The Wa Dining Okan motto is “welcome home”, providing guests a space that is equally warm and cozy, just like home. Its dining room is decorated with Japanese traditional art and furniture that transports guests to a rural location of Japan, far from modern day problems and worries. The menu offers guests a traditional take on Japanese cuisine that utilizes simple flavors and seasonal ingredients that are prepared with kindness, which is definitely hard to find these days. Indulge in Okan's signature grilled dishes like the Roasted Duck with Green Onions or the Chicken Wings: seasoned with special spices and grilled to perfection. Wa Dining Okan's calm environment and traditional fare will guarantee a deliciously comforting meal for guests, family and friends to enjoy.Read More ...
If there’s a type of fare I didn’t get growing up in Michigan, I would have to say Asian is in the forefront. Yeah we had one or two sushi joints, quite a few heavily MSG-seasoned Chinese food establishments, no Vietnamese Pho restaurants or a Thai place to speak of. Once I moved west, I was able to enjoy all those big and unfamiliar flavors in abundance here in San Diego, and especially when it comes to Japanese.
Big things come in small packages, and that pertains exactly to Wa Dining Okan. This traditional Japanese restaurant is located next to Nijiya Market in Kearny Mesa. The quaint, 25 to 30 seat establishment is set up around a bar in the middle with four to five tables lining the walls. It’s small when I walk in and music that I think might be Frank Sinatra bubbles out of the small speakers setting a pretty mellow mood. I think that appeals to its customers because of the relaxing ambiance it sets. Okan means “Mom” in western Japanese, and I felt as if I was visiting a friend’s house and someone’s “Mom” was about to get down with some home cooking. While the daily specials board hangs over the kitchen door and other paintings line the walls, small casseroles or Nikujyaga line the U-shaped bar. Set up around the two-tier wooden elbow rest are about 10 different bowls of fresh veggies or cooked meats, prepared daily, with whatever’s seasonal, a staple of Okan’s diverse menu. While there are a few sashimi choices, this isn’t a sushi restaurant; this is home-style, Japanese cooking.
The restaurant is open seven days a week at 5:30 p.m. and closes at 11 p.m. Monday thru Wednesday, midnight Thursday thru Saturday and 10 p.m. on Sunday. It has a shortened menu for lunch from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. if you’re looking to grab a quick taste of what the dinner might be like.
Wa Dining Okan has been open for about four years and has a brother restaurant in Robata-ya Otan in Kearny Mesa as well. The owners Ken Nakamura and Daisuke Yamashita have other establishments and wanted to develop an establishment that people familiar with the food and those not as much can both thoroughly enjoy. Both places are unique in style, but both offer Japanese tradition and stellar quality.
As my guest and I take a seat, we pick up the menus and realize it’s in Japanese. With slight confusion on our faces because of our inability to read the writ, we are helped by Amelia, our smiling server, and she directs us to the menus in English. As the numbers on the menu count up from one to 60, there are tons of items to try and taste. Fresh seafood, vegetarian, pork and beef items litter the pages of the Wa Dining Okan food map.
Before the food choices are made, one of the coolest ways to start a meal occurs (well, at least for me that is.) After introducing herself and menu direction, Amelia hands my guest and I a nice, warm towel before we start the feast. Our eyes meet each other in confusion, as the server tells us that people use it to wipe their hands off or even the face. This is called oshibori and it is a Japanese tradition I could get used to. If this is what first class on a plane feels like, as cliché as it sounds, I’m ready for this food flight to take off.
When I go out to review, I like to eat just about everything, or try something new. So in order to see what the cooks or chefs think is the best, I let them do their thing and honestly say, “Surprise me.” And with that knowledge, Amelia relays the message to the kitchen, and we don’t have to wait long for the first dish.
As Amelia brings out a square plate of Pumpkin Salad, I investigate the dish with my eyes, then my taste buds. The pumpkin is more like smooth mashed potatoes in texture and has some green onions mixed in for a color contrast and burst of flavor. It might have been a light hint of nutmeg in there as well to give it a little more complexity.
For round two, the first fresh seafood dish is expedited to our high chairs at the bar. The tender Raw Tuna Cubes with avocado, shaved onion, cucumber in a wasabi mayo is a light starter, and the onion and cucumber give a little crunch to counter the texture of light fish and fruit. After a little bit of food makes its way into our stomachs, my guest wants to try one of the many types of sake Okan has within its carte du jour.
