The chef reaches over the sushi counter and places a bowl in front of each of us. The bowls are filled with ice, topped with the live shrimp he has just dismantled. The shrimp are huge, like mutants. Their dismembered heads and bodies sit side by side, a couple of inches apart but still very much alive.
“No soy sauce,” he says, making eye contact and nodding to make sure we understand.
One of my dining companions, who just returned from a three-week vacation in Japan, leans toward me and whispers, “I’m not sure I can eat this without soy sauce. I’ve always had a hard time with raw shrimp.”
My shrimp’s antennae are furiously wiggling, his eyes trained on me with laser focus as I reach for his body, which is glistening, almost translucent, brushed with a fine glaze of house-made soy. Normally, live sweet shrimp in sushi bars are fairly small, with bodies that can easily be eaten in a single mouthful. But these aren’t normal shrimp. I’m envisioning two mouthfuls at the very least.
My friend takes a large sip of wine, and another, bracing himself. “Are you sure we can’t use soy sauce?” he whispers.
“Just try it,” I say. “It’s already dressed. If it’s too overwhelming, dunk it in the soy sauce. Add wasabi, whatever makes you happy. But don’t look up because the chef is watching.”
I pick up the shrimp with my fingers and push it halfway into my mouth. I clamp my teeth into the flesh, and the shrimp pulls apart more easily than I expected. The flavor is sweet, almost like syrup, but with a salty ocean-y finish. No trace of fishiness whatsoever.
I lean toward the friend, who is still clutching his wine. “I think you can do this,” I say. And just as I say this, his shrimp comes alive again, squirming wildly.
He picks it up and bites into it. He laughs out loud, a big belly laugh. “This is amazing,” he says, “I’ve never had anything like this. Not even in Tokyo.”
Ootoro opened in Irvine in July. This is its third location. The original is in Walnut.
“How did you choose Irvine,” I casually ask the chef/owner one night when he happens to be dining at the sushi counter a couple of seats down from me.
Many of his best customers at the Walnut location for the past few years have been driving in regularly from Irvine, he tells me.
Ootoro made a name for itself as an omakase specialist, and the goal here is the same. They do make several very straightforward hand rolls using soft-shell crab, uni, toro, live lobster or even spicy tuna. And the chefs create a number of innovative new-style sashimi and tataki. But ultimately I get the feeling that they would much prefer everyone order omakase, and to that end they offer several different tiers, the opening gambit of which is $130 per person.
The second tier, strictly nigiri sushi, includes 28 pieces plus dessert for $160. Twenty-eight pieces sounds like a lot of sushi, but it is not an overwhelming amount when it’s cut properly, as it is here. If your omakase is like mine, it will include live abalone, live scallop and Santa Barbara uni. You’ll taste fresh octopus, seared halibut fin and bluefin tuna cheek.
The variety of fish here isn’t quite as extensive as Shunka, and the service isn’t nearly as graceful as Hana re, but Ootoro is in some ways even more special. They serve flights of certain fish families, like a trio of three different types of salmon, or three snappers, or jacks or even three different grades of toro, side by side, to be eaten in specific progression to better appreciate the subtle nuances in flavor and texture of fish of a certain stripe.
The first time I dined here, my partner and I were the only two customers in the restaurant and we almost turned around and walked out. Empty sushi restaurants make me nervous. I’m glad I gave it a shot. The quality of fish here is absolutely superb.
It’s starting to catch on, but I’ve yet to see the dining room filled. I suspect that’s about to change.
Rating: 3 stars
Where: 2222 Michelson Drive, Irvine
When: Lunch:11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays. Dinner: 5:30- 9:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays and Sundays, 5:30-10 p.m. Saturdays.
Don’t miss: Live sweet shrimp, trio of snapper, bluefin tuna cheek, halibut fin, geoduck clam
County health inspection: Not yet available online
Cost: Small plates, $5.95-$24.95; Omakase from $130.
What the stars mean:
0 = poor, unacceptable
1 = fair, with some noteworthy qualities
2 = good, solid, above average
3 = excellent, memorable, well above norm
4 = world class, extraordinary in every detail
Reviews are based on multiple visits. Ratings reflect the reviewer’s overall reaction to food, ambience and service
This article originally appeared in the Orange County Register. To view more of my work for the Register, check out the archives. For more dining and travel inspiration, I invite you to follow me and join the conversation on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.