Sushi Murasaki (Photos by Brad A. Johnson)
Before I stumbled upon Sushi Murasaki, I had been making my rounds among the county’s top-rated sushi restaurants for months, hoping to find a truly memorable omakase. Omakase is that tradition of putting yourself in the hands of the sushi chef, letting him prepare whatever he desires. Omakase is a simple word with a rather profound meaning that humbly translates to, “I trust and respect you. I am in your hands.”
When I originally stop in for lunch, the dining room is thronged, yet strangely no one is sitting at the sushi counter. “Can we sit there?” I ask, pointing to the counter. The hostess gives us one of those polite little bows. “The counter is for omakase only,” she says, apologetically.
My eyes light up. “Perfect,” I say, rushing to sit.
Within seconds of our sitting down, the first dish arrives. It’s a bowl of lightly pickled cucumber slices. “Pickled” is perhaps too strong of a word for these cucumbers, though, which taste not of vinegar but of sake. Almost immediately after this, the first course arrives.
“Halibut fin,” the chef says, timidly, handing two small plates across the counter, each sporting a single piece of nigiri sushi. The glistening sliver of halibut clings to an equally proportioned lump of rice. The flesh is vaguely translucent on one end, fading to an opaque white on the other. It’s topped with a single fleck of orange and red relish of some sort. It’s the perfect size for a single, civilized mouthful. It tastes like fresh tears, and with this one bite, I know I’m in for an extraordinary ride.
Next up is sea bass, a pinkish pearl essence of flesh, delicately crosshatched with a dozen meticulous knife marks. It’s topped with a few drops of what I presume might be shishito pepper oil. The idea is that I’m not supposed to dip anything into soy sauce or muck anything up with wasabi. Everything handed to me is meant to be consumed within seconds exactly as it is. Although the tables around the dining room are set with soy sauce, there isn’t a single bottle at the sushi counter. The sea bass has a more pronounced salinity than the halibut. The subtle progression has begun.
“Aji,” says the chef as he’s handing over another piece of nigiri. As I bring the plate toward me, the mackerel’s iridescent skin shimmers between silver and blue, like one of those pictures that changes shapes depending on the angle at which you view it. Its underside is slightly pinkish. It is topped with pickled scallion and ginger and a single brushstroke of soy sauce, and I cannot imagine a more perfect bite.
The tails of live sweet shrimp are stripped of their protective armor and glazed with a fine gossamer of soy. Undressed and completely naked, every supple curve and indention of the flesh is stunning, almost like looking at a grapefruit segment that’s been removed from its casing. The taste is clean and sweet and fatty all at once. And just as we’ve devoured the tails, the heads arrive deep-fried to a crisp, their big black eyeballs staring blankly through a thin layer of tempura. It’s the ultimate contrast, the sensuality of the flesh playing against the brutal decadence of the hot, crunchy heads filled with creamy tomalley.
Purplish slivers of kanpachi arrive topped with yuzu kosho, a paste-like chutney made of sour citrus zest and green chilies. And so it goes. I’ve returned for the omakase and enjoyed slight variations each time. I’ve marveled over raw scallops that, if I had tasted them with my eyes shut, I would have sworn I was eating butter. I’ve tasted bluefin tuna belly that melts on my tongue even before I begin to chew.
One day I’m sitting at the counter with a friend and we’re watching as the chef douses a couple of pieces of … something, we can’t tell what, with soy sauce and places them into a cast-iron pan and then sets the pan ablaze. The air in front of us gushes with the scent of cotton candy. “I don’t know what he’s making, but we should ask for some of that,” my friend says, reading my mind. But before we can ask, we realize the dish is intended for us. It’s salmon belly. The quick blast of fire has caramelized the fish without fully cooking it, and as I pop it into it my mouth, I bite into a delicate, unexpected crunch of gray sea salt. The chef is watching, smiling, knowing.
One evening at dinner, we’re presented with sea urchin roe, and the guy I’m with balks. “I don’t know about this one,” he says nervously. “I’ve had a bad experience with uni.”
“I think we’ve all had a bad experience with uni,” I say. “But trust me on this one.”
And so he picks off a small piece of the roe with his chopsticks and tentatively takes it to his lips. His eyes grow wide. The uni here has been consistently extraordinary, so pure and fresh, it tastes like cold, slippery caramel.
I could go on and on about the omakase, about the yellowtail, the chad, the revelatory yellow clam, the sea eel, the way each omakase settles into an easy, relaxed groove. The plates keep coming at a simple, unhurried pace so that there’s precisely enough time between each dish to contemplate what has just happened and simultaneously enjoy the company I’m with.
But not everyone sits at the counter, and there’s a reason for that. The broader dining-room menu is filled with countless gems not to be missed, like the baby octopus that’s been chopped and cooked with wasabi stems, or the deep-fried oysters that need to be eaten the split second they arrive at the table, or the Caliente roll topped with fresh chili serrano relish. Or, maybe best of all, the Kobe beef that’s blasted with a blowtorch so that the flesh blisters and chars, giving the surface a bubbly-crisp texture almost like pop rocks, only not quite that obvious.
And while sushi restaurants, as a genre, are never known for dessert, the Japanese “smooth pudding” here is as good as any flan or creme caramel I’ve tasted. Dessert isn’t part of the 10-course tasting, just fish, but the next time I dine here, I’ll definitely splurge a little extra to have the custard added as a finishing touch. But when I say splurge, I should point out that the omakase here costs only $45 – an incredible bargain. Omakase elsewhere typically costs twice, if not triple, that much, without nearly the same joy derived.
Sushi Murasaki opened several years ago and remains somewhat under the radar. On each of my visits, the overwhelming majority of customers have been Japanese, and based on the way they interact with the staff and chefs, I’m guessing most of them are regulars. While the restaurant is strict about its omakase-only rule for the counter, this place is refreshingly, 100 percent attitude-free.
Rating: 3 stars
Where: 2901 W. MacArthur Blvd., Suite 108, Santa Ana
Hours: Lunch 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays. Dinner 6-9:30 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays, 5:30-10 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, 5:30-9:30 p.m. Sundays
Don’t miss: Omakase, wagyu beef, uni, stuffed shishito peppers, smooth pudding.
Best place to sit: The counter, or the back corner table.
About the noise: Elegant and refined, even at the height of the lunch rush.
Cost: Omakase $45, appetizers roughly $4-$20, entrees and rolls $7-$27, dessert $3.50-$5; complimentary corkage
What the stars mean:
0 = poor, unacceptable
1 = fair, with some noteworthy qualities
2 = good, solid, above average
3 = excellent, memorable, well above norm
4 = world-class, extraordinary in every detail
Reviews are based on multiple visits. Ratings reflect the reviewer’s overall reaction to food, ambience and service.
This article originally appeared in the Orange County Register. To view more of my work for the Register, check out the archives. I also invite you to follow me and join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter.