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Start with the albacore tataki
King Fishby Jamie Gwen | Photo: Andrea Bricco | Riviera Orange County magazine | April 30, 2013
I dream of sushi. I’ve been eating it since I was 5. My mom would tell me that everything was “tuna fish.”
And Orange County knows sushi. Chef Takashi Abe’s Kobe beef at Bluefin is legendary. James Hamamori’s toro with foie? Decadent. Oh, let’s not forget Nana San’s red snapper with yuzu—words can’t describe. Now there’s a new master in the ’hood, and he’s serving fish sticks and lollipops. Really. Yes, the sushi at Sota is truly delicious. Congratulations, Corona del Mar—you have a new sushi bar on the strip. Sensational service and a fresh, inventive menu can now be found in the space nestled between the hair salon and the shipping store on Pacific Coast Highway. In a land of sushi-eating fanatics, chef Sota Akiyama is bringing traditional quality and a modern twist to Japanese cuisine. And, coming up on its one-year anniversary, his eponymous restaurant, Sota, is flourishing.
Before I was asked to consider writing prose on this still-new haunt, I dined at Sota with a chef friend and was delighted by the flavors. And when I dined there again for your benefit (the life of a restaurant critic—oh, it’s so tough), it was busy (on a Monday evening, and a Thursday night, and a Tuesday lunch). Sota-san—in Japanese, the suffix san, when added to a proper name, denotes respect and is the proper way to address a sushi chef—comes from Nobu fame. You know him from a long line of Orange County sushi bars as well, but his dream has finally come to fruition. His commitment to marrying local ingredients with traditional Japanese flavors at his own dining establishment is evident, and the food is clean, sharp and vibrant, with color and innovation.
On a Monday night, Sota delivered a stellar dinner of menu favorites and a few off-menu offerings. I was thoroughly impressed by the freshness of the fish and was delighted when I learned that the restaurant gets a seafood delivery every day. The texture, flavors and composition of the plates astounded my sushi-loving dining companion and, after a few wondrous nights at Sota, I am proud to deliver this review.
Here’s how your night should go, and it will likely begin with a cheerful “Irasshaimase!” (It means “welcome” in Japanese.) Start by copping a squat at the sushi bar or, if you’re dining alone, take a seat at the counter by the window. (If you brought your whole crew, you will hopefully have reserved a table.) Order a Lychee Sota—vodka, ginger and lychee liqueurs, lime juice and mint, with a splash of soda. It’s like a Japanese mojito and it’s thoroughly refreshing, with a bold lychee profile. Or try a Sake Trini—sake, blood orange liqueur and clementine juice served up. (Please bring me another!)
Peruse the chalkboard to learn the daily catch and the uniquely designed specials for fish fanatics. Ask Sota-san to start with the albacore tataki, made unique with fried leeks instead of onions and served in a star pattern to delight the eyes in addition to the stomach. Lightly seared, super-fresh albacore swims in the perfect ponzu—a beautiful balance of acidity and salinity, with sweetness from the crispy leeks. Drop your shoulders, sit back in your chair—the day is finally over, and your night is off to a delicious start. Pause for shishito peppers topped with bonito flakes and a citrus-soy sea-salt bath. The small peppers, a sign of quality, with their blistered skins and the intermittent spicy surprise (they’re often called the Russian roulette of peppers, as you just never know when you’ll get the zing) will excite your tongue, and you’ll crave more.
Continue the zensai-fest (the Japanese language lesson continues—zensai refers to appetizers) with a tempura platter, served with a bevy of salts. Curry salt, Japanese sea salt and togarashi (seven-spice) line the plate for a party in your mouth with every bite. Then order the oyster shooters. Oh, the night is getting really good. Shot glasses of Kumamoto oysters layered with sake, tobiko, daikon, quail egg, a dash of Tabasco and a hint of sesame—killer. Just order them. I needn’t say more.
With each bite, I was made more aware of Sota’s commitment to fabulous food. A focus on seasoning, plate decoration and exceeding expectations continues when your hamachi arrives. You’ll relish the taste sensation as the sweet miso melds into the citrus ponzu and the sesame chilli oil. Crispy beet chips (which could have been crispier; really, my only critique) are a fitting colorful and textural accent. Order a bottle of junmai ginjo sake, and resume.
And, oh, the edible artwork: the Sota Pop lollipops, for example, are full of salmon, tuna, shrimp and crab along with mango, jicama and cilantro, and are held together by super-thin strips of sweet cucumber, then dressed with Sriracha and wasabi ponzu. So good. Don’t miss the crispy rice bites, too, because golden brown cubes of fried sushi rice topped with tuna, salmon and yellowtail cannot be bad. They’re like mini presents—bites of heaven—with little slices of serrano peppers to wake you up from your sushi coma.
Push the envelope and order a spicy scallop hand roll. The texture of the scallops will blow you away, and the secret sesame oil finish takes it over the top. Like me, you might learn that the lady sitting next to you had lunch at Sota that afternoon. She’s back for dinner. Twice in one day—she’s addicted.
Then, as if you hadn’t eaten enough, ask for the fish sticks. Seriously, you’ll be over the moon when the sweet mirin-glazed ribs from the fresh hamachi that arrived that morning are presented for dessert. It’s like fish candy. And who doesn’t like candy?
Sota-san says he truly loves what he does, and it shows. This is tremendous sushi in a casual atmosphere in the heart of a town we all cherish. Clank your beer glass with the sushi chefs and bid them “Arigato.” You’re full.
3344 E. Coast Highway
Corona del Mar
Mon.-Sun.: Dinner is served at 5pm.
Special house rolls: $12-$17
Who Goes There
You Must Order
The oyster shooters and the Sota Pop
You Simply Must Beg for…
The fish sticks
Best Seat in the House
At the sushi bar (of course)