Ken Leighton 2:46 p.m., Oct. 15
Izakaya Ouan replaces Yu Me Ya
New sake house in Hillcrest improves upon the old, better fills the niche between Tek Chan and Masa.
Yu Me Ya Sake House struggled in Hillcrest despite the sterling reputation founded by the restaurant’s original location in Encinitas. Its main problem was an inability to distance itself from its competitors. Masa always had the late-night ramen crowd on lock, and Tek Chan (formerly Raku) held it down with the yakitori. As these things go, Yu Me Ya is no more, and Izakaya Ouan has risen in its place.
The change happened fast, and without much time for the sorting out of quibble-worthy details, so Ouan has an unpolished look as yet. The ~35 seat dining room lacks significant decor and the menu appears to have been composed on a 1990s word processor in the hours leading up to the first service. For now, those imperfections seem only skin deep. The cooking displays adequate refinement.
Takowasa (wasabi octopus), which is always a great way to kick start a meal, received a soft touch at Ouan. Instead of burning with horseradish fury, the wasabi’s kick was muted and the octopus stayed briny, more highlighted by lemon zest than anything else.
Sashimi plates ($10-$14) weren’t the biggest draw on the menu, at least not with all the wonderful tapas to try! Still, sashimi fans will get a generous portion of fish for the money, not to mention good quality wasabi. The albacore sashimi dish came from the kitchen much too cold. Diners should wait until the fish comes to room temperature before eating it. It’s an annoyance that the kitchen should circumvent, but worth the wait.
More than anything else, Ouan’s hot tapas dishes ($3-$14) managed to buy the restaurant credibility against its competitors. The yaki omusubi ochazuke (grilled rice cakes in dashi broth) had a brilliant and simple flavor profile of deeply toasted rice and light, savory broth. Fried oysters were tasty, but otherwise unremarkable, save for the peculiar potato salad served beneath one of the little shellfish quenelles. More of that, please! A noteworthy dish of simmered beef sinew made the most velvety consomme look watery by comparison. The silky, beefy sauce created by slowly rendering the chewy connective tissue into chewy edibility had everything there is to love about a fine demi-glace, but in a more pure state without the complexity of compound sauces.
Other dishes beckoned from Ouan’s menu: lamb chops, grilled beef, chirashi-zushi, and hot plates yet to be explored and without any explanatory copy to identify them. The beauty of this new menu is that it’s more expert than Yu Me Ya’s was, though similar in spirit, and it manages to establish Ouan as a third option, something not Masa or Tek Chan, but equally viable when Japanese food is on on the agenda. Ouan is open late on Friday and Saturdays, and rumor has it they serve ramen during those evenings. No word on its quality as of yet, but there's promise there, for sure.