Monday, March 30, 2009

Tokyo: Foodie heaven!

Just learned that a friend is going to Tokyo in a few weeks for business - how fun!
And what perfect timing - he may be able to get a good dose of the famous cherry blossoms in bloom during their brief yet dazzling annual appearance.

He and his wife solicited my suggestions for what else to see, and to eat, in Tokyo - a challenging request when you consider this megalopolis of fun and food.
I almost didn't know where to start. So I relied on a couple of online resources that I've come to count on for these types of requests.

Since I was pulling them out of my Bookmarks library anyway, I thought I'd share them with all you RawFishy readers. Perhaps some of you may be headed to Japan, too:

* A good Japan reference site is I especially like the suggested excursions, like these itineraries for Tokyo.

* This Travel+Leisure article has become my favorite on Japanese food, because it not only lists great diverse places to try in Tokyo, it captures perfectly the schizophrenic gastronomic appetites and interests of my people!

* And is a helpful Japanese dining and culture guide, focused on the more popular Japanese tourist areas like Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto.


Sunday, March 29, 2009

More comfort food: Clay pot cooking

After a glorious-weather day on Saturday that made us all think summer was coming early (my sister and her kids even spent the day at the beach), the temperature gods turned on us today, bringing a chill back to the air.
Which makes this a perfect time to post this
article about donabe (clay pot) cooking
, which my friend Hector found online recently.

The article is so articulate, thorough and friendly (complete with recipes), that I don't have much more to add ... just the photo, above, of my own personal donabe, which my parents used for years while I was growing up, and then passed on to me when I set out on my own.

Hope this warms everyone up!


Friday, March 27, 2009

Kaiten sushi ... in Beverly Hills?

In light of my recent post about conveyor-belt sushi, my friend Hector hipped me to the existence of this kaiten place: LuckyFish.

I MUST check this place out, because I have several questions, the main one being:
Isn't there an oxymoron here, opening a kaiten sushi place, typically set up for affordability and convenience, in Beverly Hills?!
The prices (as listed on the web site) and location seem to defeat the "affordable but good sushi" concept ...
And DARNIT, I apparently missed the 1-year anniversary celebration where they were offering up $1 sushi, which some Yelpers posted about.

I'm also intrigued by the touting of a high-tech system set up to guarantee freshness: an "RFID tag embeddded in each plate" so that the conveyor "belt automatically discharges any plate that has been rotating for longer than 60 minutes."

Has anyone out there been to this Robo-Cop Kaiten place yet? I'd love to get your reviews before I head out there.


Sushi on the (Cowboy) Range

I apologize, y'all.
I promised in my last post that I would tell you more about "The Pioneer Woman" likin' sushi, and it's taken me a week to get to that.

Anyway, I learned about The Pioneer Woman from my gal pal Monica, during a laughter-filled girls' night out having sushi on St. Patrick's Day. Monica has become a big fan of The Pioneer Woman, and after checking out her site, I'm an ardent new fan, too.
In a nutshell, The Pioneer Woman is the moniker of an articulate, funny, charming woman named Ree Drummond who blogs about her life as a former city gal who fell in love with a sweet cowboy and rode off in the sunset with him.
Her web site is chock full of her well-written musings and her gorgeous photos, focused on her hobbies and experiences - primarily cooking, photography and raising four kids (!) and various ranch animals.
I'll tell you later in this post what really hooked me on The Pioneer Woman, but for RawFishy purposes, I'll tell you now that Ree's "Cooking" section includes several good posts on SUSHI - including this very informative post, complete with photos and video, about sushi rice.
See, The Pioneer Woman in her former life embraced and gorged on the Los Angeles lifestyle while living here as a USC student. She was the ultimate consumer of our multi-culti offerings here. So while she loves her life on the range, she does miss sushi.
So, get this: her adorable cowboy husband got her a sushi chef for her birthday!!

