After working under Celebrity Master Sushi Chef Katsuya Uechi for a few years, I realized that the art and concept behind sushi was a constant learning process. Although the kitchen and the sushi itself is simple from the outside, the word “simple” in a kitchen rarely means easy. From learning the correct way to greet one another upon entering the kitchen to butchering a fish correctly, repetition, sometimes doing the same task for years, and meticulousness was always the key to success.
During my time working with Chef Katsuya, the conversation topic of “fresh” fish came about. Needless to say, after a long, candid conversation, he had made me realize that the concept and definition of sushi being “fresh” has become skewed over the years.
To everyone, fresh implies “new.” For example, fresh fruit means that you just bought it. The fruit was just picked; it’s not old. With this definition, fresh fish/sushi would imply that the fish is only recently out of the water. But, is that what you really want?
“Fresh,” while the term is used very loosely today, is a complicated concept when you talk about food; particularly sushi and fish. While there are flavors and textures that may clearly indicate that a fish is old, it is more than likely not what you are experiencing at some sushi restaurants. Allow me to explain.
In the early stages after a fish is caught, the most common method implemented by some fisheries is to kill the fish by asphyxiation, where it is then butchered and chilled. This process often takes a few minutes to occur and results in a fish experiencing a slow death, which quickly increases the levels of lactic acid and adrenaline in the flesh and muscles due to high stress levels. As a result, this gives the fish a more bitter flavor and also shortens the shelf life.
In contrast, more sophisticated and higher-end fisheries have adapted to a method of harvesting used to preserve the texture and flavor of the fish flesh called “ike jime.”
Ike jime, a practice that originated in Japan, is known as the most humane and quickest technique to kill a fish. This method is useful in preserving the flesh and for it to maintain its integrity. It is said that the best time to eat the fish is right before it reaches rigor mortis (which is ultimately delayed using this process), when the amino acid levels are at their highest as the flesh is more firm and the flavors are maintained. From here, very similar to steaks, the fish is then aged to develop flavor. Some people will argue that it tastes better due to the high glutamic acid, being the main component of umami.
With that said, among all of the sushi restaurants available in Orange County, there is only one spot, out of a very few that will not break the bank, that I have found that sticks to basic, traditional roots of Japanese sushi: San Shi Go in Laguna Beach.
Located on the second story corner with very little signage of Pacific Coast Highway and Oak street, San Shi Go (which translates into “3, 4, 5” in Japanese) is an easy spot to miss. Reservations are highly recommended, even for the sushi bar, as it is a small, popular restaurant.
My photographer Antonio Espino and I were lucky enough to encounter the restaurant on a slower night so we were able to take our time going through the menu.
The menu is basic with a few specials and a few off-the-menu items that the server will be more than happy to share with you. After ordering a few items from just about each section, the food arrived quickly and at a consistent pace.
I will not lie; seeing crispy rice with spicy tuna (pictured below the black plate) on a menu makes me giddy like a little schoolgirl. Not only did I work with the original creator of the simple masterpiece (Chef Katsuya) but I am also intrigued about everyone else’s interpretation of the simple dish. This was one of the first dishes we enjoyed and it was a delightful way to begin our journey to gluttony. With the extra crunchy rice balancing out the heat of the spicy tuna, topped off with a spicy mayo, jalapeño, and ponzu, the blend of flavors was comparable to the first time I saw sunlight.
Next, we moved onto the Red Snapper. Thinly sliced (usuzukuri) Red Snapper, lightly salted with rock salt, and garnished with a Yuzu Pepper citrus paste. The fish was tender with a slight resisting texture, hints of citrus and a subtle, herbaceous spice which was all balanced by the salt. With such harmonious flavors, this delicate dish comes highly recommended to begin the meal to get the appetite flowing.
Once our appetites were warmed up and running, it was time to move onto the main event: nigiri and their specialty rolls. The one detail that caught my attention about this restaurant that is more commonly overlooked nowadays is that like any traditional Japanese restaurant, wasabi comes customary between the fish and rice, thus, not needing to make a slurry of wasabi and soy sauce, which is usually frowned upon, anyway (this ain’t my first rodeo). Each order of nigiri (rice and fish) comes perfectly seasoned with the correct garnishes to make the experience that much more enjoyable. The rice is beautifully acidic from the vinegar but never dares to overpower the delicate nature of the fish. The standout was most certainly the ama-ebi (raw sweet shrimp) pictured below which was amazingly creamy, slightly sweet, and like always, paired with tempura fried shrimp heads.
Normally, I would be one to overlook specialty rolls because I like to think that I am a purist. But if you have met me, you would quickly realize that I would easily be able to spend $500 on a sushi dinner if I did not have any additional support from my good friend, rice (we go way back). Lucky for me, this restaurant has a few specialty rolls worth mentioning: Baked Halibut roll (spin-off of a California roll with baked halibut, and house-made mayo sauce) and their Backflip roll (spicy tuna roll topped with cajun-spiced seared tuna, red chiles, and garnished with Ponzu sauce).
This journey of flavors sadly came to an end with Tamago (a thin egg omelet which is slightly sweet). After drinking our sorrows away with some sake, it was time to (San Shi) go home.