I’m unfamiliar with sake other than it’s a rice wine and a traditional Japanese adult beverage. Amelia was like Superwoman with her suggestions when it came to food so trusting her with the drinks is a no brainer. She brings us out a small can that looks like a bunch of snakes might pop out of it when opened. But to our surprise, it was filled with a super smooth and pretty potent Funaguchi Kikusui Sake. The small green can had a cool plastic top to keep the product fresh while you sip. It was totally different than anything I had seen from a drink before. I like different and enjoy unique. Other adult beverages round out the drink list with five different bottles of beer, six different kinds of Shochu, wine, Chu-Hi and Oolong Tea.
As I continue to look over the menu, the Wa Dining experience is something to be shared. Many of the dishes are smaller appetizers as opposed to full entrees (although it has a good array of larger meal choices), so you and your friends can try a few pieces of what traditional Japanese fare feels like without being full after just a few options.
As the dishes keep flying out of the small kitchen, diners stroll in and out, and it seems like there are quite a few regulars in the restaurant. A couple that came in at the same time as my guest and I are done with their meal before we get to our third dish. This place is a good spot for a quick, flavorful meal. On the other hand, businessmen dressed in casual suits sit down for dinner midway through our first few snacks and seem intent on staying for a while. If I had to guess, it represents the diversity of the neighborhood and rounded out the different kinds of customers frequenting the restaurant.
Cow is probably my favorite animal (to eat) and a rectangular stone plate of Quick Seared Beef is handed across the bar. Luckily for me, my guest is more of a fan of veggies so she bows out of the beef. The meat, fanned out like a deck of cards, is seared for a few seconds on each side leaving the inside very rare, my favorite level of doneness. A light citrusy ponzu sauce was drizzled atop along with green onions accompanied with a small mound of thinly sliced onion. The tender beef, flavors from the raw and green onion and sweet drizzle had all the parts of umami you want to fall on your tongue.
A small plate represents the local freshness and seasonality of Wa Dining Okan: Chino Farms Brussels Sprouts. High quality is synonymous with the North County farm and the little, green tempura battered marbles are soft and pop with flavor. A curry salt and soy sauce accompany the veggies and both give great flavor profiles. The curry starts salty and when you wait for it to overpower, it oddly stops, and the curry kicks in. It’s mildly confusing because my taste buds expect to be overwhelmed but they aren’t, they just enjoy.
The Gobo Salad is the signature dish at Wa Dining Okan. The tower of paper thin sliced, and perfectly fried, Burdock Root rests atop a healthy portion of Mizuna, or Japanese mustard greens. The root is slightly salty with black sesame seeds, and the greens aren’t spicy like normal mustard roughage. As my guest takes her chopsticks and crushes the tower (as advised by our server), the mix of salty, tiny spice and nutty seed take over the palate. It’s a very visually impressive dish with its verticality but also very light when it comes to a salad.
While I did allow the cooks and Amelia take over the ordering when it comes to the food, I did see something on the menu I hopefully could request, Stingray Fin. What I could liken it to is baked potato wedges. With a crisp exterior and soft and almost starchy interior, the light fishy flavor helps you acknowledge you are eating ocean fare. This is just a taste of the unique offerings available at Wa Dining with beef tongue, chicken gizzards, octopus, squid, eel and duck filling up the menu.
Two dishes await after the stingray: Braised Pork and the Salmon and Scallop appetizers. The pork is sweet, lingering in a flavorful broth and is super tender with a side of wasabi paste if you feel like kicking it up a notch. The salmon and scallops are cooked lightly with leaves of mustard greens and capers lying on top. The fresh fish and shellfish are mild while falling apart on your tongue. My favorite part of eating eastern Asian food is the new flavors and combinations. New is almost always better, especially when it comes to taste, and I’m getting that with every dish so far.
To round out the meal, our stellar server Amelia offers up one last item, the Vanilla Pudding. This mild dessert is similar to a flan and has a light egg flavor with the vanilla bean aroma and taste at the forefront. Along with the pudding a sweet “Black Honey” sauce sides the dish. That is the literal translation of what is actually a rich dark molasses to be drizzled all over the triangular wedges.
Being a Midwestern-born-and-raised-boy, I didn’t get too much in the way of quality Asian food. The more I ventured off the beaten path once I moved to California; I experienced more of what China, Japan, Thailand and Vietnam had to offer. I love what Wa Dining Okan represents on its menu because I’m unfamiliar with various ingredients, flavors and textures. I can only imagine what regulars or people familiar with this sort of food are like when they dine at Okan if I enjoy what I’m getting now. Whether or not you’re acquainted with traditional Japanese food, the staff, front of the house and back, at Wa Dining will make you feel right at home.
INSIDER TIP: Wa Dining Okan’s dining room is small yet cozy, make a reservation because locals and familiar diners alike will fill this place pretty quickly for dinner. Also, I would go with a group of people so everyone can order something to share and each of your bills will be small, but your chance to experience a lot of food will be large.
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