So yeah, I've been drooling over The Pioneer Woman site, not so much because of her sushi postings, but because of the stories she tells about her adorable cowboy husband, known as "Marlboro Man" throughout the site.
In fact, what really hooks us women folk is Ree's recounting of her love story - how she met and married Marlboro Man - in serial novella style. Written with great humor and whimsy, her "Black Heels to Tractor Wheels" is an online romance novel in 40+ chapters, written in posts over the past couple of years, started in honor of their 10th wedding anniversary.
But it's not the heavy panting, bodice-ripping, tall-dark-and-handsome type of romance novel (which I DON'T read); it's a truly sweet, charming story that seriously turns even those of us with feminist convictions into mush - and literally has kept me at the computer for hours to read through all the installments.
(I'm obviously not alone, judging by the several hundred comments she gets per post!)

And while she seems to like sushi rolls more than anything, that's OK. She's proven in her posts that she has learned the principles of sushi, and she definitely appreciates and understands good food. (Her other recipes make me drool just reading and viewing the photos.)

In fact, I'd love to take The Pioneer Woman out on a RawFishionado sushi outing if and when she ever makes it out to L.A. again...


Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Sushi on St. Patrick's Day

Some strangeness is bound to occur when you decide to have sushi on a holiday known for corned beef and raucous drinking.

So here are some random thoughts from my experience Tuesday - teasers to the full story:
* "Tranny Sushi"
* Korean chef
* Ochazuke
* Wasabi "salsa"
* Pioneer Woman likes sushi too! (I'll explain this in a separate post. Stay tuned!)

Our Tuesday tale, with photos, follows ...

My dear friend Monica suggested I come check out Ginzaya, a Japanese place near her home in Silverado Canyon. She'd eaten some meals there and thought it good, but wondered how the sushi would rate.
And because I always trust Monica when it comes to food - she's Argentinian, a fabulous cook and has impeccable, adventurous taste (yes, I believe all of the above are related) - I definitely wanted to check out the sushi with her.
(Monica is also a marvelous artist - she created my whimsical blog banner - and has started an informative blog about horseback riding. She's my idol!)

So we decided to meet at Ginzaya on Tuesday night, not even thinking about St. Patrick's Day.

Comical Weirdness No. 1: The location of Ginzaya. This sushi place is tucked in a western-themed shopping center in Orange, near the entrance to Santiago Canyon:
The restaurant is medium-sized, with plenty of tables and a fairly long sushi bar.
A whiteboard listing specials of the day was propped up right in the entry. My mouth watered, reading these choices: toro, bluefin tuna, sweet shrimp and Spanish mackerel sushi or sashimi, and broiled black cod.

Monica and I sat down at the sushi bar, which was pretty empty at 6 p.m.
Within a few minutes of listening, I realized the sushi chefs are Korean.
Oh, well. So this wouldn't be a night of subtle, authentic tastes. That's OK - authentic Japanese food on St. Patrick's Day is just too weird a concept, anyway!

Comical Weirdness No. 2: A sushi chef who has trouble with both English and Japanese.
Things started off a bit awkwardly because our sushi chef, a young-looking Korean guy, seemed to struggle with English pronunciations.
I asked him about the fresh catches of the day, and he mumbled something I couldn't understand. I asked again, and he responded more clearly, but I still couldn't fully make out what he said.
I thought, "Maybe he knows Japanese," and that perhaps this would ease communication.
When I asked, he said he only knew a couple of phrases in Japanese. But that broke the ice, as he smiled and asked me, "What is your name?" in Japanese.

Eventually, I was able to understand Chef Ahn's English. And once he started throwing down our sushi, I had to give him some props.
He demonstrated plenty of promise in the way he served up the very good-quality, fresh fish. But he clearly needs to mature and learn some restraint to allow the quality of the fish to shine.
There was a lot of overdressing of the dishes - what I decided to dub "Tranny Sushi" - and the cuts were too large (good thing the quality was good), making for some clumsy eating.

