The In Crowd
If you want to enjoy the raw and cooked bliss on offer at Ohshima Japanese Cuisine, call ahead, so you can waltz past the throng of poor saps who didn’t
Surprise: That’s the reaction all new arrivals get the split second they swing Ohshima’s door open and find the tiny waiting area full of people. Seeing their faces drop when they do is as fun as watching someone get Punk’d. And it never gets old.
Ohshima’s outward appearance all but guarantees it. It reveals nothing of its popularity or the wonderful food that has made it so. Anonymously situated in a strip mall along a street full of cookie-cutter strip malls, the restaurant conceals itself even further by covering its windows with paper and bamboo reeds.
Once you enter, it looks like any neighborhood Japanese joint from here to Peoria. Sushi bar to the right, square tables to the left, and frameless mirrors hung up to create the illusion the room is bigger than it is.
Inevitably, after the newcomers accept the wait time, they join the rest of the reservationless, who’ll while away the minutes tap-tapping away on glowing smart phones before they are plucked by one of two servers and led to salvation.
Depending on what you intend to eat, you must decide beforehand in which part of heaven you want to be seated. The bar is reserved for consuming sushi. But if your goal is to order mostly cooked food, you’ll need a table. The kitchen’s plates are often simply too big for the limited square footage of the bar. Besides that, you’ll want your itamae to think you’re serious about his creations—especially if you order the omakase, which is designed to grab all of your attention, one precious piece at a time.
Consider yourself inordinately lucky if you are seated in front of Shige, who is perhaps the most affable sushi chef you’ll ever meet, with a striking resemblance to a Japanese Ray Romano and a talent to rival that of the raw-fish artisans at Shibucho, Sushi Wasabi and Ikko.
And there’s this: His omakase ranks as one of the most reasonably priced in OC, starting at $25 for eight pieces—a bargain for the quality of the fish and the meticulous care in the way Shige cuts and diamond-scores each morsel, molding it over perfectly portioned bullets of warm rice. To prep his lustrous sea bream, he sprinkles a few grains of sea salt and spritzes yuzu juice from a spray bottle. To finish his black cod, he caramelizes the edges under the whooshing jet of a blowtorch. He offers no soy sauce; it will never be required.
Shige’s contributions are also found in the menu of cooked entrées. He wraps a salmon steak around scallop and crabmeat before handing it over to the kitchen, where it is baked, sauced and plated with salmon roe and sliced green apples as garnish. For the poke salad, it’s his tuna that’s cut into cubes, then tossed in shoyu and crunchy seaweed.
Of other dishes, I’m not so sure who’s responsible, but they are equal to Shige’s sushi. Just don’t expect typical bento-box fodder. Order the bitter melon salad, which is sliced thinly to mitigate its raw astringency, and you’ll be sending the message that you aren’t there for the teriyaki. When we did, our server nodded approvingly and declared, “Niiiice!”
After that, she barely raised an eyebrow when we said we wanted the jellyfish salad or the mimigar, Okiwanan boiled pig’s ear, cut into cartilage-y strips, is served cold and paired with cucumbers for a dish that had the faint but unmistakable aftertaste of the barnyard.
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Other parts of the pig—pork knee, belly and spare ribs—are honored in more substantial plates, slow-cooked to tender by braising in flavorful liquids that eventually become the sauce.
And when you’ve gotten your fill of hog, there’s more fish to be had, like the hamachi kama, a broiled yellowtail collar with the highest meat-to-bone ratio I’ve ever seen, plus a sautéed scallop dish with puréed pumpkin that had the bivalve’s rarely seen, chewy orange coral still attached.
By the time you finish their signature dessert of a brownie-like confection chased by a shot glass of vanilla smoothie, the surprised reaction you had at seeing the mass of people at the entrance is replaced by the realization you’ve just had one of the best Japanese meals in Orange County. Best of all, now you’ll know to call ahead next time.
Ohshima Japanese Cuisine, 1956 N. Tustin St., Orange, (714) 998-0098. Open Tues.-Fri., 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. & 5:30-10:30 p.m.; Sat., 5:30-10:30 p.m.; Sun., 5:30-10 p.m. Dinner for two, $50-$75, food only. Sake, beer and wine.