Monday, April 6, 2009

Shin-sational sushi

One of my foodie friends requested I find and review some authentic sushi places in south Orange County.
Quite a challenge, I thought. The only South County place that I could rave about is Sushi Wazen in Lake Forest.

But I love a challenge, so I started looking.
And thanks - again - to Yelpers, I learned about a gem of a sushi spot tucked among the sprawling residential neighborhoods of Mission Viejo (who knew?).

I found Shin Sushi in a roundabout way: first, I searched on Yelp for Sushi Plantation, a terrible-sounding place that I briefly considered checking out, in case it was a great place with a bad name.

But after reading Yelper raves about the crazy rolls and viewing the photos of the awful Tranny Sushi served up there, I knew Sushi Plantation was NOT worth my time.
Some of the reviews DID mention other Mission Viejo sushi places, including Shin.
So I checked out the Yelp page on Shin, which indicated Shin was a subdued, intimate place with a limited menu focused on fresh fish.
Sounded like my kinda place, the antithesis of Sushi Plantation.
I rallied my RawFishionado friend Lisa to join me.

Shin is another small place tucked in a strip mall (the standard description for most good sushi places), this time at the northeast corner of Oso and Marguerite Parkways.
On a recent Wednesday night around 6:30 p.m., there was only one or two other couples in the tiny space, and Lisa and I were easily seated at the sushi bar.

The "YES! This place IS Japanese!" proof of authenticity came in rapid succession:

1. The waitress came to take our drink order and responded in Japanese to my questions in Japanese.
2. They had Echigo beer. A lesser-known label in the U.S., Echigo Beer Co. is based in Niigata in northern Japan, where the rice fields and heavy snowfall also contribute to the production of premium sake.
3. Next came the hot towels - steaming hot and very refreshing.
4. The short sake menu was also perfect, natch. I'm afraid I can't remember the name of the sake we ordered, but it was on the sweeter, floral side, yet still dry enough to taste clean - perfect with our sushi.
Of course, the real stamp of authenticity was the itamae (sushi chef) serving us: Mr. Shin himself, the owner, pictured in the photo at top.

The specials board confirmed that Master Shin runs a tight ship that doesn't cater to every roll-loving novice sushi eater.
The list of fresh fish and specials was short and discriminating - nothing too unusual, but the short list indicated to me that the standards - i.e. toro, Spanish mackerel, yellowtail - would be top-quality here.
Aside from ordering one unusual item on the specials list ("Tea Pot Soup"), Lisa and I went omakase and left the sushi choices up to Shin-san.

As I expected, the sushi was perfect:
From left: yellowtail, salmon, halibut and toro. Each piece was buttery, so-fresh-and-so-clean-clean in taste.
I didn't dip any of the pieces in soy sauce so that I could truly savor the flavor of each fish.

Then came white tuna and albacore:
The white tuna was the Top Sushi of the night: flavorful in a subtle, sublime way, it literally seemed to melt in the mouth.
The albacore was lovely too, but the white tuna was truly crave-worthy.

Next up, the Spanish mackerel:
The aji was perfectly flavored with just a dash of ponzu over the onion and ginger garnish - a far cry from the oversauced Tranny Aji I've experienced at other places.

We enjoyed watching Master Shin slicing the raw fish so expertly:

Then, our Tea Pot Soup came out, a very light broth with scallops, shiitake mushrooms and mitsuba (Japanese parsley) leaves, served in a lovely ceramic teapot.
We poured the broth into tea cups and then fished out the pieces with chopsticks:
Satisfying in a sophisticated, subdued way.

After all this lovely, traditional Japanese food, we were a bit surprised when Mr. Shin presented this cut roll of unagi and snowcrab:
But it showed that he was willing to create dishes that appeal to hakujin tastes, and the roll was definitely tasty, not oversauced and overdone. You could actually taste the unagi and crab and avocado.
NOT Tranny Sushi.

By now, Lisa and I were getting ready to signal to Mr. Shin that we were full. But he presented one more dish we could NOT turn away: tempura scallops garnished with a sprinkling of spicy salt:
The scallops were meaty and juicy, the tempura treatment providing a satisfying, salty crunch.

Lisa and I sat back with big smiles on our faces.

Of course, Mr. Shin and staff wouldn't let us leave without some refreshing, oh-so-Japanese dessert: fresh fruit and slices of strawberry-flavor mochi ice cream:

Total bill for the classy omakase meal, including beer and sake: just over $100, or $50 each. What an incredible deal for the high quality of food we enjoyed!
This meal emphasized that we were truly ripped off at the other place where we recently spent $50 a piece on omakase.
I wish I could get my money back from that place!

Shin Sushi
26002 Marguerite Pkwy #C
Mission Viejo, CA 92692

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