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Shibucho: hands of a master

Thi N. | Feb 23, 200503:34 PM

So, yeah. Did I post on this already? I might have. Sorry if I have. I doubt it. I went here while I was in a word-hating phase.

Down to Irvine, to Shibucho, which, I was told by many on this board, which was run by Shibutani-san, founder and trainer of many famous L.A. joints.

Interesting thing: when we first came in, we were seated in the middle of the bar, between an older chef (who I later learned was Shibutani-san), and a younger chef (who I later learned was Shibutani-san's son).

The son made us our first few pieces; at some point, I started chatting up Shibutani-san, asked about a few semi-oddities and was quiet transferred from the care of the son to the care of Shibutani-san himself.

The incredible thing here is the sudden jump in the quality of the sushi experience - *from the very same fish* and from the same tub of rice. Both were taking from the same pool of cuts, both were cutting from the cut end (in other words, Shibutani wasn't selecting special parts of the available fish). The only differences were in the knife handling and then the shaping hands. But the sushi we got from Shibutani-san's hands was stupendously better. (And we even had the same fish from both hands at two points - once with tuna, once again with something else I can't remember but that I demanded.)

I've always wondered how much difference the chef makes in the sushi experience. Clearly, his eye at the fish market is important. But what about his hands at the sushi bar? I've got an answer now: tons and tons and tons of difference.

Hard to describe why. I noticed that he was very careful about the direction of cut against the grain, about the thickness of the cut (and I noticed that the thickness varied with each sort of fish - I think some of the slimier, slicker fishes were delivered in very thin cuts, the thicker, meatier fishes delivered in thick cuts, though not consistently so. Squid was delivered in thin julienned strips.) (The son, on the other hand, made everything to a uniform hunk-a-thunk thickness). I noticed that he shaped with intensity and precision, with one or two quick motions, and I'm pretty sure that the amount of squeeze and compacting he delivered to the rice varied widely depending ont he texture of the fish.

And the sushi we had from him was incredible.

Beautiful tunas, very nice hirame. Best mackerel I've ever had - smooth, lusciously oily, velvety textured. We got into stuff I've never had before, including my very favorite, some sort of Japanese sardine - salty, slippery, weirdly beatifully soft, and with a single high beautiful tang flavor that sort of expands in the mouth.

Texture experiences were pretty dramatic - something in the way he cut the fish and shaped it against the rice, something in the exact pressure he gave to each different sort of fish, made each texture extra-distinct, very alive. I'm a texture-fiend, but I sort of had the sense that I was a novice, and this grinning master was showing me how far I had to go, still.

Saucing was minimal, but really nice when it happened.

So, yeah. Stunning. Omakase went on for a long, long time. One of the two best sushi experiences of my life, the other being a pretty expensive place in San Francisco that I can't remember the name of that I was taken to once. Significantly better than Tama Sushi and Wa Sushi, the two really quality experiences I've had in L.A. Price: for two, with no drinks: $70.

Last note: Sarah and I, non-Japanese, walk into the place, in which there is one other couple, also non-Japanese, at the bar. The non-Japanese couple is being served by the son. We are immediately seated next to the other couple, and start being served by the son the same things the other couple are being served. We chat them up - they're regulars. They're enjoying the stuff, and occasionally requesting some standards - salmon skin roll, avocado-eel roll.

Once I chat the chef up, and ask about a few things - nothing magically rare, just a little bit out of the very obvious mainstream American sushi awareness - (I think I asked about bonito, chutoro, and something else) - we were immediately transferred to Shibutani's care, and given a very different omakase menu. All the effete oddities, like the sardine and a few other things - we got and the other couple didn't.

So I hear legends about non-regulars or non-Japanese getting slightly subpar treatment, and about chefs "testing" their customers. For what it's worth, I guess it sort of happened here, but it was pretty easy to get out of.

Anyway, once transferred, he gave us a particularly luscious and intensely oily piece of mackeral, which we dug. He noticed our digging it, seemed mildly surprised, and then started throwing us all sorts of beautiful things and correcting our eating style - saying certain pieces should be dipped sideways instead of upsidedown, saying certain ones wanted a lot of soy, etc. Very, very friendly. Didn't mind me asking the Japanese and English names of everything.

Anyway, yeah. Beautiful.


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