First of all, let me say that I've been anticipating going to Sushi Shibucho for a long time. It has been on the top of my list for as long as I've been a Chowhound reader. Melanie Wong's essay "O Sushi Shibucho" was one of the first posts I've ever read on the board. It made me realize that there are a lot hidden treasures in O.C.
But even as Sushi Shibucho held the top spot of places I had to try, the formality that omakase entails and the bucks that it requires, made me procrastinate. I know, I'm cheap, but more than anything, I was afraid of finding that the enjoyment to price ratio was going to be low. After all, I'm a sushi novice. I wondered if I would really appreciate the differences between toro and regular tuna, and even worse, would I be able to then compare it to, say, Sushi Boy's sushi, and conclude that there was no difference? How's that for sushi blasphemy? That would be a shame, both for the skills of a master like Shibutani and for me as a food-lover.
That's when a serendipitous opportunity presented itself. A friend wanted to treat a few of us out, money-no-object, on his company's expense account. I jumped at the chance and blurted out "Sushi Shibucho!"
I had been talking this place up to my friends for a while now, and when we arrived, the first thing they said was "This is it?" Evidently, I had left out the fact that this was a tiny place; a hole-in-the-wall. They must have imagined something flashier, with a long line of silicone and botox enhanced babes, and a burly bouncer with a clipboard. Ultimately, I think they were actually relieved that it wasn't some trumped-up Newport Beach abomination. Anyone remember Aysia 101?
When we went in, the sushi bar was completely occupied, except for two seats, which were already reserved. I had called the day before to make a reservation for omakase, but the gentleman who answered (probably Shibutani's son) informed me to call back on the day of, or arrive at 5:30 when they opened. But silly me. I did neither, being the procrastinator that I am. We got there at 7:00 pm - no reservation. It was then that I realized; we would not be able to sit at the bar. No omakase tonight.
The nice woman, who was probably Shibutani's wife, got a table ready for us and we perused the menu. I checked off items from the sushi list. Two orders each. Toro. Uni. Salmon Skin. Ika. I can't even remember now how much we checked off, but I think we chose a good selection. Defintely not even close to what Shibutani himself would have served us "omakase" or what Melanie Wong experienced on her visit, but good enough for a couple of sushi newbies going at it alone.
The first to come out was the nigiri, all arranged artfully on a large plate. The toro was fatty and silky. The salmon, rich. The squid (ika), though, had an overpowering dose of wasabi. This one literally made us wince and cry. I pounded my fist on the table for mercy. Oh so painful! There were other nigiris on the plate that I could not remember, but all was sparkling fresh with perfectly packed rice. Sushi Boy's got nothin' on Shibucho! Duh!
Then the rolls came. By this time, one of my companions was already full. But the rolls looked too damn good to resist. On this equally large plate was salmon skin roll, unagi, tuna, and again, a few others I could not recall. This was where Shibutani relied more on textures and bolder flavors. Crunchy cucumber contrasted with salty smoked salmon. A thick, sweet, dark sauce complemented neutral rice. It made a lot of sense that he served the nigiri first, because it was subtler than the rolls and required the attention of virgin taste buds.
The total for the night was a little over $100 for our party of three.
We concluded that we had a good sampling of what omakase would have been like, but undoubtedly there remains uncharted territory that only Shibutani could show us. We will be back for omakase.
That night was only a primer, yet I still looked back fondly on everything I had, hours after the experience.
590 W 19th St
Costa Mesa, CA 92627