First up: the aji Spanish Mackerel sushi.
Tranny Sushi Exhibit A: Trying too hard to be pretty. A tad too much ponzu sauce, too. Once again (as I did at Angotei), I mustered up my deepest taste buds to seek out the flavor of the fish itself ... and it was nice - tender, flavorful, not fishy.

Chef Ahn did offer up a nice extra - he asked if we'd like the mackerel carcass fried up and served, too. We said, "Sure," and he presented this to us:
Tasty, but in that how-can-anything-fried-not-taste-good? way. No outstanding flavor or texture.

Next up: the bluefin tuna, served up with a wasabi relish:
The tuna was perfect - mild, clean tasting, almost sweet - perfect with a dab of the wasabi relish on top.
Actually, Monica and I became addicted to the wasabi relish, with it's power punch of heat at the start, ending with a mellow, fresh-tasting crunch.
We savored that wasabi "salsa" on all our fish throughout the night, couldn't get enough of it. I'm going to look for it in Japanese markets; I think it's sold in jars or vacuum-sealed plastic, in the refrigerated section where other pickled vegetables are sold.

The toro fatty tuna followed:
Pure buttery goodness. I don't recall ever having it garnished with shiso leaf, but I liked the subtle tang of the leaf to cut the richness.
Monica, who loves shiso otherwise, felt it didn't work with the toro.

Tranny Sushi Exhibit B:
The albacore, which would have been excellent on its own, was buried in ponzu and onion slices.

Tranny Sushi Exhibit C:
The unagi freshwater eel. Come on - no need for the avalanche of bonito flakes and daikon radish! I definitely wanted this, of all sushi, served simply - broiled with a light drizzle of teriyaki sauce.
Plus, the daikon radish really doesn't go well with the unagi flavor.

Speaking of broiled (and simple):
The black cod was lovely - buttery moist, slightly sweet and flavorful.

By this time, we were full, and told Chef Ahn so. A few minutes later, he presented us a bowl, saying "Something special for you."
I grabbed the bowl, which was hot to the touch, and realized he had made a very colorful ochazuke rice soup, filled with slices of salmon and white fish (halibut?), tamago (egg omelette); roe; thin pieces of red, sweet pickled radish; and garnished with jalapeno to add to taste:
I couldn't help but think "Tranny Ochazuke!" with all the colors and so much going on visually.
But the flavor was mild and comforting, and we consumed it to the last drop:
It wasn't the best ochazuke I'd ever had, but I appreciated Chef Ahn offering up his special version to us.

Total bill for our sushi dinner for two (with green tea, no alcohol): About $70 ($35 a piece).
Not a bad price for good cuts of fish, though not necessarily presented in its best, natural form.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed my evening of clashing cultures. My St. Paddy's Day At The Sushi Bar epitomized why I love multi-culti Southern California.

7522 E. Chapman Ave.
Orange, CA 92869

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Monday, March 16, 2009

Castella: the best sponge cake in the world

Yeah, I know, that's a pretty bold statement to make about a cake.
But if you've ever tasted Castella, a sponge-pound cake hybrid brought to Japan by the Portuguese, you know what I'm talking about.

My uncle is visiting from Japan, and he knows the most prized souvenir for our family (especially my 6-year-old niece and 3-year-old nephew) is Castella.

So he brought a suitcase full of the golden-yellow boxes of the moist, egg-y soft and subtly sweet cake.

More photos ahead ...

There are several companies that bake and sell Castella, but the Fukusaya company is probably the most popular, with the signature butter-yellow boxes, perfect packaging for the exquisite cake shaped like bars of gold:

Needless to say, even us adults are in heaven right now. I got a box all to myself and have been enjoying a slice a day, savoring and trying to extend the life of this one box as long as I can.
Like other specialty foods, any version of Castella you buy here in the States doesn't measure up to the authentic Castella sold in boutique shops, mostly, in Japan.


Saturday, March 14, 2009

More comfort food: ozoni

The (fairly) cold weather we've had this past week made me crave hot soup.
And then I remembered I had some mochi left in my freezer and realized ...

