Okura is unique for “Ishiyaki” - cooking on hot stones – and offers dishes from the far past to the present

Story by DIANNE RUSSELL 

There’s only one restaurant in Laguna Beach that offers the ancient Japanese cooking method, Ishiyaki, the ancient Japanese method of cooking on smooth hot stones, right at your table, and that’s Okura Robata Grill and Sushi.

And there’s only one person I know whose eating adventures rival Anthony Bourdain’s, and that’s my fellow-writer Marrie Stone. 

On occasion, when travelling, she’s been known to order dishes few people would even consider (one that arrived with hair, so it’s not unusual for her to ask if a certain dish requires a comb). However, on this particular evening, we were sure that inquiry wouldn’t prove necessary.

The combination of hot stones and Marrie Stone made for a fabulous evening of fun and food.

The history behind Ishiyaki comes from Akita, Japan. “When fishermen went to catch a fish or shellfish by diving into sea, it was a custom to provide a stove in the boat. At noon, they boiled fish and shellfish in a wooden bucket heated with hot stones from the stove. On shore, where wooden buckets or pans were not provided, they cooked in a hollow of a rock. This cooking is also called ‘ishiyaki,’ baked with hot stones,” I learn.

Chef Jin has transformed this tradition into cooking on a hot stone tableside, or on the table, which we did. (More about the delicious food that preceded this later.)

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Photo by Marrie Stone

Ancient Japanese method of cooking on hot stones, Ishiyaki

The oval stone is heated to 450 degrees (it can be heated up to 1,000 degrees), which lasts for 15-20 minutes, then it will be reheated. This method, which involves no oil, is used for meat, fish, and vegetables. The hot stone grill arrives with three condiments: a soy garlic based sauce, rock salt and pepper, and a homemade ponzo sauce of soy vinegar, dried bonita, and citrus infused oranges. 

As she applies a slice of meat to the stone, and then tastes it, Marrie raves about the tenderness. “The Ishiyaki was an incredibly unique experience. The hot stone perched over hot coals was lovely. I enjoyed both the control over the cooking, and the fun of cooking a meal together without the hassle. The meat was amazing – buttery, melt in your mouth, marbled quality that I haven’t experienced before,” she said.

As an expansion of the original Okura in La Quinta, opened by Chef Jin Heo from South Korea and his sister, Chef Jin has been in this location for three years (and cooking in the US for 12 years, since his arrival here in 2005). 

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Photo by Marrie Stone

Chef Jin Heo

Instead of always dreaming to be a chef, as some chefs do, Chef Jin majored in aerospace engineering in college, and his goal was to be a pilot. However, that ambition was dashed when he had surgery, and luckily for his patrons, he decided to go to culinary school. He successfully translated that engineering precision and creativity into his cuisine.

Chef Jin considers his style Italian-Japanese fusion, which is also reflected in the clean and sleek décor of the restaurant, but with a comfortable and welcoming atmosphere. 

After culinary school, Chef Jin learned much of his craft while at the La Quinta location, increasing his knowledge through reading and experimentation. In recognition of his talents, he has received top nods from Best Chefs America. 

Before the Ishiyaki adventure, Marrie and I had been greeted by Christina, the manager, who settled us in a cozy corner area of the lounge to scan the menu for a few sushi rolls to start. Prior to assuming the role of manager, Christina worked here part time, and has now been in her new position for three months, a move for which she seems superbly suited. We decided on the New Kye, Protein Roll, and the Salmon Carpaccio. These are specialty rolls, but, we soon found out, with an added twist.

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Photo by Dianne Russell

The New Kye roll with a burst of tobiko

The three rolls arrive at once, and Marrie and I jockey for position with our chopsticks. These rolls incorporate unexpected flavors and ingredients that meld together nicely. The Protein Roll consists of salmon, tuna, yellowtail, spicy crab, and jalapeno. The jalapeno is surprising and provided a tangy peppery taste with the freshness of the fish. 

Marrie says, “The presentation feels like a work of art. From the vibrant colors of the fresh fish to the crisp greens of the cucumber and jalapenos, it’s as much a feast for the eyes as it is the palate.”

The New Kye roll is also a delight, using hamachi, tuna, salmon, cucumber, tobiko, and scallions. The colors are spectacular, and the tobiko (flying fish eggs) explode in little pops with each bite. 

The Salmon Carpaccio leaves both of us in awe. Thinly sliced salmon in a shallow layer of clear and citrusy sauce (we both love lemon) is topped with flash fried baby arugula. The crunchiness of the arugula combined with the silky salmon couldn’t be more perfect.

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Photo by Dianne Russell

A surprising and delicious topping of flash fried arugula

And then the Ishiyaki was served. Chef Jin is especially proud of the quality of the meat. He shows us a Certification of Authenticity that verifies it is 100 percent Japanese Wagga Beef, the highest quality grade in Japan, which Okura imports. It requires no oil in the cooking process. 

For his fish dishes, Chef Jin also uses only fresh fish, utilizing all of the parts in his cuisine. They even have fresh Toro in an aquarium.

Okura also offers Robata Grill cooking, which involves grilling skewers of fish or meat over charcoal in a Konro grill. We’ll have to save this one for our next visit.

Although I’ve left the libations for last, they are certainly not the least. Okura offers an impressive list of new specialty cocktails with tantalizing names like Dragon Bite, Ginger Rita, and Pacific Rim Bellini. And the selection of sakes won’t be found on any other menus. We tasted Dewasanan, which is infused with green apple. It’s crisp and smooth with no acrid alcohol taste.

So far, we’ve covered the past (Ishiyaki) and the present (specialty rolls) contained in Okura’s menu. 

In the near future, they will have even more excitement for local residents. Late Night Happy Hour has already been added, Friday and Saturday nights, from 10 p.m. until 1 a.m., perfect for those wanting to grab a bite after normal restaurant hours.

Christina also plans to open up the space for events and weddings. More variety of meat selections, such as short ribs for Ishiyaki, will be added to the menu, and Chef Jin’s ongoing enhancement of his dishes will no doubt continue to delight and surprise patrons.

With its unique presentation of Ishiyaki, Okura brings a bit of ancient Japan into modern day Laguna Beach, well worth a visit to taste this exclusive example of Japanese cuisine.

Okura Robata Grill and Sushi is located at 858 So Coast Hwy, 949-793-4320.

Hours: Mon-Thurs, 4-9:30 p.m., Fri-Sat, 11 a.m.- 1 a.m., Sunday, 11 a.m. – 9:30 p.m. For questions, go to: http://www.okurasushi.com/