Sushi restaurants abound in Orange County. Newport Beach has a handful. Some are local hangouts for those who enjoy their California rolls and sashimi. Others are upscale spots like Bluefin in Newport Coast, Sushi Roku in Fashion Island, or the famed Nobu in Lido Marina Village, all of which offer their own unique spins on sushi.
Having dined at numerous sushi restaurants including the above-named ones, I’ll be the first to admit I’m no expert when it comes to sushi. I love a good tuna handroll or cut roll, and various fish atop rice, but I’m also open to trying new things alongside familiar dishes.
I enjoy sitting at the sushi bar watching a sushi master ply his craft. I also stare in wonder at the variety of seafood options contained within the cooled confines of the sushi bar refrigeration area.
One thing I have never done is experience an Omakase menu. I even had to look up the meaning (as I said, I’m no expert).
According to my research, omakase means “I leave it up to you,” and is most commonly used when dining at Japanese restaurants where the customer leaves it up to the chef to select and serve seasonal specialties. The chef will present a series of plates, beginning with the lightest fare and proceeding to the heaviest dishes. Omakase is not exclusive to raw fish with rice and can incorporate grilling, simmering and other cooking techniques.
Customers ordering omakase style expect the chef to be innovative and surprising in selecting dishes, and the meal can be likened to an artistic performance.
Innovative, surprising and artistic are all perfect descriptions of the omakase experience in store for guests that visit Sushi Ii in Newport Beach.
Located on the second floor of the Mariner’s Pointe building at the corner of West Coast Highway and Dover Drive, Sushi Ii is an intimate restaurant that feels exclusive and new—although the restaurant actually opened just before the pandemic shutdown in March of 2020.
The restaurant’s name comes courtesy of owner and Master Chef Susumu Ii. The restaurant’s press material tells me that the menu at Sushi Ii is “rooted in centuries of tradition and pays homage to the fading art of Kansai-style pressed sushi, with dishes reflecting Chef Ii’s washoku training in Osaka and decades spent mastering the traditional art of sushi.”
There are a handful of tables in the restaurant, but the sushi counter is coveted for those who enjoy watching Ii or one of his expert sushi chefs cut and craft each piece of fish to enhance the flavor and texture of the fish.
Sushi Ii offers three Omakase experiences, Oribe, Bizen, and Karatsu, each named after a distinct type of Japanese ceramic. Omakase menu offerings range in price from $150 to $200+ per person. A la carte options are also available.
After being invited to dine at Sushi Ii, fellow sushi lover and NB Indy columnist Shelly Zavala agreed to accompany me to Susi Ii for the omakase experience. We were offered the Oribe: five courses for $150, which consisted of a starter, appetizer, 10 nigiri, miso soup and dessert.
Our starter was a crab and cucumber combination that was not only delicious but served to ease our way into the courses to come.
The appetizer was actually a small platter of several delicacies including eel, scallop, tofu, what appeared to be a tiny squid, and baby sweetfish (a small fish native to East Asia). The sweetfish was cooked and served whole, and upon asking we were told to eat the entire thing. So we did. Shelly was a bit squeamish with the sweetfish, but we agreed this was indeed an adventure and plunged our palates into the task.
After that came a series of surprises, from familiar fare such as halibut wrapped in kelp, some lovely and delicious tuna and a piece of excellent yellowtail, to sea eel, deep fried sea urchin, and shrimp so fresh that it had been alive moments before it was served sushi-style.
An adventure indeed. Some of these sea creatures were served in styles unfamiliar to us and a couple were unrecognizable but we happily plunged forward and successfully made it through to the satisfying miso soup course.
Although we were getting full, we did manage to finish our desserts: tiramisu and panna cotta.
Shelly and I agreed that this omakase experience was indeed a grand tasting adventure that was more than worth exploring for its uniqueness and the variety of flavors and styles presented to us. We plan to go back for an a la carte experience and see what other surprises Sushi Ii has to offer.
Sushi Ii is open Tuesday through Sunday for dinner with reservation times available from 5 to 8 p.m. For more information, please visit https://www.sushi-ii.com.