I could whip up some ozoni! Now THAT's comfort food: a simple soy-sauce broth (like udon soup) with mochi rice cakes and whatever veggies and protein you want to add.

Ozoni is typically consumed at New Year's, as I explained in my earlier post about mochi.
And it's more a home-cooked dish, not readily available at restaurants, though I just learned that Suehiro Cafe in Little Tokyo does serve ozoni, and year-round, at that! Good to know for those emergency ozoni cravings.

Anyway, here's how to make a quick batch of ozoni at home ...

First, the soup ingredients:
From left - Japanese dashi, or fish stock (I use the powdered version, sold in packets, for convenience, but real stock is made by cooking dried bonito in boiling water); sugar; and soy sauce.

I was just making enough to serve myself, so I boiled a couple of cups of water in a sauce pan, and added about half a tablespoon of the powdered dashi:

Next, I added about half a tablespoon of sugar, and a whole tablespoon of soy sauce. I don't like to overdo any of the flavors, so I've found this balance to be perfect for my taste.
You can add more of any of the ingredients, according to your taste.

You can also add fish cakes and vegetables (typically spinach and napa cabbage) to the soup for a simple, traditional ozoni.
Or add beef or chicken, if you prefer; I enjoyed a delicious, premium version of ozoni this year that included snow peas, thinly-sliced carrots and pieces of chicken, prepared by my cousin's mother-in-law, a phenomenal Japanese cook who lives in San Francisco.

Keep the soup on low heat while you "grill" your mochi in the toaster oven:
Of course, I got my mochi from the annual family mochi making in January, but you can buy mochi in Japanese grocery stores (at the Gardena Marukai, you'll find the plain mochi rice cakes near the bakery section toward the front of the store).
Toast until the mochi starts to expand a bit (note the gooey glob oozing out of this rice cake, at right) then take it out quickly and drop into the hot soup.

The mochi will soften and can even start breaking up if kept in the hot bath too long, so serve after just a couple of minutes on the stove.
As you can see from the photos, I kept my ozoni simple and just tossed some spinach leaves into the broth right before eating.
Warm, tasty, satisfyingly chewy, and comforting.


Thursday, March 12, 2009

Bentoss: Comfort in a box

I was reminiscing recently with my friend Brooke, a hakujin who lived in Japan for a couple of years, about the great bento box lunches that you can buy and enjoy on the high-speed Shinkansen trains in Japan.

That got me craving that efficiently packed, comfort food in a box, which is more typically made by moms for their elementary-school kids to take to school.

So I decided to try a takeout bento place I'd spotted in Costa Mesa, a couple of doors down from Ango-tei, near Mitsuwa Marketplace (natch!).
The clever name, Bentoss, caught my eye, but I was skeptical about how good the food would be.

Positive J signs as I walked into the small, bright shop: samples of the many bento options in an enclosed glass case; notices and posters in Japanese; a perky female clerk who spoke English with a marked Japanese accent (trouble with the Rs).
Another very J touch: advisory notes (written in English) posted throughout the bento display case, recommending that the food be consumed within 2 hours of purchase.

There are a couple dozen types of bento boxes to choose from, ranging in style from the traditional makunouchi of broiled fish, rice, pickled and stewed vegetables, to more "Western-style" bentos with a hamburger patty served on fried rice, or pork katsu with curry.
Prices range from $5 for a simple chicken bento (more like a better version of a food-court chicken bowl), to $15 for the Bentoss Special Makunouchi, offering rice, beef, pork, fried shrimp, broiled salmon, egg omelette and stewed veggies.

I ordered a classic Japanese bento: the Wafu Makunouchi, $8.95 - a pared-down version of the Bentoss Special.
Here's what I got ...

First, the packaging: very colorful, very Japanese, complete with slightly awkward English greeting on top:

"A handmade and fresh meal. Healthy and Safety. Have a lunch today with Bentoss."

