Pity Seinfelds poor Soup Nazi. The butt of a generation’s worth of jokes on national television and in restaurants across the land, the Soup Nazi has been widely misunderstood. He’s not tyrannical; he’s just a purist.
It would be easy to similarly mistake the apparent austerity of Sushi Dokoro Shirahama and its enigmatic chef, Koji Kotani, for some form of diffident severity, of arrogance. It would be wrong. From the black-washed windows to the stripped-down menu, every aspect of Shirahama (4212 Convoy St. in Kearny Mesa) reflects a purist’s vision of what sushi is and what it is not.
At first blush, Shirahama might seem to be more focused on that which sushi is not. It is not about seeing or being seen. It is not about bonito-flake-topped rolls—or even California rolls. It is not about surimi or beer or sauces involving mayonnaise. Nor is it about wasabi in your soy sauce. If it’s supposed to have wasabi, it will already have it by the time it gets to you and in precisely the correct amount to perfectly accent the fish.
It’s been said that Shirahama might not be about you. Dubious though the story might be, Koji-san has supposedly refused to serve customers whose look he did not like: “No sushi for you!”
But there’s something perversely wrong in thinking about Shirahama and Koji-san in terms of what they have to say about what sushi is not. That’s mostly because what they have to say about what sushi is is glorious. It is about perfectly seasoned sushi rice. It is about fish that couldn’t possibly be fresher. It is about knife cuts that are not just precise but insightful. Order omakase (pricey but worth it), and it is about the subtle rhythms of menu sequencing and the pairing of different pieces of nigiri that speak to and about each other (as opposed to the more common two pieces of the same fish, which offers the same experience twice at the price of failing to surprise the second time).
Sushi in Koji-san’s hands is all about stripping away that which is not necessary and celebrating that which is. For all of the purity and discipline at Shirahama, there’s also a lush and sensual quality to the food. The wild hamachi is at once creamy and meaty with a hint of sweetness. The giant clam offers a toothsomeness that’s not quite crunchy and not quite chewy. Koji’s anago is almost as airy as a pudding; his ankimo and sour plum handroll (an uncharacteristic departure from pure Edomai) is downright exuberant.
The Soup Nazi—or at least the person upon which he was based—hasn’t done too badly after all. Fueled by unwanted Seinfeld success, he rolled out a 500-restaurant franchise and is offering soup products at retail stores nationwide. Some of those 500 franchises are actually—nice. Perhaps the Soup Nazi was not such a purist in the end.
The same can’t be said of Shirahama and Koji-san. There will not be any franchises. There will not be any grab-n-go California rolls. What there will be is far better: the most exquisite and pure Edo-style sushi in San Diego.