Thursday, September 21, 2006

Omakase, Itamae-san

Probably one of the best things I have learned about food here in California is that the sushi here is unbelievable. Don't get me wrong, I have a handful of favorite spots that I can't live without in New York- mostly small, quiet places (like Mori, Tomoe, Koodo- mmmmmmmmm, Koodo) But the sushi on the left coast is killer; I suppose it doesn't hurt that so much of the fish comes from the Pacific, giving it a better shot at freshness.

Now, I'm not saying ALL the sushi out here is great- it definitely isn't. I've paid the tab on some sub-standard meals, and let me tell you- The Big Guy was not too happy about that. But I digress; I am here to talk about Good Food, not bad. Having said that, I will tell you that my best "full experience" in a sushi restaurant was in Downtown LA at a great little place called Sushi Sharin. The first time I popped in there, I opened the door and almost retreated. The room was pretty full, and it didn't sound like anyone was speaking English. I was more than a little intimidated. I stayed, though, and I'm really glad that I did.

The true "experience" came on my third or fourth visit. I sat down and gave full control of my meal that night to Itamae-san (the chef). This was probably the single smartest move I have ever made in any restaurant. It's like going to Sunday dinner at Gramma's house- she knows all the right stuff to make and all the things that she makes best.

I ate so many different foods that night that I never would have known to try, more new tastes and textures than I have ever had in one sitting. Everything, from the crispy, fried baby mackerel (yes- you eat the whole thing, bones and all) to the uni that finished my meal- was spot-on. Somewhere along the way, I had a small bowl with broth, vegetables, and a couple of pieces of cooked fish that had the most fantastic, clean taste. I mean I could actually taste the fish. The texture was perfect- firm, yet giving as my teeth went into it. The bit of seaweed salad with a touch of ginger mixed in was ideal. The simplicity of all of it was one of the most refreshing and exciting parts of this experience. There were so many delicious tidbits from start to finish that I had never known about, and still feel like I don't really know about. It was impossible to keep up with what everything was.

There was an older couple sitting next to me (late sixties, easily- maybe older). They went from speaking Japanese with the chef to speaking English with me seamlessly. They spent part of the evening encouraging me to "put the chopsticks down and eat with your fingers" and part of the time watching me like parents looking at their child eating for the first time. I think they were surprised by the range of what I found palatable. By the end of the meal, I think I had won some respect for my open attitude towards the meal, especially the uni. The gentleman even questioned the chef as he prepared it and passed it over to me. Itamae-san smiled, though; I'm sure he remembered I had ordered and raved about it on each of my previous visits.

Every piece of fish I ate was ideal. It was fresh and firm. The cuts were just right: generous, but not Godzilla sized (can I say that?!??). The rice was certainly fresh, also. And perfectly seasoned with a touch of vinegar and sugar balancing the light stripe of wasabi painted onto the rice under each piece of fish in the nigiri-sushi.

Itamae- san knows his business- the sequence of my meal,the varying of taste and texture, and the perfect bottle of cold sake that he chose to go with it- all of this combined to create a lasting impression.

In Downtown LA, Sushi Sharin is the place to go for a "full-experience" sushi dinner. 'Cause Johnny Tomatoes says so.

Sushi Sharin
359 E. 1st St
Los Angeles

239 Park Ave South
New York

172 Thompson St
New York

129 Front St, Lower level
New York

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