O Sushi Shibucho! (long)
- Melanie Wong
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.
Thanks, Melanie for a great post. The graciousness of Shibutani truly made for an amazing meal experience. I definitely learned more about sushi in this meal than ever.
At one point, Shibutani took a piece of sushi from my hands, repositioned it for me, and gave it back to me to show me exactly the position that it should go into my mouth. Most of the time, before I would eat a new piece of sushi, he would look at me and tell me whether I had to eat it in one bite or could eat it in two ... explaining that pieces with skin or pieces that fall apart easily and make a mess should be eaten in one.
All of this was very caring instruction - nothing overbearing about it. We were eager learners, and he was happy to teach.
The attention that Shibutani pays to every detail is worth going in and of itself. As Melanie mentioned, even his soy sauce is his creation.
No news here, Melanie. Shibutani started the first Shibucho on beverly back in the 70's (i've been going since 1980). He sold the one on Beverly to shige who's brought in foie gras and italian olive oil and salads and french wines; the one in Little Tokyo has been run by the former assistant chef, who now runs it as Kawacho (his name is kawasaki). Today I went there for lunch and had the giant squid legs as well as ho-ya (sea squirt) and nakaochi toro in a temaki/handroll (the toro is from between the bones[?] and removed from the fish with a spoon, then mixed with some chopped shiso and takuan - very nice).
Shibutani used to have hire-sake, hot sake flamed with fugu fins, much safer than the fugu sushi one can supposedly get elsewhere.
For years, shibutani would not serve unagi at his sushi bar (forget about spicy tuna). He said it was a sushi bar, just ocean fish. People were told that they could go elsewhere for freshwater eel. But Shibutani was pretty famous, I remember seeing Marlon Brando at the old Shibucho, as well as the Tokyo String Quartet when they were in town. He went back to Japan a few years ago, supposedly to help teach his son the trade.
I'm quite happy that he's back.
I just want to take exception with one of your statements, Melanie. You write that he "enjoyed having a smaller place now that serves only sushi". I don't remember him ever serving anything else in the more than twenty years I've been patronising his establishment. Well, he would make a chawan-mushi to order. And I bet he still does. And you even said he'll serve unagi on sushi rice now.
Next time you go, Melanie, ask him to make you an order to go of his saba (mackerel for others) in the pressed sushi/ Osaka style/ whatevertheJapanesename-style. It's great and lasts a little while since the mackerel is marinated.
The price has always been good at Shibutani's place, Shige's price fluctuates, but Kawacho (kawasaki) has pretty good prices as well. Today's lunch of 2 otoshi of seasoned white "cloud ears", an-kimo sashimi, two orders of fish gelatin, a sashimi plate of 1/2 tai, 1/2 hirame, ho-ya sashimi, one uni handroll, one nakaochi toro handroll, one albacore sushi, one cut negi-hama maki, one maguro sushi, one order of ice cream, two miso soups cost $52 without tax or tip (two diners).
Thanks much for the history and suggestions. I'm going back tonight if I can get out of the office before 8:00.
What I was most impressed with was the absolute precision of his knife technique. While Shibutani's fish are fresh, these weren't necessarily supreme examples. What made them so very special was his care in cutting them to show their best, creating the right balance with the amount of rice and wasabi, and choosing the right seasonings.
One of the other customers asked for mirugai and some other items which Shibutani said he didn't have because they're too expensive. I suspected that the fall-off in December business may have kept him from buying luxuries. I hope that things will pick up so that he can have a full palate to play with.
re: Melanie Wong
Melanie, I think they will pick up as well. Shibutani was one of the biggest teachers here of other sushi chefs and one of the biggest teachers of his clientele. Down in Costa Mesa, he has two things going for him: a moneyed clientele, and a clientele that is willing to learn.
The saddest thing I remember at a bar was once at Kawacho watching Kawasaki make spider roll for someone. I asked the customer, NICELY, really, that since so much of the fish was so extremely fresh, why bother with fried foods? He answered that this was the best spider roll he's ever had so he always got it at this sushi bar. But the looks on the chefs faces were pretty disappointed.
Still, he's not shige. He'll give you what you want if he can.
I certainly hope so. It's so sad to see his disappointment. They did tell me they got a lot of take-out orders on New Year's eve. Btw, I meant to say that I hope he can soon feel comfortable buying more things to have a full *palette* to work with.
