Okura Sushi

I must admit I don’t get down to the Palm desert area often. When I do, I usually find myself surrounded by restaurants that cater to an era of Frank Sinatra and Bob Hope. I am always surprised to find something great other than steaks, lobsters and baked potatoes served by waiters in tuxedos.

Okura Robata Grill & Sushi Bar is just such a case where I was pleasantly surprised. The outside is unremarkable as the restaurant sits in the middle of a strip mall. You definitely breathe a sigh of relief as you enter the nicely air conditioned dining room from the warm evening parking lot. The decor was upscale, modern and well lit and the interior felt inviting but not over cluttered, claustrophobic or cold as many sushi restaurants do. When we arrived, we saw the bar area was almost full during happy hour, but seats were available throughout the rest of the restaurant if we chose not to enjoy the happy hour menu.

As we were whisked away to your table by the hostess, we were greeted with a friendly “Irashaimase!” (Welcome!) by the entire staff. We got the feeling that the entire staff seemed to care and was proud of their establishment and the food. The waiter was friendly, knowledgeable and professional and any questions he could not answer were promptly answered by the chef.
Since seafood is clearly the foundation of the restaurant, we had decided beforehand to focus on that and although there are a few meat, chicken and vegetarian dishes, their scarcity made them seem like afterthoughts.

We ordered many things throughout night, both appetizers and entrees and the food arrived quickly and well prepared. Luckily rock shrimp was in season and upon the waiter’s recommendation, the tempura rock shrimp with spicy tobiko caviar aioli and crispy wontons was amazing. The tobiko aioli gave the crunchy sweet shrimp a touch of smoke and salt and turned the rock shrimp that I have seen countless times into a memorable dish. The entire table wolfed it down and practically licked the plate.

Almost needless to say, all the maki sushi (sushi rolls) were impeccably prepared and tasty. You might think that a place in the desert cannot get fresh sushi grade fish, but you’d be wrong. The volcano roll topped with salmon and tuna and red spider roll with soy paper and spicy eel sauce were remarkable and although many restaurants do serve these rolls, few taste as good as these. Simple things like the rice being perfectly cooked and seasoned and the rolls being made correctly were done the way they were supposed to be. Each component of the rolls was prepared with skill and precision.
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The octopus salad was another of our favorites. The thinly sliced and lightly salted cephalopod rested on a bed of cucumber “noodles” and seaweed. The sweetness of the rice wine vinaigrette together with the crunchiness of the cucumber was just right as a warm summer night dish that anyone would have loved even if they normally disliked octopus. In fact, one member of our party that swore they didn’t like octopus finished off almost the whole dish. Other dishes like the mussels with crab and tobiko were prepared with an eye to detail and skill and were perfectly cooked and seasoned. It was all done right.

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My personal favorite was the uni (sea urchin) with quail eggs. The fresh uni had a lovely light nutty ocean flavor and the raw quail egg gave it a texture of creaminess. If you can get fresh sea urchin it is a delight to the senses that you will almost certainly always remember. Although I loved it, I accept the fact that many people may not like it like I did.

I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop and for some part of the meal to not meet or exceed my expectations, but it did not happen. The seafood gratin was served in the same thick black iron skillet that it was cooked in and each bite of the baked shrimp and scallops with the spicy mushroom cream melted in my mouth. It was a simple dish with few components that, like most things, when done correctly is aspiring. I was a little concerned when ordering the curry bacon scallops that it would be easy to have completely unbalanced flavors and drown out the light scallop with bacon and curry, but again, I was not let down. The giant scallops wrapped in thin smoked bacon played wonderfully with the sweet, lightly curried cream sauce. Each bite reminded me of how good seafood can be when a chef does not try to be too funny and over think every dish.

For desert, we ordered the crème brûlée mostly out of curiosity and were not disappointed. Although I must admit it was probably my least favorite of the dishes simply because everything else stood out so prominently. It was as a crème brûlée should be, creamy and bursting with vanilla seeds, but it was only very good. We also asked the chef if we could sample the special desert from another fixed menu we did not order from and he happily brought it to the table himself. It may have just been the last thing that left an impression on me or maybe it was the desert itself, but rarely do I see something so simple, creative and tasty in the same dish. It was a called yuzu jellied fruit, but it arrived in a cocktail glass dotted with raspberries, strawberries and blueberries. I had not seen the hardy lemon-like yuzu prepared in this way before and each bite exploded with sweet flowery citrus berries and then slowly melted with a light salt and sour aftertaste that was spectacular. I walked out with a feeling that I rarely have in any restaurant; not just one of being filled up, but one of truly being satisfied.

Okura Robata Grill & Sushi Bar
***
Address: 78370 Highway 111, Ste 150, La Quinta, CA 92253 (760) 564-5820
Ambiance: Although it is technically in a strip mall, the rest of the sun soaked concrete disappears once inside. It’s elegant and fun without being overdone.
Service: Friendly, welcoming staff while also efficient.
Recommended dishes: Uni sashimi with quail egg; dynamite rock shrimp; octopus salad; curry bacon scallops, yuzu jellied fruit
Wine list: It is tempting to try the many different drinks, which go well with the food. But wine drinkers have a wide range of good options at fair prices.
Hours: Sundays through Thursdays 4:30 to 9:30 P.M., Fridays and Saturdays 4:30 to 10:00 P.M.
Price range: sushi and sashimi $4 to $28, appetizers $3 to $12, main courses $9 to $29, desserts $4 to $8
Credit cards: All major cards
Wheelchair accessibility: Yes

What the stars mean: (None) Poor to Satisfactory * Good ** Very Good *** Excellent **** Extraordinary
Ratings reflect the reviewer’s reaction primarily to food, with ambiance and service taken into consideration. Menu listings and prices are subject to change.

