Many thanks to the local hounds who recommended Sushi Shibucho in Costa Mesa. Last month fellow San Franciscan Jen Maiser joined me there for a first visit and we loved it! I was back again on my own in less than a week. But it seems that business hasnt been good, and your support is needed to help keep this gem open. It reopens this week after the New Year break.
Jen and I sat at the bar, and were the only customers from 6:30pm to 8:30pm on a Thursday night. We asked that two different sakes be selected for us to compare and contrast. Otokoyama and Karatanba, both cold, were poured for us. The Otokoyamas one of Jens favorites, had a broad presence on the palate with an aged character and an bit of wood influence in the taste. The Karatanba felt lighter in the mouth, hitting the front of the palate on the tip of the tongue, with a fresher personality and medium sweetness.
Initially we asked for omakase, but Mr. Shibutani, the sushi chef, seemed reluctant given that it was our first visit. So, the dance began as we chatted and sized each other up. He seemed pleased when we told him we were from SF and had wanted to visit after reading about him on the internet. Our waitress, Susan, explained that Shibutani was quite famous when he was in Los Angeles and enjoyed having a smaller place now that serves only sushi. We took full advantage of being the sole customers and peppered both of them with questions. Susans translations helped us communicate with Shibutani. Over the course of the evening he instructed us on many aspects of fine sushi ranging from how the fish should be placed in the mouth for maximum flavor to the life cycle of yellowtail.
We split pairs of sushi. For our first taste, I ordered hirame engawa (flounder fluke). Shibutani raised an eyebrow and said, ah, you know sushi, and I parried, no, no Im here to learn from a master. The adipose tissue was carefully scored and formed in one bite size with just a squirt of lemon juice and a shake of special seasoned salt. Shibutani told us no soy. The salt is his own concoction with dark flecks of dried kombu lending an earthy/smoky note.
Tai (Japanese snapper) with the skin on looked somewhat frazzled in the case, but in the mouth was sweet and delicate. For this one, it seemed to me that he molded the rice pad more loosely so that the individual grains stayed separate and echoed the lightness of the tai.
Shiro maguro tataki (seared white tuna aka albacore) was the thickest slice enough for two mouthfuls this time. It was topped with a moist paste of sweet braised minced onion and ponzu sauce. He pointed out that onion was the superior match and not bitter like fried garlic.
Next was a side-by-side comparison of anago (sea eel) and unagi (fresh water eel). The anago lightly broiled to warm through and presented with no sauce, was dressed with only a light sprinkle of the special seasoned salt to let the delicate, less oily flavor shine through. The unagi, laquered with sweet and sticky sauce albeit more complex than standard issue, was softer and smoother in texture with rich gelatinous skin.
Our vegetable ration for the evening came in the form of a cucumber fan, cut deftly into ultra-fine slices before our eyes, arrayed against a mound of daikon shreds on the plate and then sprinkled with the seasoned salt. We also had a little break with complimentary miso soup that was very fine.
Several times I asked what was in the small glass bowl in the case and got only a laugh. Finally he explained that this was shirako (cod milt), but still seemed hesitant to serve it to us until I pressed. We were offered a small sample on the house. A first for us, he said he sees this a couple times a year, only in winter. He first blanched a couple pieces in a little bit of boiling hot water tapped from the tea station, then added a light sauce topped with grated ginger and chopped scallions. The curlicued sperm sacs had a soft creamy texture that reminded Jen of oysters and me of undercooked sweetbreads with an earthy/salty aroma and flavor that we recognized but were too polite to identify. A shooter of sake was the perfect chaser.
The kohada (herring family) had a beautiful taut silvery black skin, scored deeply to expose a criss-cross pattern through the dark oily flesh.
The Atlantic salmon had been handled expertly for the best flavor, texture and safety. Frozen for three days to kill parasites (which he says all salmon have), salted for a day, then brushed with a vinegar marinade, this had a firmer and less flabby texture than most others and was less fishy. This could change my mind about the taste of farmed salmon.
Giant squid legs cut into sections with about three legs each were toasted, then formed into nigiri and held in place with a cigar band of nori. Tender, chewy and not rubbery but still my least favorite of the evening.
Gobo (burdock root) provided a salty, crunchy counterpoint and palate refresher at meal midpoint. Jen loved this and wondered how to politely ask for another.
