialty rolls, which are crafted at H20’s elongated sushi bar, we noticed many of them incorporate imitation “krab.” Our knowledgeable waiter later informed us that real crab can be substituted in any of the rolls for a $3 upcharge, an option that isn’t stated anywhere on the menu.
We also learned when biting into the “angrytail” roll that the finely minced spicy tuna inside is a pre-made “mix” with spices blended in, though supposedly originating from fresh albacore. Whatever the spices, they contributed the majority of flavor to the roll in the absence of any kind of sauce.
Conversely, the “dynamite California” roll with krab meat, avocado, cucumber, bell peppers and mushrooms came with a gooey crowning of baked scallops. We couldn’t tell whether it was mayo or cream cheese, but generally agreed it could have withstood a longer stay under the broiler to achieve an au gratin effect.
From a short list of entrees that include hibachi chicken and assorted sashimi, we opted for nabeyaki udon served in a big pot of vegetarian broth stocked with overly thick wheat noodles and occasional pieces of chicken. Served alongside was a plate of scallions, fish cakes and shrimp tempura that we dumped in.
Unlike the fiercely salty miso soup we had all pushed away earlier, my companions gave this steamy hot broth immediate approval. I warmed up to it slowly. For some reason the flavor initially registered on my palate as soup spiked with onion powder or commercial seasoning. I realized when spooning along it was probably the soju and mirin in the recipe tricking my taste buds.
Libations at H20 include sake — hot and cold, clear and unfiltered — plus Japanese whiskeys, trendy cocktails, and to a much lesser extent, wines hailing mostly from California.
A trio of ice cream-filled macaroons we chose for dessert (pistachio, strawberry, and cappuccino) arrived to our table frozen-solid and required thawing before their flavors unlocked. Not bad once they did, which basically correlates to how we summed up the meal upon exiting these attractive, comfortable confines; nearly everything tasted fine, but nothing sent us skipping over the moon.
—Frank Sabatini Jr. can be reached at email@example.com.