Yesterday I did ask him for saba "Kansai-style" (couldn't remember "oishi-sushi" either) , which made him chuckle and roll his eyes. But even though he added the piece of kelp to my nigiri, it wasn't the pressed and sliced style. It was delicious and much more mild saba than I've had before. From there I just told him to give me what he felt like choosing for me.
I also asked about ho-ya. He didn't have any and added that he didn't think I would like it. What's up with that? But he said he gets it sometimes and he'd let me try it. (g)
re: Lord Lipitor
It's on the top floor of the Mitsuwa marketplace, 333 alameda, 3rd and alameda (parking entrance on alameda side). They're open every day but Sunday. New Hours.
I like them so much I don't go much for sushi elsewhere. sushi 23 (?) I went to once, it was fine. But with sushi, when I'm happy, I stay. (never really happy with nozawa, i just don't like his rice).
Sushi gen I remember goingto a while back and it was acceptable as well.
Has anyone tried Taiko in Brentwood btw? I liked it although it's more expensive than I like and I don't usually like places that do udon and sushi. But the udon was pretty good and the one piece of sushi I tried was good as well.
Many thanks for your reply. Will try soon.
And, yes, I have tried Taiko and it was good and, alas, pricey. Ate Kobe beef sashimi there on someone else's ticket with Spielberg et famille at the next table. Did my best not to look at them.
Also basically concur on Nozawa. Life's too short. Of the high ticket places I lvoe Matsuhisa when I can afford it and Asanebo in the Valley. Also like the less expensive Katsu-ya in Studio City, great with kids. Tama Sushi has been slightly disappointing so far, but I think this is because Katsu (owner/chef) is pressed economically in his new digs and it will improve if he can get over the hump. He certainly has it in him. Best of moderately priced sushi bars I've tried lately--Saito in Silver Lake. Haven't tried R-23 in years, but used to like it. That's my report. Have you tried Mako Sushi in Weller Court? Also on list.
re: Lord Lipitor
- And, yes, I have tried Taiko and it was good and, alas, pricey. Ate Kobe beef sashimi there on someone else's ticket with Spielberg et famille at the next table. -
Is it possible you're thinking of Takao? I thought Taiko was the place in the mall on the n. side of San Vicente, while Taiko is the sushi place on the south side?
The saba-zushi is called battera, the Osaka style is called oshi-zushi. Several places in LA were offering battera on special over the holidays and new year, and probably still have it. Also, thanks for the explanations on the ways of Shibutani-san. Looking forward to eating at his establishment on my next LA visit.
Splendid and appetizing report. That kombu salt sounds like something I'd like to try, when shoyu might be a bit much for very fresh, delicate fish. And I wonder if you got Shibutani-san to spill the secret of his doctored, smoky-flavored soy sauce.
As for that unnamed mystery flavor, I'm surprised at you. Bottled ranch salad dressing -- really, Melanie!
shibucho is very good and very reasonable. last time i went there were only three customers incl. me over the course of an hour and a half or so.
also, melanie have you tried Sawa sushi again in sunnyvale, the sushi bar that's supposed to be like a private club?
also, try sushi wasabe in tustin if you get the chance it is very good and only omakase (the blue crab handrolls and albacore sashimi are excellent).
I did make it in tonight. Two other customers at the bar and one walk-in for take-out.
The walk-in ordered spicy tuna roll and a few other standards. The other two customers (Japanese) asked him if he'd been there before, and when he said he had not, they told him that he was very lucky to have discovered the best sushi in the area. Shibutani made a frilly cut leaf shape from a piece of folded nori to decorate the take out tray.
What was also cool was that Shibutani gave me the little bit of spicy tuna filling leftover to taste. It was awesome with popping tobiko and yellow pickled daikon, tasting of sesame oil and just lightly spicy. No one should hesitate to order a spicy tuna roll here, it has the Shibutani special touch too.
Other things I had that were new preps for me here were saba nigiri style topped a piece of jelly-like pale green kelp that was slightly sweetened, kampachi (fantail amberjack), "live" halibut, and three thick slices of toro that were so fatty they were nearly white. I also enjoyed my favorites. No sweets offered tonight. With tax and 20% tip, I was out of there for $30.
Great reading! It's been too many years since my last visit to LA.
Next trip is unfortunately a long 4mths and counting but Shibucho is definitely on my must try list....