I peeled off the Bentoss sticker securing the cardboard box flap and inside found the food and some thoughtful engineering: chopsticks, napkin and soy sauce packet tucked in a protective plastic pocket on the lid:

As for the food...
Starting at the left side of the box: The requisite rice was topped with a big, puckery-sour (yay!) umeboshi pickled plum and a nicely broiled piece of salmon, seasoned simply, as it should be, with a bit of salt. I definitely enjoyed this part of the bento the most.

In the center of the box, clockwise from upper left: niku-jaga (potato, carrots, shiitake mushrooms and potato noodles stewed with small pieces of beef); potato salad with cherry tomato; kinpira gobo (slivers of root vegetables cooked with soy sauce and sprinkled with sesame seeds); pickled cucumber; a piece of tempura shrimp and a piece of tempura kabocha pumpkin; one kara-age chicken nugget (the J version of fried chicken, with the bird marinated in soy sauce before frying); one piece of tamago (slightly sweet omelette).

I gobbled the tempura pieces down. Even without a dipping sauce, they were both tasty, and yes, best eaten immediately so they don't get soggy.

The kara-age chicken is also a traditional favorite for everyone; how can you not enjoy flavorful fried chicken?

The egg was fluffy and slightly, not strongly, sweet - perfect.

A good niku-jaga is such a Japanese home-cooking classic; this one was pretty good, though the flavors were on the thin side.

I love Japanese potato salad so much more than the runny, bad-tasting American deli salads; the J version is lighter, drier in consistency and refreshing, studded with cucumber slices.

I'm also typically a pickled cucumber fanatic, but the Bentoss version was just OK - crunchy and tart enough, but there was a slight chemical aftertaste.

A chemical aftertaste was just one reason I was completely disappointed with the kinpira gobo, usually my favorite homestyle dish. The dish clearly hadn't been cooked long enough with the right ingredients; it was strangely bland, finishing with the weird aftertaste.
The worst kinpira gobo I've ever had (at left below, with the pickled cucumber at right); I couldn't even finish it:
I also bought one onigiri rice ball (one with flavored seaweed tucked inside) to snack on later:
It's wrapped in that ingenious onigiri packaging that you see at all the fast-food places in Japan that sell onigiri (food stands and the ubiquitous "konbini" convenience stores): the outer seaweed is covered in plastic and then wrapped around the rice ball, to keep the nori separate from the rice and prevent a sticky mass while in transit.

When you're ready to eat it, you unwrap the outer plastic, remove the seaweed and wrap it around the rice ball, like so:
Mmmmmmm ... such a satisfying comfort snack, one that always takes me back to my early days of elementary school, when I wasn't self-conscious yet about being the only kid at lunch with a strange rice ball to eat, amid a sea of peanut butter-jelly and bologna sandwiches.

675 Paularino Ave. #3
Costa Mesa, CA 92626
1620 W. Redondo Beach Blvd.
(Inside Marukai Pacific Market)
Gardena, CA 90247


Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Ango-tei: Average, not awesome, sushi

I've had a conflicted relationship with Ango-tei in Costa Mesa.
When I first visited about a dozen years ago, I really enjoyed the food and the intimate, mom-and-pop ambience.

But over the years, other Japanese places diverted my attention, and Ango-tei was slowly forgotten.
When I did visit again about five years ago, the food was good, but not memorable.

Earlier this week, I gave Ango-tei another chance when foodie-friend Lisa and I were jonesing for sushi lunch.
I had passed by Ango-tei in recent weeks, and it made me think: I want to give it another try.
Because Ango-tei has all the elements to be a kickass sushi place: small and intimate (antithesis of the trendy rock-n-roll sushi places); Japanese-owned; in business for more than 20 years (though ownership changed a couple of years ago).

Lisa and I got there right at high noon, were seated at the nearly empty sushi bar, and ordered omakase.

Our experience, in photos and text ...

