Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Himitsu Appetizers

Long ago and far away my parents introduced me to Japanese food. This actually would be in Los Angeles back in the '60s, when pretty much only the Japanese ate Japanese food, dining in Little Tokyo downtown. My folks, though, were into what at the time would be considered adventurous eating and wanted to expose us kids to foods and people of different cultures. There were no sushi bars back then; instead there were tempura bars--and that's where we went in Little Tokyo. The concept was similar. You'd sit at the counter and in the refrigerated cases in front of you would be vegetables and shrimp. You'd select what you wanted and your choices would be dipped in batter and then fried in what to me back then was a ginormous wok filled with oil. And then you'd be presented with your meal and the accompanying dipping sauce. It was so marvelous I remember it all these decades later.

Now, of course, L.A. and San Diego and cities and towns across the world are filled with sushi bars--and tempura (although tempura bars appear to be history). In San Diego, the most revered and traditional sushi bar is probably Sushi Ota in Pacific Beach. And that's where Japanese chef Mitsu Ahara went to work about 17 years ago. He grew up in a beachside town outside of Tokyo and came to San Diego in 1995 at age 18--not because he dreamed of cooking here but because he was a surfer. He eventually found his way to Sushi Ota and found a mentor in Mr. Ota, as he refers to him. Ahara began as a dishwasher and progressed to prepping vegetables, taking leftovers home to practice. Mr. Ota, he said, taught him everything--especially that quality was most important above all and that you had to take care of the food.

"If there's quality, people will come back," he recalled Mr. Ota telling him. And, while most of us think service and delivery of the food is most important because that's what we see, Ahara was emphatic that instead it's what happens before we get there that counts. "Seventy to eighty percent of what is most important in the process is prep," he told me.

And that's what I found him doing when I came for a visit to Himitsu, his month-old restaurant in La Jolla. That precious time in the afternoon is spent fabricating the fish. In this case, it was tuna. Ahara and his crew at any given time work with 15 varieties of seafood, including local species: lobster, live shrimp, sea bass, and sea urchin. About 60 percent of his fish comes from Japan. One of his cooks made sure to tell me that Ahara uses every last bit of every fish that comes in, not just for customers but also for family meals for the staff. Even the head and attached skeleton are fried and served as a garnish on one of his dishes. In fact, I saw that when I ate there a couple of weeks before.

At Sushi Ota, Ahara eventually progressed from vegetable prep to tempura making, and then, finally,  sushi. The skills he learned from 17 years with Mr. Ota he took with him--with Mr. Ota's encouragement and blessing--to his new place. Now he is the star behind the sushi bar, creating a finely honed show, filled with delicate finesse, for the eight guests at the bar (there are an additional 22 seats in the patio). The evening I was there, my friend and I had him prepare his omakase menu--chef's choice--and were fed sublimely fresh fish, both nigiri and sashimi--and had a delightful plate that reflects his interest in Mexican fusion: Braised Pork Belly over Miso Mole Sauce, Cauliflower, Asparagus. 

From left, bonito flakes, shichimi pepper, chile pepper threads
For me, a night out enjoying Japanese food wouldn't be complete without snacking on edamame or shishito peppers. Ahara shared with me his simple preparations of both. These are dishes you can easily make at home, along with sushi rolls. Now these aren't full recipes with measurements, just ingredients and directions, but you should be able to pull them off without a sweat. You can find the ingredients at markets like Mitsuwa, Nijiya, and Maruki--all in the Convoy District.

Spicy Edamame

Shichimi pepper (spicy, 7-ingredient Japanese seasoning blend)
Chile pepper threads
Slice of lime

Bring a pot of lightly salted water to the boil. Add edamame. When they start to float to the surface, remove and drain.

Place the edamame in a bowl. Toss with a sprinkling of shichimi pepper. Place in a serving bowl and top with chili pepper threads. Serve with a slice of lime.

Shishito Peppers

Shishito peppers
Sesame oil
Teriyaki sauce
Ponzu sauce
Bonito flakes

Turn on broiler. In an oven-proof skillet add shishito peppers and drizzle sesame oil over them. Put under the broiler to char. After about 2 minutes, pull out and flip the peppers. Put back under the broiler for another minute.

Mix together the teriyaki and ponzu sauces in 1-to-1 ratio. Pour sauce into the serving bowl. Place shishito peppers over the sauce. Top with a pinch of bonito flakes and serve.

Himitsu is located at 1030-G Torrey Pines Road in La Jolla. 

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