When my wife and I were trying to decide where to celebrate our birthdays last month, it wasn’t really a matter of choosing a spot. We both pretty much had the same place in mind: Shunji! We wanted a special meal, befitting a birthday celebration (or two), but money’s been tight lately. We couldn’t splurge on anything too decadent, like the infamous truffle gohan that even Shunji himself is reluctant to serve because of its cost.
Instead, I worked with Yuko to arranged a meal centered around my wife’s favorite fish: salmon. To keep costs manageable, we went mid-day to take advantage of their lunch deals, but I also asked if Shunji would prepare one or two non-sushi courses showcasing the theme ingredient. What we ended up with was a very reasonable, yet quite special, birthday lunch.
Salmon Sashimi Salad with Caviar: Shunji said this was a dish from his Asanebo days. Inside the orange-hued globe, composed of at least 7 or 8 “petals” of salmon belly, was a salad of onion, cucumber, and daikon radish. Resting on a pool of ponzu, and topped with a dollop of caviar on a diminutive “plate” of cucumber, this dish was too gorgeous to eat. Almost. And it tasted as good as it looked.
Sake Saikyo Yaki with Yamamomo: The singular kitchen dish, this was a simple preparation of grilled miso-marinated salmon, served along side a mountain peach. The fish was fatty, melt-in-mouth tender, yet substantive, with just a bit of char along the edges.
Salmon, Salmon, More Salmon, and Sea Trout: My wife had two pieces of each of these nigiri and was in heaven. The marinated salmon was and still is one of her favorites, but it was great to have some variety. I snuck a bite of each piece, and they were each distinctive and delicious.
Shiromi Flight: My starting series of nigiri was a small variety of white-fleshed fish, or shiromi. Shunji always has an assortment of these on his specials board, and though they’re not my favorite sushi fish (that’s next), they never fail to please with their lighter flavors and tender textures.
Hikarimono Flight: Some of my favorite neta, sushi toppings, are shiny/silver-skinned fish, or hikarimono. They are usually a little oilier and have a richer flavor than shiromi. These were excellent as always.
More Hikarimoni, Uni Two Ways: Aji, horse mackerel, though commonly translated as Spanish mackerel, is probably my favorite hikarimono. Shunji’s aji is always top notch, with a fresh, ocean-y taste and slightly nutty and bitter after taste. Sagoshi, or baby king mackerel, didn’t taste like the typical hikarimono, but more like albacore. The “regular” uni, sea urchin, that Shunji serves is usually from Santa Barbara, and my wife opted to have a piece raw, while I tried it steamed. Shunji also had bafun uni from Hokkaido that day, but we abstained as it was $15/piece.
Ikura, Salmon Roe: Shunji doesn’t use typical shio or shoyu marinade. It’s a subtler prep with mirin and dashi (I think), and the roe comes out full and plump, with a mellow sweetness in each briny pop. My favorite ikura!
Two Hand Rolls: Rather than the ubiquitous-in-L.A. blue crab hand roll to end the meal, Shunji made a more traditional maguro temaki, tuna hand roll, as well as a possibly less traditional shiokko katsuobushi temaki, baby amberjack and shaved dried bonito.
Birthday Desserts: Shunji’s desserts are simple, yet expertly made. The chocolate mousse is excellent, and the lime ice cream sublime. He does like to experiment sometimes, and that day he had banana ice cream, and I’d have to say it’s right up there with the banana ice creams I’ve had at full-fledged ice cream shops like Sweet Rose Creamery.
Salmon Sashimi Salad with Caviar, Take Two: No, we did not have a second one, but don’t think we weren’t tempted. I just figure I’d end with another shot of our first course, this one taken by my wife.
I’ve already expounded on the value of Shunji’s lunch specials. Our meal was around $120 before tax and tip. While the restaurant does not usually serve non-sushi items at lunch, they were willing to make a simple kitchen dish for us, and the sashimi is definitely a dish that’s doable for lunch, if requested in advance.
Unlike some my-way-or-the-highway sushi chefs in town, Shunji (and Yuko) always aim to please, whether you’re a big spender or on a budget (to a point, of course), and whether you’re a regular or a relative newcomer. Case in point, when another patron saw our salmon sashimi salad and asked if he could order one, Shunji gladly obliged.