First up: a sashimi plate of (clockwise from upper left) toro (fatty tuna), tako (octopus), ankimo (monkfish liver) and tai (snapper):
We were immediately taken aback by the large and chunky slices of fish, not deftly cut into graceful, slender pieces.
But the colors and textures looked good, so we moved past the visual sloppiness and dug in.
The toro was buttery and nice, though I couldn't stop thinking that the large slices looked like Spam!
The octopus was tender and flavorful - clearly high quality, but mistreated by being cut in chunks.
The monkfish liver was silky-creamy, like tofu, with a nice, very subtle flavor of the sea. It was served in the traditional way: steamed, sliced into sashimi and garnished with scallions and grated daikon flavored with a dash of red pepper sauce and ponzu.
A note on monkfish liver: it's such a popular Japanese delicacy that there have been concerns about its sustainability and fishing methods. It's listed on the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch as a fish to avoid.
The snapper was nice, but I've been spoiled by the exquisite version at Shibucho. The Ango-tei tai was good, not great.

Next up: A baked clam casserole:
Not something I'd order, as you regular RawFishionado readers know.
It was similar to a good macaroni and cheese: crunchy on top, creamy inside (the Japanese love making stuff with mayo; they fancy themselves European in taste), and there were plenty of slices of clam inside.
Comfortingly good, but after a couple of bites, I was done.

The finale: a nice lineup of sushi:

Mirugai (giant clam): Tasty, with a nice mild taste, and a slight crunch in texture.

Kanpachi (of the yellowtail clan): Light, refreshing, with the yuzu packing a pleasantly stronger spice punch than expected. My favorite of the meal.

Maguro: Mild, tender, reliable.

Aji (Spanish mackerel): Unfortunately, the chef was a bit heavy-handed with the ponzu sauce. But I mustered up my deepest taste buds to seek the flavor of the fish, and actually succeeded - the mackerel itself was lovely, very mild and fresh-tasting.

The bill for this omakase was $50 each - overpriced for what we got.
I'd rate Ango-tei's sushi 3 stars: reliable, but not extraordinary.
It's not a strong competitor in the sushi arena, especially when there are heavy hitters within a 5-mile radius: Ikko, Shibucho, Murasaki among them.

675 Paularino Ave.
Costa Mesa, CA 92626

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Saturday, March 7, 2009

Conveyor-belt sushi - not necessarily run of the mill

While I appreciate the top-notch quality and personal chef attention at places like Shibucho, I can't afford - in time nor money - to enjoy that type of sushi all the time.
Especially in these economic times.

So I either have to scale back my sushi dining excursions to, say, twice a month, or I can seek out more affordable kaiten sushi, or conveyor belt sushi.

Conveyor-belt sushi is authentically Japanese, the brainchild of a restaurateur who reportedly didn't have the staff to keep up a regular sushi place. If Wikipedia is correct, Mr. Yoshiaki Shiraishi opened his first kaiten sushi restaurant in Osaka in 1958.
(*UPDATE*: Thanks to my friend Gary, here's the New York Times 2001 obituary on Mr. Shiraishi, confirming details.)

Gotta love the ingenuity of my peeps.

Kaiten sushi is similar to dim sum, except you grab the small plates off a conveyor belt rather than from a cart. You can get nigiri, temaki (hand roll) and sometimes even small plates of cut rolls - but not the big-phat, over-stuffed rolls I rail against.*(more on this below)

Many kaiten places also offer up non-sushi dishes on the conveyor belt: sashimi, edamame, salads, cooked dishes and condiments and desserts (like the extra sauces and the sweet-bean rice cake pictured in photo).

The quality of fish at kaiten sushi can be pretty good, especially if you go to a crowded, popular place where patrons are gobbling the sushi up so quickly that fresh plates keep coming out.

(More photos and VIDEO follow)

A really good kaiten place will have very good cuts of fish - you may just get smaller pieces of it.
Like any other type of eatery, the quality depends on the owner and how good his fish sources are.
So once again, I'd typically recommend only kaiten places that are run by Japanese.

