Hakane Japanese Cuisine
967 E. Ojai Ave., Ojai

Whenever I go to a Japanese restaurant I always pay close attention to the look of the fish at the sushi bar and how pleased the particular chef happens to appear when an artistically designed plate goes from kitchen to server to table. Palate and flavor, of course, also matter; but just as in real estate where “pride of ownership” is a major sales tool, for me pride of culinary skill and presentation by the chef is crucial in Japanese dining.

For the last few years, Hakane Japanese Cuisine in Ojai has quietly been succeeding on all the above levels, and continues to serve as an appealing option in Ojai’s plentiful gastronomic dining scene. One can begin with either the traditional miso soup or the asari clear soup (with daikon sprouts, mushrooms, tofu and Japanese parsley), but I always opt for a couple of sashimi or sushi, usually hamachi (yellowtail) or anago (Sea eel). Quite often, however, I begin with the spectacular tobico (a flying fish caviar), the glistening tiny roe perfectly wrapped with rice in delicious nori (dried seaweed sheets) and served with a very good wasabi paste and delicately sliced pickled ginger.

Salads include a pepper tuna or albacore tataki, a crab salad, a salmon skin salad and a few others. Because of the vast selection on the rest of the menu, it might be advisable to simply order the cucumber salad (very thin slices in rice vinegar). There are also sashimi combos (three or five varied kinds of raw fish with daikon radish shredded in a Japanese manner). Every bite of fish I’ve tried at this restaurant is phenomenally fresh tasting and perfectly presented. (And when I glance at the sushi chef as he presents the dish to the server, there are definitely a gleam in his eye and a smile on his face.)

Many people go to Japanese restaurants for the variety of maki rolls offered, and Hakane never disappoints in this area, either. A friend of mine always orders the Volcano Roll (crabmeat, cucumber, avocado and rice, then wrapped in salmon and spicy tuna and quickly lightly baked). My favorite is either the Fire Cracker Roll (spicy scallop, avocado and rice wrapped in spicy tuna) or the Starfish Roll (spicy crab, cucumber, avocado, asparagus, shrimp tempura, and rice, wrapped in tuna, yellowtail, and avocado.)

In chillier weather, I particularly like the Hakane noodle options: the tempura udon is hearty and warming; the seafood yakisoba is a good noodle combination, but for me a little busy and heavy. One thing I specifically like about Japanese cuisine is the option of having lots of tiny samples of different flavors and preparations. Yakisoba is pretty much all one can eat if that is what one orders.

I have not ordered any of the à la carte dinner options such as Oceano teriyaki, kalbi – beef short ribs, yakiniku (a sukiyaki sort of dish), spicy pork, sesame chicken or any of the katsu (pork, chicken or fish fried cutlets), but when they have passed my table on their way to somewhere else the portions look plentiful and very appetizing. The tempura a very light and tasty, and are also a good option (although I prefer it in the Udon).

Vegetarians can be very well accommodated at Hakane. There is vegetable tempura, but also many tofu options — I really like the crispy tofu salad. One may also order the seaweed salad or a cucumber roll, avocado roll or many other possibilities.

I haven’t mentioned price in this review up to this point. Hakane is a little expensive, probably two or three dollars per item more than one can find elsewhere, but for the sparse yet comfortable atmosphere and superb fresh taste of the seafood, it is occasionally worth the heftier bill. (When I think I’m doing OK with just a small order of this and that and with sashimi, and then have a couple of different rolls as well, it adds up rather quickly. But the unique combinations and very fresh flavors are most enjoyable.

I’m always too full for dessert, but the tempura green tea ice cream looks amazing. If Japanese cuisine beckons your palate, and you are in Ojai, Hakane will not disappoint. In fact, there are so many tempting offerings on the menu, you will probably come back again and again to enjoy them all.