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Problems at OC Sushi Shibucho – Questionable Fish quality

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Hey everyone,

Long time reader, but first time posting here..

I love eating sushi and I’ve been fortunate enough to eat at some of the best sushi restaurants in CA, NY and Japan.. so, I’m not a complete newbit to the sushi game..

I usually enjoy eating at Sushi Shibucho, but I’ve recently noticed a significant decline in the quality of fish used at the restaurant. Few people complained about the son (younger sushi chef who can speak English) serving poor quality fish and my recent experience was exceptionally bad.
Also, I ordered few items as a take-out for my Japanese roommate. My take-out order was prepared by the younger sushi chef. When I gave few sushi pieces to my roommate after a 30 minute drive from the restaurant, my roommate could only eat about 2 pieces of the take-out sushi due to poor quality of fish.

I’m starting to see a pattern at this restaurant and I’m sure I could avoid this problem by requesting my food to be prepared by anyone else but the young sushi chef… But, I’d much rather go to a different restaurant and pay a little more as necessary. I’m tired of playing roulette with food consistency and quality.

Has anyone else experienced a dramatic decrease in the quality of fish being served at Sushi Shibucho, especially when the younger sushi chef is cutting/serving the fish?

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Sushi Shibucho
590 W 19th St, Costa Mesa, CA 92627

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  1. Eric, If you do not mind, could you recommend a traditional sushi place near Newport Coast. I've posted on this board recently and most people have recommended Sushi Shibucho. If not there, where else should I go?

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    Sushi Shibucho
    590 W 19th St, Costa Mesa, CA 92627

    2 Replies
    1. re: elizabean

      Define traditional. The two best sushi bars I have been to are San Shi Go (#1) on the Balboa Peninsula and Bluefin (#2) on PCH. Both have excellent fish, but both also have some fusion items and various rolls. Inland a little way is Wasabi in Tustin, which is probably more traditional. He uses a less dense packing for his rice and serves it a bit warm. Also the counter is omakase only and no silly rolls.

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      Sushi Wasabi
      14460 Newport Ave, Tustin, CA 92780

      San Shi Go Sushi and Asian Cuisine
      205 Main St, Newport Beach, CA 92661

      Bluefin Restaurant
      7952 E. Pacific Coastal Highway, Newport Beach, CA 92657

      1. re: elizabean

        Hey elizabean, as ocshooter mentioned below, I think Bluefin might be serving best sushi in Newport Beach/Coast area for sure. I've heard that the head sushi chef trained/worked at Matsuhisa for few years..

        If you're really into quality sushi, check out Sushi Zo in LA. And, if you really want to go all out, try Urasawa.

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        Urasawa Restaurant
        218 N Rodeo Dr, Beverly Hills, CA 90210

        Sushi Zo
        9824 National Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90034

        Matsuhisa
        129 N La Cienega Blvd, Beverly Hills, CA 90211

        Bluefin
        7952 E Pacific Coast Hwy, Newport Beach, CA 92660

      2. What kind of fish are we talking here? And what do you mean by quality? Gristle? Fish a little old? Or was it bad technique?

        1 Reply
        1. re: E Eto

          I'd argue that quality problems were evident throughout the meal.. Based on my last meal, certain cuts were too dry or beginning to toughen (tuna), certain cuts had a fishy smell (shrimp), but certain cuts (salmon) were good.. I'm certain that knife skills didn't affect the sushi as much as the fish quality. I might be exaggerating a little, but it was like playing Russian roulette with sushi.

        2. I went there about 7 weeks ago, and it was as good as it's ever been, including the best o-toro I've ever had there. However, I was sitting in front of the elder Shibutani-san.

          I've been there once or twice where I thought the quality was not up to their usual standards - one time was table service, I think it was 1-2 years ago - but even then, I wouldn't say it was a significant decline, certainly not to the point where I couldn't eat the fish.

          1. eric331,

            Your post piques my concern and challenges me to comprehend its foundation. I have enjoyed sushi at Sushi Shibucho in Costa Mesa regularly since the week it opened, about nine years ago. In over 300 visits and over $40K spent there, I have not detected any pattern or trend of deterioration whatsoever in the quality of fish served by either Shibutani-san or his son, Naga-san (aka Glen). The consistency is amazingly comforting.

