Sunday, September 9, 2007

Cafe Hiro

After seeing "Cafe Hiro" pop up in numerous blogs and discussions, I had to see what all the fuss was about. Cafe Hiro is well known not only among the online blogging community, but also to residents in-the-know around Cypress. Offering fine dining at a fraction of the price, it is popular with good reason.

Hidden in a discreet strip mall behind Chili's, this Japanese owned restaurant serves Japanese-Italian fusion cuisine among other international dishes in a quirky dining room. Seating is limited in the small restaurant room, but by no means would a customer feel cramped. The ambiance is warm and cozy, the work of pastel murals painted on three walls. Pictures of Cafe Hiro's unique decor will be featured in a future post.

Cafe Hiro was packed at 6:23pm on a Thursday night. Fortunately, there was a seat at the counter for me, party of one. Though it is a small establishment, reservations can be made, but my trip made on a whim. Service is friendly, though it may feel slapdash. Don't blame the two cute waitresses if you wait a few more minutes than usual for them to come to your table. In addition to normal waiting duties (taking orders, serving, refilling drinks), they also bus the tables and somehow manage to help out in the kitchen, adding finishing touches to each dish. Ladies, I tip my hat with respect for your efficiency and morale.

Placing my order was difficult. Every item on the menu caught the interest of my eager palate. Their prices also grabbed the attention of my wallet. The ingredients Cafe Hiro use are typically found in more sophisticated restaurants featuring sommeliers and servers who ask "Sparkling or flat water?", but here they were at Cafe Hiro at nearly half the price. In the end, I settled for crab cakes, seabass risotto, and panna cotta.

Each entree comes with a complementary salad with a Japanese miso dressing as well as the soup of the day, which was mushroom on the day of my visit. Plates of salad wait in a refrigerator before one of the waitresses pulls them out to dress and serve. I personally like my salad very chilled instead of room temperature, so the salad was especially enjoyable. The soup was thick and creamy, putting to shame anything claiming to be Cream of Mushroom Soup. Its heavy flavor suggests a great deal of mushrooms were pureed to make this soup. I approve.

Creamy Crab Cakes:

Though "creamy" is not a descriptor one would like to associate with a Maryland Crab Cake, this menu did not specify to expect the traditional Maryland preparation. I took a risk, and it was worth it. Fried a beautiful golden brown, these two large pieces were delightfully crispy on the outside while remaining, as its name suggests, "creamy" on the inside. Make no mistake, fillers were not added to these crab cakes to substitute the lack of meatiness. In fact, the taste of crab was as dominant as any traditional crab cake and Cafe Hiro simply saves customers the trouble of chewing. The Chef, however, seemed to allow small pieces of crab to remain intact in order to add some substance to each bite. Calling the interior "creamy" is an overstatement for it is far from liquid form. "Soft and easily chewed" would be a better, albeit unprofessional, description.

Sea Bass and Mushroom Risotto:

My impression was that I would be served a risotto containing sea bass and mushrooms. Upon seeing the actual product in front of me, I admit I was much more pleased. A generous sea bass filet was masterfully broiled, rendering the surface crispy while keeping the juices intact. As a fish originally considered too oily for consumption by Chilean natives, sea bass is heavenly when broiled at a high temperature and fried in its own fat. A tender stalk of my favorite vegetable, asparagus, added a bit of color to the dish. I don't know how Cafe Hiro found asparagus in August, but it tasted fresh.

Risotto is common fare in Italy, but it has inexplicably found a place in higher end restaurants in America. Cafe Hiro brings this hearty dish back to its humble origin and adds a Japanese twist--Shitake Mushrooms. Somehow, the shitake mushrooms managed to work with the European mushrooms to create a unified, well balanced taste. No flavor overwhelmed another, and I was able to savor the flavors of as many as four different types of mushrooms in this risotto. The rice was appropriately toothy and had absorbed the taste of the mushrooms. An amazing dish.

Panna Cotta:

I bid goodbye to this year's Berry Season with my order of Panna Cotta. Eating panna cotta is a very curious sensation. The mixture of cream and milk with gelatin creates a dessert with the appearance of a soft creamy pudding but has the consistency of soft, delicate Jell-O. However, unlike Jell-O, panna cotta is rich with flavor. Served cold with a quick drizzle of strawberry syrup, Cafe Hiro's panna cotta was a refreshing conclusion to a meal during this summer's heat wave.

Look up "Bargain" on Wikipedia and you will find an entry on Cafe Hiro. Dishing out pricey ingredients with the skill of a chef from a higher end restaurant, Cafe Hiro's food does not reflect its pricing nor the cramped strip mall location. Moreover, the wait staff is phenomenal. The two sole waitresses essentially work four jobs simultaneously and yet are still able to remain genuinely cheerful and lighthearted. Because they are forced to multitask (an understatement), service can sometimes be slower than other restaurants. Bear with it. You'd be hard pressed to find another establishment with servers who treat you not only like a regular, but also a friend.

I tipped an unprecedented 25% at Cafe Hiro. That's how satisfied and impressed I was with these two young ladies.

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