Hakane Japanese Cuisine  
967 E. Ojai Ave.

Many people go to Ojai for the ambience, the spiritual possibilities, the natural setting and the artsy vibe. Others wander up Highway 33 for the variety of dining options and possibilities. Hakane is a Japanese restaurant that has been welcoming diners since 2009, and in March of this year a new owner, Jay Hahn, purchased the restaurant and is slowly trying to impart his own style and temperament to both the food and the décor. One of the first changes people notice is the rapidly growing beer-bottle sculptures springing up throughout the garden. Whimsically yet tastefully arranged designs peer out from underneath bushes or lying flat and Zen garden like in unexpected locations.

Thus far, there are not many overtly visible changes in the already adequate and comfortable dining areas, but the subtle humor of the garden sculptures serves as a visual amuse-bouche for one’s impending dining experience. Although not officially released as of this writing, Hahn has shown me the new menu, and there are many familiar and unchanged items; I have now eaten there several times since the ownership change and will briefly mention some notable observations.

Previously, the menu seemed too vast and overwhelming to decide a satisfactory order. There are still a large variety of options, but the menu has been simplified into sections: small dish, salad, special roll (cut and hand), kitchen dinner entree, and kitchen dinner combination. Somehow the menu now seems manageable and more inviting and, hopefully, with photographs accompanying each selection, the many offerings will seem less confusing to novice Japanese cuisine diners.

Actually, my favorite dish is not listed on either the old or the new menu: the bento box.  A lacquer tray with six compartments, the bento is a traditional Japanese serving style (most frequently at lunch) of whatever the chef that day decides to combine and serve together. Dating from the 16th century, this “box lunch”-style of dining is now a phenomenally fashionable trend in Japanese restaurants, and Hakane’s version is most satisfying. One begins with miso soup, and then the bento tray arrives with vegetable tempura or a shrimp/veggie combination, salad, veggie roll or sliced meat, and various roll and/or sashimi selections. Fish selections vary daily depending on market availability and chef selection. The hamachi (yellowtail) in my bento was buttery, mild and ocean-fresh; at $8.20 for the veggie bento or $10.79 for the meat bento, this is possibly the best value in the restaurant.

I’m not fond of the rather ordinary accompanying green salad, which is served with a ginger or peanut dressing; better to spend a dollar more for the crisp, thinly sliced cucumbers in rice vinegar or $2 more for the very creative, crunchy and slightly sweet- tasting deaweed salad (wakame). Also available (again for a few dollars more) are a multilayered and delightful crispy tofu salad and, also a flavorful ot  hearty salmon-skin salad. If I had any recommendations to the chef it would only be to tone down the saltiness of the miso soup and add a bit more tofu.

The dinner entrees are interesting. I am quite fond of the tempura at Hakane, a very light batter and perfectly cooked vegetables (I particularly like the square of taro or eddoe) and the flattened large shrimp. The barbecue eel is succulently flavorful and unusual, and the many daily sashimi offerings are posted on a board.  

One memory I have of previous Hakane offerings is the very distinct presentation.  Currently it appears to me the chef is still developing enthusiasm for method, and a few more subtle elements (a single flower, an artistically sliced vegetable florette) might add that iota of style that so often embellishes a Japanese dining experience. The clever addition of the black sesame seeds in Hakane’s phenomenal sticky rice is exactly the sort of presentation element to which I refer.

Various dessert options are available, but I always opt for the green tea ice cream: satisfying, not too heavy, and a pleasant conclusion to an agreeable meal. I’m sure owner Hahn will bring some of the creativity his garden bottle sculptures imply to the enthusiasms of the chef for the culinary experience inside the restaurant. It is worth it to make the trek to Ojai for not just a pleasant, but also a memorable dining experience.