I took my friend to Shibucho for omakase for his birthday (first time for both of us). The counter was full, so we sat at a table first, and Shibutani-san worked on making us a platter while we nibbled on some excellent daikon and sipped our tea. The platter consisted of: 2 mackerel (with ginger I think), 4 salmon, 2 giant clam, 4 fatty tuna, 2 shrimp, and I think 2 halibut (I don't remember the Japanese names of a couple, so I'll just stick to English). Our server informed us that they were out of yellowtail. I don't eat good sushi very often, and the only other time I had truly amazing sushi was in 1988 or so at Shibutani's restaurant in Little Tokyo (and I was too young and stupid to know what I was eating), so I usually don't eat the raw fish. We gobbled up the entire plate, and it was all fantastic. My friend, who is Japanese and a sushi lover, commented that it was the best sushi he's ever had.
After we were served miso soup (which was very good, and contained dried bean curd, which I rarely see in miso soup), two seats at the counter opened up, so we moved so we could see the master in action. After that, we were each served albacore, freshwater eel, 2 sea urchin, omelette, 2 salmon skin, and 2 gourd, all of which were delicious of course. The albacore was new to me, and very interesting, tasting the fatty part and the meaty part together. The eel thankfully was not drowned in ponzu, like it is at some other places I've been to. The omelette was fluffy, but not too spongy, and sweet. Shibutani heckled my friend for shoving the whole thing in his mouth instead of taking two bites. Salmon skin was great, with small chunks of salmon meat in it, which made the skin less salty. Perfect with the burdock root. And the gourd...I'm not sure I can describe the flavor of it. But I liked it. Oh yeah, Shibutani-san told us, as each piece of sushi was served, whether or not to eat with soy sauce.
Funny story about the sea urchin. My friend was bugging me to try it because I had never had it before. Neither had the couple sitting next to my friend. So Shibutani-san made one for each of us. My friend and I dipped it in soy sauce, but sort of got distracted talking, and dipped it too long! So his fell apart, and mine tasted a little too much of soy. Shibutani laughed and told my friend (who was tonight's whipping boy) to dip quickly and eat. So we each got one more (but not the couple next to us - they didn't like it as much). The texture was a little alarming - I generally don't even like the texture of custard - but I really enjoyed it. I think I am hooked now.
The decor of the restaurant is spare, but there are some nice touches behind the counter. I had the good fortune of sitting next to an elderly Japanese couple who were longtime friends of Shibutani-san (we got into a conversation when the gentleman and my friend both pulled out their cameras). The gentleman told me how Shibutani-san made the wooden box-shelf-thing (sorry I don't know the proper name for it) himself, and praised him for being very multi-talented. When I inquired about the wooden plaques overhead, he explained to me that they are highly prized, given by the fishmongers in Japan to only the best sushi chefs, which is why you almost never see them in the U.S. The gentleman used to be a fishmonger himself, and his wife owned a restaurant in Little Tokyo when Shibutani-san first worked at a restaurant in the Sumitomo building (I forget the name of the restaurant), and they used to eat at each others' restaurants for lunch quite frequently. Shibutani-san is somewhat of a legend among the Japanese around Downtown.
At the end of the night, Mrs. Shibutani brought out snapper-bone (or is it fin?) toothpicks, also crafted by Shibutani-san. They were so beautiful, I took one but couldn't bear to use it.
I was a little dismayed that the sushi was not prepared two ways as some have described here, and that the cost of the omakase was not impossibly low (again, as some have described here) - I think we were billed the same as if we ordered a la carte. But the price was reasonable considering the quality of the food. I would have eaten more, but it was closing time, and my friend was full (we spent a leisurely two hours in there). Total cost of omakase for two, and a Coke for my friend, was around $73 after tax, before tip. I left a 30% tip, wishing I was rich enough to feel comfortable with leaving more - the Shibutanis and their server, Susan (I think - also Japanese, longtime friend of the Shibutanis - I'm horrible with names) (she was really great about making sure we always had tea, BTW) are some of the nicest people you'll ever meet.
Not too long ago, I said I was completely bored of sushi. Thanks to Shibutani-san, I gladly take those words back. I don't know if I can ever eat sushi anywhere else.
Oh, I think Shibutani-san said his birthday is in January. He'll be 62. The guy looks like he's in his 40s.
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