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A bad day for good taste in Santa Clarita

Posted: January 9, 2013 2:00 a.m.
Updated: January 9, 2013 2:00 a.m.

Thursday, Dec. 13, 2012 is a date that shall go down in Santa Clarita epicurean infamy. That day, after a glorious gourmet run spanning over a decade, Chef Jason Park and Maru Sushi served their last meals to an appreciative and saddened Santa Clarita clientele. Jason’s Maru Sushi story isn’t just about food. More, it’s a story of perseverance, commitment to principle, and the personal pursuit of perfection. Unfortunately, this story also exposes the sadder results when the invisible hand of capitalism weighs down too heavily.

Jason Park, with his immigrant parents, Mike and Diane Park, crafted their remarkable restaurant on Town Center Drive at the Valencia Mall to serve, without compromise, the finest continental and Japanese food this side of the West Side.

Reflective of Jason’s Ayn Rand-like drive for perfection, Jason personally oversaw every aspect of food procurement and preparation, and executed his menus with verve and control akin to a General Patton engaged in kitchen combat. The well calculated result was perfection in food, providing gourmet creations as we’re not likely to see again in Santa Clarita for many years, if ever again.

Meanwhile, as the Parks built their restaurant into a pinnacle of food perfection, our town had otherwise continued its accent as a mecca of national chain restaurants, epitomized by giant plates o’stuff piled high with high calorie, over-sauced and salted factory foods, assembled by chefs matching plates with pictures of how said food is supposed to appear.

It’s generally ok fare but not great, and not especially healthy. Most recognize fine food is art, and boy, running against local trends, Jason Park was SCV’s gastronomical Picasso and Maru Sushi our own gourmet Louvre.

Initially business was slow as the Town Center Drive location was newly constructed and Maru’s menu was a slightly misunderstood combination between continental and Asian cuisine.

Carrie and I had already become regulars, and we suggested to Mike that they stage two tables with chairs outside to draw attention that the restaurant had opened on an otherwise quiet street. That helped, and as word got around the roster of regulars expanded, with many forging fast friendships with the Parks.

Many grew to know the Parks as among the finest individuals they’ve met.

Business became brisk and the industrious Parks began looking for a second location – but this time with a menu appealing to a broader audience. Jason recognized that he’d aimed very high with his five star menu, still, it appeared that he’d won over enough foodies to pull off the finest restaurant in town. Having Maru in Santa Clarita was a bit like finally getting that Nordstrom’s so many have long coveted. With Maru, the SCV had at last gastronomically "arrived!"

But then the Great Recession changed all that as so many Santa Claritans were forced to downsize personal budgets. First cut is usually dining out, and Maru got hammered as families realigned food budgets with new realities. But the Parks stayed committed to both our town and to super quality food, making tremendous sacrifices to see their restaurant through to the other side of the recession.

In the face of financial challenge something always has to give — for all of us. For Jason, his final line was an oppressive outcome on a lease renewal. Some numbers guy up the corporate ladder at Westfield far removed from the excellence being served on Town Center Drive dictated unachievable lease renewal terms for a family operation. Meanwhile, Jason learned that similar space was available in trendy Santa Monica for the same rates he would be charged at our local mall. Pragmatism forced a tough decision to pull the local plug.

Unlike many other businesses that often just "disappear in the night" — Jason informed customers exactly when he’d be closing. The word hit the street and social media about two weeks out. The last nights of Maru’s operation were packed full to the brim with grateful aficionados and well-wishers.

Korean culture is famously demure, but I don’t believe I’ve ever seen so many hugs and handshakes between a restaurateur and his affectionate customers.

Hundreds, perhaps thousands, came out to say "goodbye" to these pillars of integrity and quality. And as the Parks closed the doors on one of the best things that ever happened to the SCV, the food served that night was as good as the best of their 12-year run.

I understand capitalism is the magic that brings us affordable iPhones and cheap TV’s. But sure has a sad human side when economic upheaval bears such sad personal outcomes and loss of brilliance for an entire community. There goes one more valued local owned and operated business.

Many of us will be driving to Santa Monica as soon as we get the word.

Gary Horton is a Valencia resident. "Full Speed to Port!" appears Wednesdays in The Signal.


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