On my last trip to Japan a few years ago, a family friend took my mom and I to a kaiten sushi place that, naturally (it's in Japan!) had very good quality fish. The place we went to was very similar to the sushi bar featured in this YouTube video on kaiten sushi. (A word of warning on the video: the narrator's heavily accented English is a bit hard to understand, but you can watch the video with the sound muted, and read the video description.)

I haven't been to kaiten sushi here in the States since. But thanks (again) to Yelp, I just learned about Kaisen Kaiten Sushi Bar in Santa Ana, just down the street from my parents' home.
How did I not know about this place earlier? I had to check it out. I called my friend Sam to join me for lunch.

Kaisen is a fairly small place almost hidden in a shopping center (naturally!) near South Coast Plaza.
The place was packed when Sam and I walked in at high noon, mid-week. The conveyor belt runs through the center of the restaurant and you can sit at the counter on one side of the belt, or at tables on the other side.

Here's how it works at Kaisen: You grab whatever dishes you like from the conveyor belt, but you can also order specific sushi, sashimi or dishes by filling out an order form, writing your table number on it and sticking the form in one of the empty cups also circulating on the conveyor belt.
The chef fills your order and sends your dish back on the conveyor belt with your table number prominently displayed.
The price of the dish is identified by the color of the plate it comes on; like dim sum, your bill is calculated by the number of different colored plates you consumed.

At the kaiten place I went to in Japan, which was a pretty large restaurant, you made special requests by pushing an intercom button at your table and verbally placing your order. We didn't special-request much, since there was so much variety coming across on the belt already.

Kaisen is smaller, and the offerings on the belt are pretty basic and mass appeal (lots of plates of edamame, for instance). Sam and I quickly pulled plates of nice-looking maguro, albacore and salmon nigiri off the belt (pictured in earlier photo), and later filled out the forms for some temaki and sashimi plates.

More photo highlights:

Sashimi: At left, halibut topped with scallions and just a dab of plum, and ikura (salmon roe);
at right, white tuna topped with a very light ponzu (citrus soy sauce) and a big glob of what tasted like plum mixed with red chili.
These bites were all surprisingly good, with nice cuts of good-quality, fresh-tasting fish.

Temaki: The lobster roll, at left, and the negi toro (fatty tuna with scallions) roll. Both of these hand rolls were specials that day, each only $1.75! Great deal, and the ingredients were pretty fresh-tasting.

Seaweed-sesame salad: I really enjoyed this refreshing starter, lightly flavored with rice vinegar.

Sam and I each gobbled up 8-10 dishes; the bill came to $38.
The prices ranged from 99 cents (for my seaweed salad) to $3.50 (for the sashimi).

It was definitely satisfying, and all my choices were simple, and very good in quality.
I stayed away from the amaebi (sweet shrimp) and mackerel offered up at Kaisen; the sweet shrimp looked old and discolored (not good!) and I also didn't trust the quality of the mackerel.
In general, kaiten sushi bars aren't the place to enjoy the more rare, higher grades of fish. I'd recommend sticking to the simpler cuts of fish that are visibly good quality.

*Re: earlier mention of cut rolls: The cut rolls that are traditional Japanese are those that consist of one ingredient - typically raw tuna or a vegetable like cucumber or pickled radish - wrapped in rice and nori seaweed. And the cut roll is typically served in four to six perfectly bite-size pieces.

Kaisen Kaiten Sushi Bar
3855 S. Bristol St.
Santa Ana, 92704

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Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Shibucho: Love the "Sushi Nazi"

I got a sincere smile and hearty thanks from the Costa Mesa Sushi Nazi last night! Score!

Of course, there may be several reasons for his friendliness:
1. He was amused by my child-like Japanese.
2. He was entertained by my conversation with the talkative Japanese businessman sitting next to me.
3. He appreciated that my friend Kat and I didn't douse our sushi in soy sauce like the white couple at the end of the counter. He visibly grimaced watching that couple eat.

Or, very simply, how could he not be happy with us when we enjoy his food SO MUCH?

