by Caitlin Antonios
As I walked into the restaurant, I was immediately greeted by the sense that I shouldn’t be there. The deep mahogany tables, spacious seating areas and extensive bar filled with every type of alcohol imaginable would make any college student used to overcrowded cafeterias uncomfortable.
Wokcano Restaurant & Lounge now has six locations operating throughout Southern California, the latest of which having just opened at the Tustin Market Place, only 20 minutes from UCI. Described as “modern riffs on traditional flare,” this contemporary Asian restaurant fits in perfectly with the sophisticated clientele that Irvine businesses attract. Serving mainly seafood dishes with the option of meat or poultry, the restaurant also offers lighter options like noodles, fried rice and even vegan dishes. The Asian fusion is guaranteed to satisfy traditional Asian cuisine lovers and excite guests looking for a bold, new take on classic flavors.
Built to accommodate a variety of guests, from single diners at the sushi bar to large groups in private dining rooms, the restaurant’s chic decor instantly sets the tone for a pleasant — but certainly not cheap — dining experience. The crisp, white napkins contrast with the dark furniture to create a warm and intimate atmosphere. The large windows and natural light ensure that no diner will be drowsy while eating their meal. The large lounge and bar area is slightly separated from the dining room, allowing happy hour guests to meet up for a couple of drinks and snacks. Also separated from the main dining room by a glass wall is a private table for a large party, business meeting or even birthday dinners. Although the glass wall does not ensure complete privacy, it would at least keep the noise level of the dining room to a minimum.
The restaurant itself is at the mouth of the Tustin Market Place. Despite the hundreds of retail stores and restaurants in the complex, Wokcano’s slightly isolated location makes it a bit difficult for convenient shopping before or after dinner.
For a fairly pricy menu, the food really delivers. Each dish is executed perfectly; it’s stunning how each piece of sushi presented looks exactly like the pictures on the menu, each piece molded into perfection. As someone who eats Panda Express too much, tasting high-end Asian cuisine definitely raised my standards. The menu contains a lot of variety, most of which I can’t pronounce, but it offers a bit of everything. A majority of the dishes include seafood, unsurprisingly, in the form of hand rolls, sushi and sashimi.
The large kitchen is partially exposed to the dining room, giving diners a sense of comfort being able to see the spacious, clean workspace where their food is being prepared. After sampling some of the food, I can confidently say that it’s some of the best Asian food I’ve had. I’m not a huge seafood fan, but the honey walnut shrimp was the perfect combination of crisp, sweet and sour. The typical “fishiness” that tends to be associated with shellfish couldn’t be tasted at all — a testament to the freshness and quality of the food. Next, we tried the pan-fried pork dumplings, a personal favorite of mine. The crunchy base of the dumpling contrasted beautifully with the softness of the dumpling wrapper. The spicy tuna on crispy rice was equally as delicious and contained a bit of a kick from the jalapeño garnish on top. Guests sensitive to spicy food may want to pass on this dish. Next served was siu mai, a traditional Chinese breakfast dish filled with shrimp and pork. While the meat was a bit dense, the light egg casing added a delicious layer of flavor to balance it out. After that was the sweet and sour pork, on a skewer with bell peppers, onion and pineapple. It was essentially an Asian kebob with crispy bits of sweet and sour pork. Lastly, we had pork xiaolongbao soup dumplings. Despite being a bit hard to eat, the burst of flavor and wonderful textures were worth the potential embarrassment of shoving an entire dumping into your mouth.
The most expensive item on the menu is a seafood tower containing every form of seafood imaginable, including a whole lobster, fresh uni, shrimp, oysters, salmon and others, which costs a hefty $112. I’ll be honest, I don’t think I’ve ever seen that number printed next to food before. The other items on the menu are expected from a nicer restaurant, with most dishes ranging from the mid-tens to the mid-twenties per dish. One hand roll can range from $4-$12 which isn’t the worst. Yelp reviewers gave the restaurant three-and-a-half stars, with two dollars signs for menu prices.
Obviously, this won’t be a restaurant that students can go to every other day, but it is beautifully designed, in a good location and serves amazing food. For a date night, or even to celebrate a personal accomplishment and splurge a bit, Wokcano is a great alternative to the norm of Del Sushi or Temakira in University Town Center. It’s far enough away from UCI to make date night a bit more exciting, but close enough that it’s not a hassle, and driving there won’t break the gas budget. It’ll give people a chance to dress up a bit and go out for a sophisticated evening. And it has a really nice bar, which is always a plus.