We were in town to celebrate my dad’s birthday, and I was eager to find a place in Santa Clarita that was worthy of our attention so we didn’t have to drive out to LA for a nice meal. I found Maru after reading several glowing reviews on Yelp, where some reviewers admit to driving all the way to Valencia from all over the Southland just to eat there. People driving to Valencia just to eat? Now I had to see if it really lived up to the hype.
Maru is not your typical Japanese restaurant because in addition to a fairly standard Japanese menu, they also feature a seasonal Market Menu that features “modern California cuisine” and includes dishes like seared foie gras, crispy duck risotto, USDA Prime steaks, and other dishes you’d find at a typical upscale restaurant. Fresh fish is flown in daily from Japan, the restaurant is committed to using organic, free-range products, and all the vegetables are hand picked by chef/owner Jason Park at the Santa Monica Farmer’s Markets. You could argue that Maru serves the freshest food in Santa Clarita, but having a great meal there depends entirely on which menu you choose.
We decided to pick dishes from both menus so we could try as many of the inventive dishes as possible, as well as see how Maru handles some of the basics. For starters, we ordered their much-heralded crispy duck risotto and agedashi tofu. Creamy duck risotto was shaped like a puck and then seared to make it crispy and was an excellent appetizer. Unfortunately, the agedashi tofu we ordered was seriously lacking. The tofu wasn’t fried very well, and it was served only in a ponzu-flavored dashi. There were no bonito flakes or grated daikon to be found, so it felt incomplete and worst of all…boring. (The dashi was good though.)
(Note: I read several reports that Maru frowns up on people taking pictures of the food (allegedly because the chef is paranoid about someone stealing his ideas) so I broke out my spy camera—er, iPhone—to get these pictures.)
The Market Menu’s sushi offerings are adventurous and exude freshness, especially when you can order things like live octopus leg or live lobster. We ended up ordering a majority of the sushi from the Market Menu, including Hama-Toro (yellowtail belly), Kan Saba (winter mackeral). We also ordered an Ahi Carpaccio that was dressed with a yuzu vinaigrette, as well as two orders of Unagi. The carpaccio was definitely the best of this bunch. The Hama-Toro was much richer than your standard order of hamachi, and the unagi was some of the freshest I’ve ever had. The mackeral was just okay to me…I think I prefer my saba broiled.
We also ordered the Spicy Crunchy Crab Roll, a unique and tasty presentation of fried soft shell crab wrapped in thinly sliced cucumber.
We also ordered two entrees off the Market Menu. I ordered the beef short ribs (of course!) and this was the single best dish of the night. Thick, LA-style, cross-cut short ribs are marinated and braised in a wonderful sake/soy sauce mixture and then grilled to finish. The meat was perfect…extremely tender but maintained its structure and slipped off the bones with ease. It was served with fries that didn’t look like much at first, but they got addicting after a few bites…and for some reason I ate a lot of them with my chopsticks. My parents split a slow-cooked pork dish that had a really nice citrus flavor, but once you got past that initial hit, the dish turned ordinary.
Maru seems so focused on their incredible sushi menu and Market Menu that it takes its eye off the ball when it comes to the basics, as evidenced by the agedashi tofu starter. It’s almost as if the Japanese Menu is there to appease people’s expectations, but it is so far beneath the chef’s real ambitions that he doesn’t pay it any mind. My wife, who is Japanese and very picky about how things are prepared, ordered the tonkatsu combination plate with tempura to see how Maru handled standard, innocuous Japanese fare. After one bite of the tonkatsu, she said, “my mom makes better katsu.” The pork cutlet was small and lean, lacking any traces fat, which made it dry and flavorless. The tempura was solid, but every Japanese restaurant should get this right. The miso soup that came with the combination seemed like an afterthought…there was nothing in it—no seaweed, no tofu—and the broth was surprisingly bland and watery. The whole thing was served on an enormous tray that was bigger than most cafeteria trays and it took up a lot of space on the table. A regular-sized try or bento box would have been preferable.
Before I discuss dessert, let me give Maru some props for their greens. Normally salads are throwaway items in a typical bento box, but Maru takes fresh mixed greens and pairs them perfectly with light but flavorful dressings and not the typical sesame or mayonnaise-based dressings that top bits of iceberg lettuce you’d normally find.
All of Maru’s desserts are homemade, the options are plentiful, but the results were hit and miss. My mom’s kiwi sorbet was incredibly fresh, but I’m not really into kiwi (other sorbet flavors on this evening were lychee, mandarin and pear). My dad’s molten chocolate cake was smaller than I expected but it was rich, smooth and delicious. The ice cream sandwich was the largest I’ve ever seen, featuring three scoops of ice cream (mocha, chocolate and vanilla) sandwiched between two gigantic homemade chocolate chip cookies. The cookies were amazing with nice big chunks of chocolate and a perfect crispy/chewy texture. However, the ice cream was incredibly rich and cloying, and all three flavors had a strong caramel-like flavor that made it difficult for me to differentiate between the chocolate and the mocha. The dessert that was utterly disappointing was the Berry Cobbler. The cobblers are baked to order but my wife’s didn’t come together completely and she said there were bits of uncooked dough in the bottom of the ramekin. Also, the cobbler topping was Bisquik style as opposed to the crunchy, crumbly topping that we would have preferred.
Maru Sushi is a standout on the Santa Clarita culinary landscape, which is dominated by fast food, and family-oriented theme restaurants. But I really think Maru would be best served by concentrating on its incredible sushi and seasonal Market Menu. It’s obvious that Chef Park doesn’t seem really interested or challenged by basic Japanese food, and streamlining would allow him to serve a dynamic menu without feeling obligated to offer the more pedestrian Japanese dishes to appease the masses. This would make Maru more exciting and challenging for the chef and ensure that diners get a unique experience on every visit.
24250 Town Center Drive, Suite 180
Valencia, CA 91355 map
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