The iwashi (fresh sardine) were carefully deboned teasing away the spine and feathery bones with the finger tips. He pointed out that the soft fine-boned skeleton cant be removed with a knife. He yanked off the skin and offered the nigiri with its own sauce mixture and grated ginger and scallion. This was the most briny and fishy flavor and a slight metallic edge that tastes more raw.
Shiokara (fermented squid guts) was another first for Jen and I braved it again for a second time. His own concoction is brownish, very salty, chewy and covered in goop. Another sake shooter was needed to rinse this one down.
An order of yellowtail unleashed a lesson in the four growth states of yellowtail. This was bigger than hamachi and more appropriately called warasa.
To close, chu-toro (fatty toro from the sides) with a pearly sheen and pale color of high fat content was cut into fleshy two-bite slices. The smoky soy sauce (chefs own concoction again) found its best complement here.
For a fruity ending, he offered fuyu persimmon cut into narrow chunks. Even this was the sweetest and most flavorful Ive had this season
As the meal unfolded and impressed us with the pride and care of preparation, we didnt want to stop ordering, but I grew concerned about the cost. I whispered to Jen that I had less than $60 cash on me and might need a loan. With this frame of mind we were stunned when the bill arrived for a total of $55.59!!! So much so that I blurted out that this would have cost us double in San Francisco. Shibutani-san smiled and said we could pay double to make us feel at home. We thanked him by leaving $40 each. Susan gave us several business cards and asked us to send our friends. They told us that they have not had many customers in five months and December had been particularly slow.
On my solo visit, I was happy to see one customer at the bar, and later three more arrived. I ordered my favorites and found that Shibutani had a few more tricks up his sleeve.
To start I asked for a selection of sashimi. He chose tai which was lovely again, chu-toro which had more gristly striations this time, a striking sculptural strip of scored giant squid arranged in a vortex, and an unusual piece of halibut paired with a sliver of kombu. The halibut had been wrapped in kombu which imparted its smoky essence to the delicate fish. He added a touch of seasoned salt, but then tasted a sample and advised me to add a bit of soy since it as little too cold and wouldnt reach maximum flavor for another two hours out of the refrigerator.
A falling apart soft-boned sardine head was offered with a square of soft dark thick vegetable matter. He said that these were simmered for seven hours in his special marinade.
A chunk of saba (mackerel) had been carefully scored so that as it cooked and retracted, it would separate into three bite-size sections. He place the full piece just so across a shiso leaf that wilted and cooked slightly. He instructed me to eat this after the saba for a new dimension on the flavors from the juices.
The shiro maguro tataki nigiri was excellent again. Thick buttery pieces from the tenderest part of the loin, gotta love the deft saucing and onions.
The veggie of the day was mountain potato skin. Strips were salt-grilled lending a bit of crispness on the edges and an earthy flavor with a slight bitter note.
From here I asked for various nigiri and Shibutani asked me if I would like single pieces. I thanked him for offering this. He also had Susan exchange my soy sauce dish which had a mix of wasabi and soy to go with my sashimi so that I could have straight soy sauce with my nigiri. Ill also note that she exchanged my tea cup a couple times to make sure that it was always hot and fresh.
The gobo was salty and crunchy again, but had an almost lavender-like floral, herbal aromatic and taste note. Maybe shiso?
Kohada nigiri was lightly marinated this time, as was his choice of maguro for me. I wondered if these were remains from the previous week. However, the yellowtail was fantastic. Very pale, cut near the belly with a small strip of the thin and tender white belly skin left on. While one was enough of the others, I had to have a second piece of this buttery wonder.
My neighbor at the counter offered a piece of abalone sashimi from his order. The frilly edge was crunchy and briny.
Both of us stared in eyes-wide amazement when we saw Shibutani forming nigiri style uni for the other party. He just calls this without seaweed, but it is a thing of beauty deserving of admiration in the shingled effect he achieves by fitting and pressing together two lobes over the tightly packed rice pad. We both had to try this. The Santa Barbara uni was very sweet, mild and creamy.
Miso soup was the final palate cleanser and seemed extra delicious this night. With 25% tip, my dinner total was again $40. Again, I felt a twinge of guilt for being so well cared for, fed, entertained, and educated for so little.
590 West 19th St.