This is omakase.
He is an excellent chef, plying us with a rainbow of complementary fish, hopping seamlessly from white-fleshed fish to tuna to mackerel to salmon to the more exotic, obscure varieties. He seasons his dishes perfectly, completely eliminating the need for soy or wasabi. But he really carves out a permanent place in my sushi-loving heart when he does two things:
- cuts all my nigiri in half, and
- unflinchingly feeds my father and me fish sperm over rice.
He knows I need the first thing the instant he sees me struggling with the first piece on the 10-item omakase.
I do have a small mouth, but there's more to it than that. I started eating sushi (sashimi, to be more precise) when I was two years old. I decided early on that my parents' ginger and daikon-festooned wooden platters of glistening fish were much more interesting than carrot tempura or whatever 'child-friendly' dish I was being fed. The chef, Kuni (of Kuni's in Evanston, IL) always made sure to cut my fish into tiny little toddler-size pieces, and he still does it whenever I'm home for a visit, despite being much closer to my thirties than to toddlerhood (or even to my twenties, truth be told).*
It's nearly impossible now for me to eat nigiri the way you're 'supposed to': the whole thing in your mouth in one go. I always try valiantly and end up embarrassingly failing to bite some fish off and the connective tissue gets in the way and the whole thing plops sadly onto the plate, rice flying everywhere. and if I'm unlucky, soy sauce too. It's mortifying, especially considering how the Japanese place utmost importance on proper etiquette.
Ashamed, I look up at Yuji, expecting to see barely restrained distaste, as in most restaurants, but he just smiles. "I will cut your pieces in half," he declares.
Marry me, I think.
Smoky cherry salmon, buttery bluefin tuna, sweet scallops, crunchy, ribboned sea bream, vinegared spanish mackerel and rosy hamachi later...
"Will you feed us something new?" my dad asks. "Feed us something we've never had before."
"I will make you a surprise, but there is one catch," Yuji says. "I won't tell you what it is until after you eat it."
"But even if you tell us what it is, we'll eat it!" I promise.
"No, with this I won't tell until after you've eaten it. All of it!" he adds as an afterthought, noting my half-slice habit, and turns his back to start preparations.
Five minutes later, we each have a pile of what looks like a cross between pinkish noodles and fat little worms patted into a rough circle on top of a cylinder of rice in front of us. (Well, I had two semi-circles.)
I look at my dad. I had thought it would be a fish. Was it a bunch of baby fish? Some type of sea worm? Baby sea cucumbers? Raw chicken offal? What?
"You know shirako?" Yuji asks.
We shake our heads.
"Good," he says. "Try!"
My dad shoves the whole thing in without further comment; I nibble on one of the little worm tails. I like to eat new things slowly. It tastes like a cross between mild sea urchin and monkfish liver, if someone had stewed them in pig intestines. I love all of those things, and I love this thing, whatever it is.
Yuji is watching us closely. My dad has finished, but I still have a whole semicircle: I close my lips over the rest. The texture's like Nickelodeon Gak and tofu. I roll it around my tongue, enjoying the sensation: it's a childish pure textural joy, like rolling balls of dried glue around on your palm or shoving a plate of whipped cream pie in your face.
I swallow, and:
"Cod testicle!" Yuji declares triumphantly and waits expectantly.
If he'd wanted to be circumspect, he could have called it 'milt', or 'eggs', but he didn't, so: testicle. I kind of love him for it.
"Delicious!" we say, almost simultaneously. And mean it.
Where to find shirako in Orange County (apart from at Ohshima, of course):
Yuji assured me that most sushi places have it, but don't list it on the English menu. He further promised that any place would be delighted to hear the request come out of my mouth and would shower me with oodles of shirako. I have not yet tested this proposition, however. If you do, let me know how it goes!
*Kuni's entirely Japanese picture menu is the reason I still don't know the English names for many fish popular as sushi. Had you watched me write this entry, you'd have found me reverse-Google-translating almost everything. Today is the first day I discovered that amberjack and yellowtail are the same thing: hamachi!