967 East Ojai Ave., Ojai
Ojai proper has a small yet bustling community, most noticeable during the weekend warrior exodus. Whether it’s the floppy-hatted, sunglass-shielded socialites toting refurbished Airstreams and lapdogs, or howling packs of motorcycle riders dispersing sound waves of tail pipes and ’70s rock, it is the place to be and be seen. But sometimes a certain level of zen respite is desired. Enter Ojai’s East End.
In addition to being hotel row, the East End is rapidly becoming known for its hangouts. The recent addition of several hip restaurants and boutiques has bolstered intrigue, and situated among these is Hakane Sushi, a veteran establishment serenely residing in the bamboo forest that surrounds it.
Hakane has a very authentic Japanese exterior design, incorporating a classic wood motif. Thus, I was caught off guard by the Hawaiian music and an interior more reminiscent of a beachside tiki bar than a traditional Tokyo haunt.
I took a seat at the bar and began to pan over the vast menu — sushi and 24-hour diners are the only exceptions to my three-page rule: No menu should offer more than three pages of options. I decided the first direction to explore was the sushi lunch special route, which included miso soup, a salad, one special roll (various creative options) and one regular roll (California roll, spicy tuna, yellowtail, shrimp tempura, etc.). I chose the Pacific Roll and the less adventurous spicy tuna. For good measure I added a baked eel and avocado roll.
My server, who was pleasant and attentive, promptly brought the miso and salad. The miso was more akin to tea than soup — I’ve honestly had heartier cappuccinos — but, while not necessarily booming with flavor, it made focused use of its sparse ingredients.
The rolls were shortly dropped off and I was impressed with the sheer volume placed in front of me. Presentation is not necessarily Hakane’s benchmark, as my segmented cylinder looked more of the “I-got-a-home-sushi-kit-for-Christmas” variety than, say, an exhibit at the Guggenheim. That being stated, a slightly lackluster appearance seldom dictates the flavor character, so I cast judgment aside — which proved to be a sound approach, as the fish was extremely fresh . . . I’m talking right-out-of-the-ocean fresh.
The Pacific Roll was a take on coconut shrimp, pitting the sweet and crunchy crustacean with crab, cucumber and avocado wrapped around the exterior. It was a buttery-rich and slightly spicy roll, leaving behind complex traces of flavor long after consumption. The spicy tuna roll was very traditional and extremely fresh, not remarkable but not a disappointment. It paired very nicely with the eel and avocado roll, which had a smoky, broiled essence to contrast the sweet and tangy accompanying sauce. All rolls were enhanced by the fresh custom-made soy sauce.
The lunch rush was booming, and I saw many patrons leaning over bento boxes, of which I have always been a fan. So I decided to join in the fun and chose the teriyaki salmon, a yellowtail roll and shrimp/vegetable tempura amalgamation. In addition, the combo came with a bowl of miso and a salad. The salmon was glazed beautifully with a house-made teriyaki and broiled to an ideal char. The tempura was first rate, with a light, crunchy exterior tastefully encapsulating the shrimp and vegetables. Finally, the yellowtail was sweet and delicate, providing a neutral palate cleanser of sorts.
I decided to close out my session with one final special roll: the spider roll. Complete with crab meat, avocado and gobo, the sweet crab was crunchy and settled in well with its roll contemporaries. Wrapped in pastel soybean paper, it was a colorful way to close out the afternoon.
Hakane also offers sashimi and sushi boat dinner specials, both boasting a chef’s choice selection of fresh sashimi cuts. Several noodle bowls grace the menu, with both soup and stir fry options available. Hakane has a well-rounded selection and relaxing atmosphere and is definitely worth the extra few blocks.