Wa Dining Okan
The “okan” in the restaurant’s name is a Japanese word for mother, which seems appropriate here. Just like at Mom’s house, dinner is laid out and waiting for your arrival. The focal point of the cozy eatery is a bilevel wooden bar, on whose upper surface rests an assortment of beautiful platters and bowls called oozara. They’re filled with different homestyle dishes you’d see on a Japanese family’s table, from simmered casseroles to cold salads and marinated vegetables. There’s a real mom in this kitchen, too — a lady the staff calls Mama, who comes in daily just to make those dishes.
Okan divides food selections into two menus: one for standard items available year-round, one that features seasonal specials that sprout from the creativity of the kitchen, which has the luxury of having one of the city’s best Japanese markets, Nijiya, next door. In addition to stocking the full breadth of authentic Asian ingredients, the market also carries a good amount of organic foods, including produce grown on its own 18-acre farm near Temecula.
To start, you might try a few cold salads or appetizers. The mizuna salad is popular, and it looks dramatic: a heap of feathery-leafed greens topped with a tall stack of golden fried burdock root. I prefer the taste and tender crunch of the daikon and mixed green salad; the ponzu-dressed vegetables get sprinkled with salty wisps of bonito flakes, shavings of smoked and dried skipjack tuna that are also used as a basis for a versatile Japanese broth.
A lovely autumnal orange kabocha squash salad had thin slices of cucumber mixed in for texture variance. The puréed squash was so creamy that I suspect a little mayonnaise had been added — the Japanese variety that’s sweeter and richer than American mayo. If they’re available, I always order the shirataki noodles, made from the stem of a fiber-dense plant, which have a nice springy chew and (for those who are counting) virtually no carbohydrates or calories. Here, they’re snipped into short lengths and served chilled, seasoned with a salt-cured fish roe; the tiny fish eggs coat the strands and tint them pink.
Sushi, yakitori and ramen are offered, but there are better, more specialized spots to get those. Stick to the delicious small plates: Nagasaki-style braised pork belly, also known as buta kakuni, basted in its own melting fat; a lightly fried soft-shell crab with curry-flavored salt; sesame seed – sprinkled stir-fried lotus root; an ear of grilled sweet corn from Rancho Santa Fe’s Chino Farm. The dishes tend to arrive in quick succession, so order just a few at a time.
Savor everything with Japanese draft lager, which seems to taste better in Okan’s ceramic fluted cups. In Asian cuisine, it’s traditional to close out a meal with a starch dish. Mom would approve of the hearty, healthy additions of beans and barley in the kama rice, which cooks in a mini clay pot with chicken and mushrooms.
This is not the place to skip dessert — no missing the homemade pudding. Dotted with vanilla bean, the custard is lush and silky, and less sweet than expected, until you drizzle on the kuromitsu. Though Okan calls it a honey, it’s actually syrup made from very dark brown sugar— similar in color to molasses but milder in flavor. The finishing touch is a dusting of roasted soybean powder.
Other dessert choices include homemade ice cream in flavors ranging from pumpkin or corn to green tea – infused panna cotta and tiramisu. They’re all well-executed and moderately sized, just big enough to provide a satisfying sweet fix before sending you on your way.
The menu’s “seasonal special” changes often, depending on which ingredients the owners have chosen and imported from Japan especially for that season. The most recent selection was a soup of chilled wheat noodles imported from Nagano.
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3860 Convoy Street, Suite 110, Kearny Mesa