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Madeleines

I said awhile ago that I would not abandon this project. I need to apologize for the absence and get back to the articles and reviews. In doing so, perhaps I can explain my delay in writing and offer something meaningful, although somber.

I have been reminded of Proust and his “Remembrance of Things Past” too often to count. Those passages about the tiny shell shaped sponge cakes always reminded me of how something so simple, profound and heartfelt can be so difficult to explain to others. A thought, a memory, or a feeling so easily grasped by us all inside loses it’s meaning and importance somehow when put into words. As it turns out, I have spent much of my life in pursuit of something that I only recently understood.

Many times throughout my busy, hurried hours, days and years spent in restaurants, I stopped and closed my eyes. The swirling smells of the kitchen are too scattered to stop and place unless peering into a stockpot or some intern is busy burning bread. But there were smells that, when presented to me, stopped everything and the blur of the kitchen slowed down to a crawl, and finally stopped. In those tiny seconds, I would remember my childhood. So far away in every aspect from a chaotic kitchen that it was a small, instant vacation to a another time. A time when I hated mornings. As a kid who was too smart for his own good and less than enthusiastic about waking up at my father’s preordained time, I found the early hours of the weekend day tedious and would lie in bed listening to the grumbling of my father and constant calls to wake up from my mother. She was always willing to go above and beyond my impatient father by tirelessly asking me to wake up. As I lie in bed, I would slowly begin to breathe in my mother’s breakfast cooking. The smell of bacon and onions drifted throughout the house and eventually into my bed where I lay dreaming. It was a smell that could not be ignored. It was the smoked salty savory scent that lingered from the early morning hours throughout the day into the evening that would always remind me of home.

Other times I was reminded that there was nothing that could compare to Mom’s chocolate chip cookies. They were of course delicious, but always baked for friends or celebrations of some kind. They were always associated with happy times. The gooey chocolate chips floating in the salty and sweet soft centers, surrounded by the crispy crunchy outer crust, were heavenly. As a child I ate them voraciously but never understood until many years later how they gave me a feeling of utter contentment. While I nibbled on a cookie during a busy holiday event thousands of miles from my family back home, I was taken back to the times of my childhood when I sat carefree with my family. With each bite I was transported back in time to when I was surrounded by loved ones, swimming on hot summer days and laughing with childhood friends. As I stood motionless amid strangers drinking and caroling, I suddenly realized how great my childhood days were. How carefree and loved I was. Until then, I looked back dispassionately on my youth and it was not until that Christmas eve that I understood and actually became fond of it.

Days when I was sick and home from school, I would lie underneath a heavy velvet blanket with leopard spots that Mom had sewn together herself. As I lay on the couch the watching “I Love Lucy”, coughing and generally feeling miserable, Mom would walk in with a bowl of hard cooked eggs expertly prepared. The eggs were always cooked perfect with never a runny or grey yolk and just the right touch of salt and butter to make them fluffy and delicious. They were sublime, and most importantly were made with love. Though I was ill, the eggs had an unusual healing property that remained the same throughout the years. My Mother’s care, the laughing on television, the hard boiled eggs and being curled up under a heavy blanket, always made me feel better. I remember knowing I was safe and loved and that nothing else mattered on those mornings. Of the thousands of hard boiled eggs I must have cooked in my life, each one I’ve cooked reminds me of a simple dish fed to a tiny ill, but happy child, on a sofa a lifetime ago.

She never seemed to stop cooking. It was one constant in my early years. It provided me with the most basic ability of a chef – to make food taste good. I suppose I also inherited the desire to make others happy with cooking much like mom, although I confess, it gets lost in the day to day chaos that is a professional kitchen. My mother did not have packaged meals or pre-made food in her repertoire. Everything was made from scratch. Not made from scratch in the corporate restaurants who have everything shipped in from out of town way, but in the Italian grandmother slaving over a hot stove to make a single meatball way. Growing up, I never knew how respected this way of cooking was until I began working for culinary luminaries. It was the most basic concept to cook everything from scratch, but I soon found out how few people actually did it. It takes a talent, a patience, a knowledge and a love, to cook that way. It was all intrinsic and fundamental to my Mother.

Looking back, everything she did in the long list of things that encompasses making three meals a day for a family was done with care and joy. She seemed to take some secret pleasure from cooking, always going about even the most mundane tasks of cooking in a way that most people do not understand. The tedious chores of shopping, frying, baking, chopping, boiling, roasting, sauteing were transformed into happy times in between boring life necessities that make up the days of a young family. Kitchen work that was uninteresting or inconsequential and insignificant to most of us, was a privilege and a source of happiness for her.

So maybe now I realize that my mother has given me one final gift. One she could not have ever known about but would have made her happy. Through food, I am able to remember her and our family in a way I could never have imagined; with kindness, fondness and love. I know that intellectualizing and writing about involuntary memory cannot evoke the memory of my mother in the way I wish it would. Nor can remarking on her incredible gift of cooking for others and her cheerful and giving disposition explain to a stranger who she was. To all this, I can only offer something simple yet hopefully meaningful. We’ll miss you mom.