A busy week, so here’s one from the District vaults:
PHOTO by RICK POON
Before dark, Izakaya Zero seems a clinical place—the white walls and white menus and white chairs aren’t so much clean and modern as they are austere. But at night it transforms, shedding the orange shadows of sunset for some carefully controlled lighting, which hits all those ivory accents with a kind of angelic glow. And before long, the restaurant fills up all the way back to the kitchen, every eater sitting in patience for the well-trained tastes of Chef Takashi Abe.
Taught in part by Chef Nobu Matsuhisa, Chef Abe is one of the biggest culinary names in Orange County. The fame started with his superior sushi joint Abe (which he sold a few years ago) and is carried on now by Bluefin, his current spot way down in Newport Coast. But what Abe does with Izakaya Zero is land a balance unmatched by his other restaurants—a casual menu of bar-food favorites that rivals the best of his high-end Japanese cuisine.
Izakaya Zero walks that line even in its beachside location. The restaurant sits only a few steps off Huntington Beach’s Main Street, where the unending stretch of surf shops and bars make Izakaya Zero an unlikely fit. But the restaurant works because it feels a world away, insulated by its menu and cut off by what are apparently a few too many steps for Main Street’s flip-flopped foot traffic.
Every plate is a small one at Izakaya Zero, but some are more suited to a start than others. And for the best possible beginning there’s the okonomiyaki, a Japanese-style pancake loaded with octopus, pork, cabbage, green onion, ginger and topped with scribbles of citrus aioli and tonkatsu sauce. Unlike some sloppier renditions of the pancake, Izakaya Zero’s okonomiyaki doesn’t succumb to sogginess. Instead, it’s cooked firm so that each ingredient stays well suspended. And that’s important, because the okonomiyaki is all about variety of flavor—every inch of the thing conceals a different ingredient.
Other small-bite starters don’t fare quite as well (the kabocha koroket and the yaki onigiri are passable), but Izakaya Zero more than makes up for any disappointments. The restaurant does so most noticeably with its heartier bites. For that, there’s the filet mignon cube steak, sautéed in cognac white truffle oil and served on a translucent bed of sweet onions. Each cut of steak is a bit more than a single bite, but that’s for the best, as the pieces are supremely tender and thus easily edible with even just a pair of chopsticks.
But the best of the meat-based dishes is the balsamic-teriyaki spare ribs. The plate is shipped out in the tiniest casserole dish, ribs stacked in a neat pile with a little pearl of Japanese mustard hanging on the side. Like the filet mignon before them, the ribs initially seem like they could pose some logistical problems. But Izakaya Zero cooks away all concern—with just single swipe of a chopstick, the pork slips off the bone. And with the heat of the mustard sucking the sweetness from the balsamic-teriyaki glaze, the dish eats perhaps the best of all, pairing the impossibly tender pork with the most balanced flavors.
As with Chef Abe’s other restaurants, Izakaya Zero also masterfully handles its fish. The sashimi is a thing of beauty. So too are the salmon and hamachi collars. But for the most convenient bites, pick the so-called dragon’s eyes, a set of quarter-sized bites of crab and asparagus wrapped in a slice of halibut. Each piece is then given a dollop of eel sauce and baked. The miracle of the dish is the halibut, cut so thin that it probably registers a width in mere millimeters.
It’s clear by the very last of the small plates that Izakaya Zero never stops its balancing act. Where most izakayas dress in dark, rustic woods, Izakaya Zero stays sharp in white. And while other menus focus on perfecting comfort foods, the menu here takes that act to more transcendent levels—Chef Abe has produced something entirely different. And for that, the restaurant stands alone, an izakaya full of grace.
IZAKAYA ZERO 412 WALNUT AVE | HUNTINGTON BEACH 92648 | IZAKAYAZERO.COM | 714.960.1278 | OPEN SUN-THURS 5:30-10:30PM | FRI-SAT 5:30-11PM | FOOD FOR TWO $25-40 | FULL BAR