Wa Dining Okan3860 Convoy St.Kearny Mesa858-279-0941
Wa Dining Okan is the restaurant of my dreams. And I mean that literally. I woke up one morning after having a very vivid re-dining experience, course by course, of a recent meal there. Asleep or awake, food turns my world. And the restaurant does have a mysterious, dream-like allure. Cuddled up next to Japanese market—the source of most of Okan's ingredients—it's virtually hidden but for a chalkboard easel outside the front door and the faint glow of light from within.
Okan, a Japanese word for “mom,” serves the kind of comfort food that's rarely found in restaurants in Japan, as that casual style of cooking is usually done at home. But here, it's a home away from home for Japanese transplants and a place for the rest of us to taste something special and new.
The restaurant is a cozy square room, with a handful of tables that border a high, U-shaped bar ringed with chair-backed stools. The bar itself is two-tiered; there's a lower counter for eating and an elevated surface on which rest wide, beautifully glazed earthenware bowls and platters, heaped with food. In a Japanese home, these dishes would be set in the middle of the table to be shared family-style, but here, the restaurant's undeniably adorable servers patiently detail the contents of each and dish out small, individual servings.
In one corner of the bar sits a rectangular chafing dish, its contents kept warm over a flickering flame. Inside, a cold-weather dish called oden simmers in a light dashi broth, a mother stock for many Japanese foods. Wa Dining Okan's version comes with a boiled egg, taro root and daikon radish stewed until silken, a cube of fried tofu and a triangle of konnyaku, a firm, fairly neutral-tasting gelatin made from plants. With our sake and beer, we also snacked on chilled dishes of sliced, pickled cucumbers and tender calamari in a sesame sauce, followed by a root-and-shoot stew of lotus root, taro and bamboo shoot and calamari again, warm this time, with chunks of daikon.
There's both a Japanese and English menu, and I plan to return soon with a translator in case different delicacies are offered in the Japanese version, but everything goes down deliciously all the same. We ordered a salad of mizuna, a crisp green dressed with sesame vinaigrette and topped with a tower of fried gobo root, sort of like an earthier parsnip. Buta kakuni, or braised pork belly stewed in a sweet, broth-y soy mixture, is one of my favorite dishes. It's very good here, but I have to give the edge to my mom, whose kitchen magic with pork is legendary. Three chicken wings, minus their drumettes, are simply grilled with salt but taste better than I've even been able to do on my barbeque. And the miso soup, the flavorings of which change daily, happily has nothing in common with the overly salty kind served at cheap sushi joints.
From the seasonal specials list, we chose fried sardines—a trio of whole fish that had been butterflied and breaded with light, flaky panko crumbs and served with Tonkatsu sauce, a tangy Japanese Worcestershire dip. But the last two courses were the best. The grilled sanma (a protein-rich North Pacific fish) comes marinated in salt and broiled until the skin crisps. A squeeze of lemon is the only dressing it needed. Asian sweets are not known for their excellence, but, purin, a flan-like custard, dusted with a nutty roasted soybean powder and drizzled with brown sugar syrup, ranks among the top desserts from any part of the world.