On the Grill
In Irvine, I most often direct them to Park Place on Michelson (North Italia, Puesto, Ruth’s Chris, The Counter etc.) or Diamond Jamboree.
Irvine Spectrum hasn’t made the cut, even though it has spots I frequent. But now, with the recent remodel and the addition of several new sit-down and fast-casual restaurants recently, including Habana, 85ºC Bakery Café, Falosophy, Hello Kitty, Blk.Dot, Afters Ice Cream and BLKDot, the Spectrum is on the list, especially for families. It also helps the grade of the entire center that Kona Grill is now closed! It was bringing the curve way down.
One of the nicest of the new additions is Robata Wasa. The Japanese gastropub is from the same owners and has a similar menu as Izakaya Wasa, which was hidden in plain sight on the other side of the center. You can’t miss the new, prettier, and more ambitious version restaurant. Located on a prime corner with a view of the new Apple store, Robata Wasa debuted this summer as part of the $200 million remodel and expansion of the Spectrum.
Think of the restaurant as offering a greatest hits of Japanese cuisine, with a few flavors from other areas of Asia. There is a selection of ramen, udon and soba noodles, as well as perfectly lovely bento box choices. The menu includes several choices of cold tapas (including hamachi Serrano and uni toast) and hot tapas (fried chicken karaage and tempura brie cheese).
The sushi at Robata Wasa is much better than Kona Grill ever was, but it’s not in the league of the best sushi in Irvine, which is sort of what I was hoping for. One night when I stopped in for a quick bite, I asked our server to bring me something unusual and fresh, perhaps something the chef had on the omokase menu. I was served bluefin tuna and Spanish mackerel. It was fresh and tasty, but there was nothing particularly memorable about the choice.
There’s also a list of sushi rolls, or maki. It’s the typical mass-market fare of dragon, rainbow, crunch and California rolls. There’s also one called Salmon Mango Tango-that’s fun to say! It includes salmon, mango, and cream cheese topped with avocado. As a rule, I don’t care for cream cheese with my raw fish. I’ve never ordered a Philadelphia roll, and doubt I ever shall.
The best things our table sampled from the rolls were the Japanese spring roll (tuna, spicy crab, jalapeno shrimp and such) and the special temaki hand roll (blue lump crab and negitoro sushi topped with uni).
The most interesting items on the menu are the entrees, and the selections from the robata list. The latter includes five categories: sea, meat, poultry, vegetable and “special.” Robata is roughly translated as “fireside cooking” in Japanese, and, put simply, that’s what Robata is: Japanese-style grilling. The best choices are those that have a nice amount of fat that’s rendered down over the charcoal. The pork belly, beef tongue and anything with bacon all work well, as does salmon belli and miso marinated black cod. The best though, is the Wagyu ribeye. The meat tastes of smoke and mineral, while the intense heat gives it a crunchy crust that can be addictive.
From the entrees, the two winners are the Robata grilled lobster (it’s also the most expensive at $48) and the squid ink uni pasta. Now, first you must like uni and squid ink pasta. Not everyone does. My favorite description of the dish is from Edwin Goei, the restaurant critic from the OC Weekly, who described the dish: “Since it’s full of seafood umami, it’s like a mac and cheese made for Aquaman,” Goei wrote. We tried to use that evocative image to get a kid at our table to try the dish, but to no avail.
Be sure to pair your meal with sake, a craft cocktail or a glass from what is surely the most extensive selection of ultra trendy Japanese whisky in town. We wish the beer list were a bit more ambitious, however.
The service at Wasa Robata has been uniformly excellent, and the ambiance and interior design is also a draw. The outdoor seating is lovely, and the lighting over the bar (it’s made from empty sake bottles) is fun.
Robata Wasa offers comfortable dishes for the less adventurous, while providing just enough variety to satisfy the foodie. Making it a worthy addition to the “recommend” list for friends and family.