            You seem to imply that the fish itself served by the two Itamae are different. If so, I do not agree with your conjecture. Likewise, I find it incongruous that Naga-san would serve lesser quality fish than would Shibutani-san. However, it would not surprise me if the more choice cuts were selected for omakase service at the sushi bar. Hence, the higher price paid for omakase versus a la carte or take-out orders of the same quantity. Likewise, I would not be put off if their crème de la crème selections, notably their finest o-toro, were reserved for their most highly respected, well-heeled patrons, those who they can rest assured are able to fully appreciate the often very fine differences in texture and flavor. Although uncertain, I would like to consider myself among this elite group. If true, these practices are certainly not exclusive to Shibucho. At sushi bars worldwide, probably more so than at any other type of restaurant, there are indeed rights of passage whereby patrons must first earn the Itamae’s respect and trust before the more privileged or exotic offerings are availed to them.

            Perhaps your commentary is based upon your perception of the overall freshness of the fish in Shibucho’s inventory. In that case, let me say that the “freshest”, i.e. just caught, fish generally does not yet taste its best to a sushi connoisseur. Under the most skilled Itamae, different fish may undergo various preparatory processes before being showcased and sliced for sashimi or sushi. Some may be cured in rice, salt or both; others, like halibut (hirame), may be wrapped and preserved in seaweed for a period of time. Still others, such as albacore (shiro maguro), require longer refrigeration and aging before optimal flavor is achieved. These methods impart delicate nuances into the fish that the more neophyte patron may associate with being taint or not fresh. The very appearance of the fish is also affected. Shibutani-san is, without question, a true grand master of fish preparation. He does wondrous things with his fish prior to showcasing. The fish served by Naga-san is the exact same fish, prepared in exactly the same manner as that served by Shibutani-san.

            So, where do the differences lie? There are a number of distinguishing factors. One, the type and sharpness of the knife (hocho) used for slicing is an important factor. A razor-sharp knife exerts fewer traumas on a cut edge, thus influencing texture and taste. Two, the method (size, thickness, angle, direction) of slicing fish greatly influences its perceived texture and flavor. Three, the way each piece is handmade (amount of rice, degree of compression, shaping) contributes greatly to the final product. In addition, the time elapsed between when the fish is cut and when it is eaten is a factor. In Japanese tradition, to ensure optimal enjoyment, sushi should be consumed within five seconds of its being served to the patron. A master Itamae knows just how to exert maximum flavor potential from each piece of fish before it reaches your mouth.

            Shibutani-san’s knife-work and hand skills are second to none - skilled, exacting and precise. Naga-san’s skills, although decades less practiced than his father’s, equal or exceed, imho, that of most Itamae in SoCal. It is in these dimensions alone that I grant any real difference between father and son at Sushi Shibucho. Is this difference dramatic? Not today, in my opinion. As Naga-san progresses in age and experience, these differences meld and assimilate infinitely. I recall an occasion less than two years ago, when I first clearly observed in Naga-san the virtual mimicry of his father’s demeanor and hand motions when preparing nigiri. It was literally uncanny, like watching two Itamae who were mirror images of each other, albeit one, much younger. I mentioned this to him at the time. Not only did he blush, but he seemed genuinely honored, proudly reassured if you will. He thanked me humbly and quietly proceeded with his craft.

            Could I tell the difference today between Shibutani-san’s and Naga-san’s sushi in a blind test?

            Yes.

            Is said difference deal-breaking?

            No.

            In all due respect, Naga-san is the legal owner of Sushi Shibucho in Costa Mesa. His father, Shibutani-san, and mother both work for him. To each of them I extend my respect, praise and thanks.

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            Sushi Shibucho
            590 W 19th St, Costa Mesa, CA 92627

            2 Replies
            1. re: degustateur

              "At sushi bars worldwide, probably more so than at any other type of restaurant, there are indeed rights of passage whereby patrons must first earn the Itamae’s respect and trust before the more privileged or exotic offerings are availed to them."
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              Well said all-around, but the quote above basically summarizes the situation here. Such is life.

              1. re: degustateur

                Great post, degustateur. My relationship to Shibutani-san goes back to the 1990s when he owned Shibucho in the Yaohan Plaza Tower on Alameda St. in Los Angeles. My wife and I ate there almost every week for many, many years, until Shibutani-san sold the restaurant and moved back to Japan. During this period, I posted frequently on Chowhound’s Los Angeles Board about my experiences at Shibucho. He became a patient teacher and coach, and I learned something new on each visit. I’m now living in Seattle, but am going to be in Orange County at the end of the month and am greatly looking forward to a visit to the Costa Mesa Shibucho and enjoying, after a much-too-long absence, Shibutani-san’s artistry.