Shimura Restaurant - sashimi so fresh it flops (literally)
First a warning - if you're the least bit squeamish don't read any further.
With all the recent banter about sushi and the freshness of fish, I decided to forego my usual trip to Shibucho and opted for Shimura Restaurant in Fountain Valley instead, mainly to try their live sculpin sashimi. I had seen this fish prepared during previous visits there, but this was the first time I tried it myself.
I decided to work my way up to the course, trying some hamachi belly (x2), shiro maguro (x2), tako (x1) and ama ebi (x1) sushi first. The hamachi, shiro maguro and tako were all good - not the peak of freshness or the "best" I've had, but still good nonetheless (the hamachi belly was stashed in a refrigerator below the display case). But the ama ebi - well, I noticed some shrimp heads peering out of a large bowl of ice placed on top of the sushi case. I've had live ama ebi at Shimura before (not to be missed if he has it), but this was an even bigger surprise as the chef extracted from the ice what may have been the largest shrimp I've ever seen. Call it shrimpzilla - one could easily have mistaken it for a spiny lobster (in a rather pale shell). The chef said he'd have to cut the tail in half to make two pieces of sushi. The flavor was sweeter than I expected and the flesh incredibly tender. The fried head that arrived later was heavily laden with rich, salty shrimp eggs. The novelty of such a large shrimp would have made the order worth it just for the entertainment factor, but the shrimp was excellent, too, so it was a wonderful surprise.
Fortunately it was a rather slow night at Shimura, because otherwise I would have been hesitant to force the sushi bar patrons to the grisly spectacle that accompanied the sculpin preparation. After placing my order, the chef disappeared into the kitchen and emerged with a lively, flopping sculpin wrapped in a towel. The only other people at the bar besides my girlfriend and I were a young Japanese couple and a dad with two young boys, so I wasn't too worried about them being put off by the fish's eventual public "execution" - the details of which I'll spare you from. Needless to say, the boys thought it was really cool.
With a surgeon's precision, the chef cleaned the fish, sliced two palm-sized filets and removed them from the bones. He asked if I would like the head prepared as soup and we gave him the go-ahead. The flesh was cut into thin, translucent slices and arranged on a bed on ice, accompanied by a tomato expertly cut into paper-thin slices, slabs of cucumber and shredded daikon radish. Before serving us the sashimi, the chef liberally coated the remaining tail section with salt - causing the tail to twitch and flop spasmodically - and propped it up on a supporting tower of daikon at the edge of the bowl. As my girlfriend and I devoured the sweet, firm sculpin meat -dipping the thin slices in salty ponzu and green onion sauce that the chef served to accompany the sashimi - we watched in a combination of amusement, uneasiness and queasiness as the tail twitched.
While we were eating the sashimi, the chef sliced up a small section of the sculpin's skin, broiled it to a crisp and served it to us. The crispy skin had a mellow, almost sweet flavor - salmon skin seems overly bitter and harsh by comparison. A few minutes after we finished the sashimi, the soup arrived - a steaming medium-sized bowl loaded with tender fins and head sections hiding generous chunks of fish flesh, sweet cabbage and blocks of soft tofu in a hearty, salty fish broth. Eating the soup was bit of a laborious process, but it made for a leisurely, relaxing pace that allowed me to savor the briny, ocean-like flavor.
We capped off the meal with a couple of unremarkable spicy tuna hand rolls - both of us had been craving these (which also influenced our choice of Shimura over Shibucho) but our craving wasn't satisfied. Our appetites, however, were more than satisfied, and we should have called it quits after the sculpin, ending our meal on an up note instead. The total for all this food plus two large beers was much less than we expected - $70 (including tax, but not tip).
While Shimura ranks slightly above average for the usual sushi suspects, I highly recommend it for the ama ebi (especially if you are lucky enough to visit when they have live shrimp) and the live sculpin sashimi, which is truly the freshest fish in town. Not the best place to bring your vegan friends . . .
18906 Brookhurst St (near Garfield)
The check didn't have a item-by-item price breakdown, but considering that the meal consisted of six orders of sushi (two pieces per order, and including the monster ama ebi), two hand rolls, and the sashimi with all the extras (skin, soup), I'd say it was a great deal. My guess is that the sculpin sashimi costs between $15 to $20 - a bargain considering it's a whole fish served in three courses and a labor-intensive process to prepare.
The sculpin was excellent - very firm flesh (in contrast to the buttery texture that some use as their barometer for "fresh" fish - actually fish gets that texture after the enzymes go to work over a few days and tenderize the flesh) with a delicate, subtle, sweet flavor similar to good tai. I'm definitely going to have it again.
Terrific writeup, Chris. I've been eating at Shimura for years because it's a great price for the quality you get. I agree the ama ebi and sculpin are the best things to order, when it's available live. I especially like the sculpin head soup. Unfortunately, Gurlfren can't handle food that stares back at her, so I can't take her here when I'm in the mood for sculpin or crunchy shrimp heads.
I enjoy the show that Nao-san puts on when dispatching the fish. My guess is that he likes to make people squirm a little bit, and I admit watching people react is fun.