The hostess sees me peeking through the window, so she opens the front door. “May I help you?”
“Two for dinner?” I ask. I can see that almost every seat in the restaurant is already taken.
“Just a moment,” she says. She walks across the very small room to whisper something to the chef. He shakes his head from side to side.
She returns with an apology written on her face. “I’m sorry. We are full tonight,” she says.
It would be easy to overlook Sushi Hana re, as I did for months. Opened last September, the restaurant is hidden behind The Lab in a corrugated tin building that appears to be nothing more than a storage shed. I leave hungry and curious.
I call the next morning to ask about a reservation the following day. Someone I presume is the chef answers the phone. He sounds distracted but cordial. He tells me he can squeeze me in at 6 p.m. but I’ll have to leave by 8 because the restaurant is full already and he really shouldn’t be adding anyone else. “Will you be OK with that?” he asks, apologetically.
When I arrive, the dining room is empty. Hana re is tiny, merely 10 seats at a sushi counter plus two tables off to one side, which apparently are used only when someone prefers, for whatever reason, not to sit at the counter. The capacity remains capped at 10 or so diners at a time.
The sushi counter is a remnant of the former Zipango, whose owner later divided the space into two separate restaurants. The larger portion of the building is now a trendy poke bar, the yang to Hana re’s yin.
The chef is Atsushi Yokoyama, who actually helped open Zipango years earlier before leaving to work at Bluefin in Crystal Cove, eventually launching his own catering business. He returned to his old stomping grounds last year to helm Hana re.
For the first hour, we have the chef and two hostesses’ undivided attention. The menu is short: a handful of seasonally available sushi and sashimi, plus a few cooked luxuries like foie gras, lobster miso soup and Japanese A5 Miyazaki beef.
The menu is prefaced with three boldfaced options for omakase: sushi for $58, the Hana re omakase for $95, or a chef’s omakase, with a market price that starts at $140.
I inquire about the latter. “Sorry. There’s not enough time tonight for the chef’s omakase,” Yokoyama says. “Is the Hana re omakase OK?”
The omakase begins like a traditional kaiseki, with something cold and slippery. It’s a chilled soup, a slightly viscous broth made from squash. At the center of this cold slurry is a nub of steamed shrimp topped with caviar and a single leaf the size of a clover.
The chef watches as we take our first bites. He nods gracefully, smiles, then sets about crafting the next course: a trio of corn custard with snow crab and baby okra, a steamed Japanese conch in its knobby shell, and a lump of octopus sashimi layered with purple shiso and a dollop of Parmesan foam.
Next comes tuna, lightly seared. This is quickly followed by Japanese snapper steamed in dashi broth with shimeji mushrooms. The skin of the fish is vivid pink. The flesh underneath, snowy white. The delicate aroma is held captive by a tight-fitting lid, released under our noses.
The meal progresses quickly while we’re still the only ones in the restaurant: roasted duck with Japanese sweet potato, followed by a series of sushi that includes sea trout, gizzard shad, ten nen aji, shima aji and tachiuo. This is the first time I’ve seen tachiuo anywhere other than Shunka. It is a fish with a spectacularly menacing face, a surreal, serpent-like creature with big, gnarly monster teeth. Melted to a crisp with the brutal flame of a hand-held torch, the taut white flesh takes on a deeply smoky character that is uniquely delicious.
Halfway through our nigiri, the dining counter suddenly fills up with four other couples, at which point I expect the chef to start rushing.
Instead, he becomes the embodiment of Zen as he assembles several plates at once, no two couples’ menus being exactly the same, all the while a constant smile on his lips. The two hostesses gracefully manage the flow, answering the door, offering sake, removing dirty plates, wiping the counter after even the tiniest unseen droplet of soy sauce is spilled.
That first meal ends with tamago, a sweet egg omelet. As he did with our first course, the chef pauses what he’s doing, for a split second, to observe.
The tamago is sweeter, creamier, silkier than any I’ve ever tasted. It’s more like cheesecake than an omelet – and I love it.
The chef smiles when he sees our reaction.
I’ve since been back for the lengthier menu. I dare not give too much away by detailing every little surprise. Just make sure to ask for the foie gras and the Miyazaki beef, which aren’t necessarily included automatically. And, if it’s still in season, you might want to experience the tori gai, a giant cockle clam from Hokkaido that is delightfully chewy, almost elastic, yet somehow slightly crunchy at the same time. You’ll want to call ahead, for sure.
This is without question the most graceful omakase experience in Orange County. It is a restaurant meant for enthusiasts. It is expensive. They don’t make spicy tuna rolls here. They don’t serve boiled edamame. You come to appreciate nuance and subtlety. That said, Hana re does not rise to the ethereal level of, say, Urasawa in Beverly Hills or Masa in New York, but it is very good indeed.
There is simply no other restaurant in O.C. that reminds me of dining in Japan as much as this place does.
Sushi Hana re
Rating: 3 stars
Where: The Lab, 2930 Bristol St., Costa Mesa
Hours: 5:30 p.m.-10 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays
Don’t miss: Foie gras, tachiuo, tori gai, grunt, Miyazaki beef, sake
Best place to sit: At the counter, of course
About the noise: Grown up and civilized
County health inspection: Not yet available online
Cost: Sushi set course $58, Hana re omakase $95, chef’s omakase starts at $140 but easily hits $200
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, ambiance and service.
This article originally appeared in the Orange County Register. To view more of my work for the Register, check out the archives. For more dining and travel inspiration, I invite you to follow me and join the conversation on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.