Kat treated me last night (THANK YOU, KAT!) to a belated birthday dinner at Shibucho in Costa Mesa, a hidden gem of a sushi spot (located next to an In-n-Out burger stand) where you can enjoy classic omakase presented by a classic "Sushi Nazi" chef-owner.

Of course, we RawFishionados grant Mr. Shibutani that somewhat dubious title with great affection and appreciation. He provides pure, old-school omakase - simple but sublime nigiri sushi made with the freshest, highest quality fish. Exhibit A, pictured above: the red snapper, one piece served with the perfect dab of yuzu, the other unadorned and totally sweet in natural flavor.

And he doesn't charge an arm and a leg for it. The Shibucho omakase typically sets you back $30 to $50.

Plus, just watching Shibutani-san cut the fish is watching the epitome of sushi artistry.
(More photos and VIDEO follow)

About five months ago, Kat and I first experienced Shibucho, after hearing/reading much about it on foodie blogs and Yelp.

So incredible was that first visit that Kat and I had to write about it, enhanced by Kat's gorgeous photos.

Shibucho has come up in my mind many a time since then, whenever I'm craving sublime sushi. But for one reason or another, I didn't get back over there until last night.

Comfortingly, the quality hasn't changed. When I walked in, the only other customers in the tiny place were a single Japanese man at the sushi counter, and a table of about six adults (speaking Chinese).

As I sat at the sushi bar waiting for Kat to arrive, Mrs. Shibutani brought over the requisite hot hand towel and a cup of good, strong, green tea.
I noticed two kabocha pumpkins sitting on the food counter behind the sushi chefs, so I asked Mr. Shibutani, in Japanese, about it:

RawFishionado: Are you stewing kabocha or frying it for a dish today?
Mr. S: We don't do tempura.
RF: Oh yes ... so are you stewing it?
Mr. S: No. (Pregnant pause.) Not today.
RF: Oh, OK. (Slightly disappointed tone.)
Mr. S: You like kabocha?
RF: Yes, I love it.
Mr. S: You should make it at home yourself then.

Classic gruff charm. But he seemed to soften a bit after I responded:
RF: Ah yes, well, my parents make it all the time, so I do get to enjoy it at their home.
Mr. S (ever-so-slightly sympathetically): It is mendokusai (a hassle) to prepare.
RF: Yes, just cutting that tough rind ...

Without further ado, here are highlights from our meal:

To whet the appetite: Sauteed, slightly spicy squid. Tender and subtly flavored. (Also loved the bowl it was served in!)

Tamago (egg), prepared perfectly: fluffy, slightly sweet. (The assistant sushi chef - Mr. Shibutani's son? - was carefully preparing it in a square flat-iron pan on the stove just minutes before it was served up). Served with garnish of grated daikon radish and a dab of soy sauce, providing the just-right touch of salt.

Mackerel: I believe this was aji, less pungent than saba. Tender and fresh-tasting.

Kanpachi: pinkly perfect.

Fresh crab leg and mirugai clam: Each one sweet and flavorful, tender and delicious.

Anago (Saltwater eel): This piece had a dab of teriyaki or sweet soy sauce, but Shibutani-san also served up a piece in the traditional way, with just a sprinkling of salt. Both pieces were tender and moist, not dry and pasty like the anago that some lower-rate sushi bars offer.

Tako (octopus): Tender and delicious, but I was struck most by the interesting shapes of our cuts. The left (mine) looks like an animal's head, while Kat's serving (at right) looked like plumeria flowers.

Anyway, by the end of the our leisurely meal, after Kat and I drooled over every piece he presented to us (which, for the most part we ate without dipping in any soy sauce), Mr. Shibutani was responding to me very jovially, with an energetic "Hai! (Yes!)," when I asked him if we could get one more piece of the sweet, buttery, perfect Tai (snapper) with yuzu:

He even let me shoot photos and video as he prepared some tuna for Mr. Okamoto, who was seated next to me:

Thank you, Mr. Shibutani, for delighting our RawFishionado stomachs - and souls.

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

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