Costa Mesa’s finest Japanese fusion from the District:
PHOTO by RICK POON
Ikko hums with the tiniest vibration. It’s there in everything from the low tones of the restaurant’s jazz fusion to the clanging sounds of conversations from its six small tables. And that makes for a definite pulse about the place, a gentle resonance that shakes the chairs and plates before it makes its way into that empty space between your ears.
But almost as quickly as the bass builds it up, all that tension gets released, set free when a saxophone lets out a sporadic squeal and the jazz cools back down. It’s with those sensory shifts that Ikko seems comfortable and content to let diners get distracted while it cooks up a superior spectacle.
Still, there’s nothing grand about Ikko—it’s a box of a place walled in white where shadows serve as spotlights and the only color comes piled on the plate. But that’s what really draws attention, sights set to the center of the restaurant where chef-owner Ikko Kobayashi stands still as a statue, separating flesh from skin in single sharp strokes.
All that attention is well-deserved—the menu at Ikko is impossibly inventive. Even simple-sounding dishes are borne out of the most creative corners of the mind. The king mackerel carpaccio, for instance, lays out the usual translucent triangles of fish, but atop the mackerel is a mix of tomato, cucumber and onion held together in a gelée that turns all the component cubes into a brick of diced vegetables.
Even smaller starters are inspired here. One of the cheapest and most thrilling is the ominously titled octopus collagen, a vague dish that can’t help but draw out gelatinous thoughts. What’s served, however, is something much more expected—suction cups dug out of their eight-armed origins and dropped in ponzu sauce. The little pods are one of Ikko’s surprising testaments to freshness, terrifically tender discs that pop with an addictive flavor. Equally good are the roasted purple potatoes, stacked up with a couple cuts of fried lotus root and served alongside perfect piles of curry and salt that help shape a solid snack.
The bigger plates fulfill Kobayashi’s vision best. Most of the ingredients are familiarly Japanese (save for the foie gras), but there’s still an air of mystery around these meals—some of Ikko’s dishes eat like art, pulled right out of Kobayashi’s dreams and put straight to the plate.
Here, curls of crispy shrimp take on dollops of sour plum cream cheese, fried baby sea eel sits on a smear of pepper miso, salmon cheeks bathe in a tomato sauce. Even more routine dishes smack of greatness. The cubed swordfish, for instance, is supremely simple, matching the fish with balsamic vinegar, eggplant and a mound of wasabi. The ingredients aren’t exotic, the preparation decidedly unscientific. But the dish trades all that flash for masterful flavor, the sweet acidity of the balsamic bonding directly and completely with the orifice-opening heat of the wasabi.
That neon green condiment is one thing you won’t see often at Ikko, though—beyond the few accompanying balls of the stuff (and the fresh root that sits at Kobayashi’s station), wasabi rarely makes a visible appearance. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t there; Kobayashi simply adheres to a more omakase-style sushi experience, preferring to flavor each of his nigiri creations with his own desired levels of soy and wasabi.
Be glad—the fish couldn’t be in better hands. Everything about the nigiri is carefully controlled, from the fish itself to each piece’s tiny topping. The salmon gets a see-through sheet of daikon, the Spanish mackerel a few spry sprigs of onion. Kobayashi is mindful of every aspect of his sushi—at Ikko, you get fish that finally eats with all five senses.
Most of those experiences are obvious ones (sight, smell, taste and texture), but there are plenty of audible cues, too. In fact, eat with your ears open and you’ll find flavors that fit right into the restaurant’s jazz fusion, dishes bursting with disparate details and unexpected harmonies before they back down a bit, tempering the wilder tastes of Ikko’s excellent “freestyle” cuisine.
IKKO 735 BAKER ST | SUITE C | COSTA MESA 92626 | 714.556.7822 | OPEN MON-SAT NOON-1:45PM AND 5-10PM | FOOD FOR TWO $40-80 | BEER, WINE, SAKE