In a corner of a Costa Mesa mini mall, you're sitting in Sushi Shibucho, a tiny, traditional sushi bar, staring down a pristine piece of kanpachi (amberjack) — some of the best sushi in town. And it all started with the original proprietor and master sushi chef, Sakae Shibutani, who opened this Lilliputian sushi bar back in 2002.
Shibutani opened his original Shibucho in L.A.'s Westlake district in 1976, before selling it to his assistant chef, Shige Kudo, and opening his second Shibucho on the third floor of Yaohan Plaza (now Little Tokyo Galleria) in downtown Los Angeles' quickly expanding Little Tokyo.
At the time, traditional sushi in Los Angeles was beyond esoteric, an unfamiliar commodity. In the late 1960s, Kawafuku became the first traditional sushi bar to open in Little Tokyo, with Shigeo Saito behind the counter. What we now know as sushi came into its own with the opening of Tokyo Kaikan in Little Tokyo — one of the chefs there came up with the bright idea to replace seasonal bluefin tuna with ripe California avocados when the tuna was not in season. One thing led to another. Crab and julienned cucumber were added to the mix, eventually leading to the creation of the infamous California roll. The Philadelphia roll and eel sauce–drenched "sushi" that one sees almost everywhere from supermarkets to the Katsu-yas of the world all stemmed from Kaikan.
However, Shibutani forged a new path by introducing sushi novices to its traditional roots, sculpting each piece to order in bite-size pieces. Suffice to say, he revolutionized sushi, predating both the Peruvian-influenced Nobu Matsuhisa and famed "sushi Nazi" Kazunori Nozawa by more than a decade and a half. In 1998, he closed the Yaohan Plaza location and a few years later opened Sushi Shibucho in Costa Mesa, a community ripe for exceptional sushi, with his son Naga working under him. Naga had traveled to Tokyo to train in the fine art of classic Edomae sushi, which refers to the old name for Tokyo.
In 2014, the elder Shibutani retired. Now Naga single-handedly runs the small sushi temple. His meticulous, rigorous approach to great sushi shines through beautifully in each and every piece of sushi.
Upon entering the sushi bar, you'll notice the amiable, effusive greeting from Naga and his sous chef. The pale wood counter, accented with a lacquered black finish, is simplicity itself. There are nine seats at the sushi bar with four token tables, which remain unoccupied most evenings. The hostess will hand you a hot towel. Perhaps a hot cup of refreshing and restorative matcha green tea will follow. You can order omakase (the chef's choice meal) or order on your own. In such expertly capable hands the omakase route is the way to go.
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Before the procession of sushi commences, you'll most likely be served an incredibly soothing steamed snapper with the bones intact — the bones seemingly add some umami to round out the flavor. The sushi courses that follow may include ultra-sweet snow crab, red snapper with yuzu chili paste, mackerel in pungent variations, unagi (sea eel) simply dabbed with Hawaiian sea salt, fresh scallops with the barest hint of soy sauce, and heavily marbled chi-toro (medium-fatty tuna belly).
Depending on the season, the monkfish liver pate or sayori (needlefish striped with silver) you remember from your last visit may not be offered. Tamago, the slightly sweet, carefully layered egg omelette that, when done well, is the successful mark of a true sushi master, usually will round out your meal. If you're lucky, a translucent aspic charmingly called "fish jelly" may be placed in front of you. It's filled with the briny essence of the sea, everything you could ever hope for in a salty bar snack.
A blissfully not-too-sweet yuzu lemon jelly serves as a refreshing dessert to a leisurely meal, but mochi balls are also offered if you must finish with some ice cream. The bill will be considerably cheaper than Shibucho's L.A. counterparts. And you will think to yourself that Naga-san has made Shibutani-san proud.
590 W. 19th St., Costa Mesa; (949) 642-2677, facebook.com/sushishibucho.