Spirits of legendary seafood meals reside at Restaurant Shiro
By Erica Wayne 10/30/2013
Just as the Pasadena Weekly hits newsstands today comes the biggest eve in the Witching World, Halloween. Decorations have popped up like mushrooms all over our neighborhood: ghosts and goblins, gravestones and ghouls — all alerting local kids to the probability that treats may await within should they brave their way through spooky landscapes to front doors.
Of all the scary stuff I’ve seen this season, the scariest has been the skeletal remnants of a massive catfish (looking a lot like the re-animated goldfish in Tim Burton’s must-see “Frankenweenie”) glaring at us with milky eyes after we’d made our second full meal of its flesh. Where did we get it? At Restaurant Shiro in South Pasadena, one of my favorite haunts for fine seafood. The two-pounder ($32.75) is by far Shiro’s most spectacular entrée.
This beauty is served whole, its skin scored and stuffed with ginger slices, deep-fried, garnished with a bouquet of fresh cilantro, a pungent ponzu dipping sauce and a side (like all of Shiro’s entrées) of haricot vert, carrot chunks and a square of potatoes au gratin. By the time we called it quits, having started with appetizers and divvied up a much more modest, though still delicious entrée (broiled black cod with soy-ginger-mirin marinade over potato puree - $30.50), we’d reached bone on about half its body, named the poor beast Calvin and ordered him boxed for the next night’s supper at home.
When erstwhile PW reviewer Melody Malmberg wrote what was very possibly the first review of Restaurant Shiro in 1987 (it was less than a month old), her comments were prescient. She said, “Next time, I’d better make a reservation; and in subsequent months, if I forget to reserve, there will probably be a line out the door. … Word is getting out quickly about this terrific, small, mainly seafood, Franco-Japanese-California restaurant on sleepy Mission Street.”
Almost 27 years later, Shiro is still a terrific, mainly seafood, Franco-Japanese-California restaurant. It’s bigger, having annexed the space next door a few years back, and Mission Street is less sleepy. But it’s surprising how little Shiro has changed. Walk in and (aside from prices, which have more than doubled in the interim) the interior, wait-staff and menu retain much of their original style. (That’s meant as a compliment. Congrats, Shiro, you don’t look a day over 5!)
When it opened, chef-owner Hideo Yamashiro created a venue that Merrill Schindler described as “fairly minimalist … with abstract art on the wall and non-abstract food on the plates.”
The magazine Gault et Millau said Shiro’s cuisine combined “a Japanese eye for high-quality, ultra-fresh fish with the French art of saucing.” Other details, their glowing review continued, were “carefully thought out: good desserts, handsome waiters who are there when you need them but disappear when you don’t, and several tasty wines for well under $20.” (The 2013 selections are mostly north of $35, but still tasty.)
Vintages change, but much of the menu has remained constant since opening day. My guess is there’d be a riot among loyal patrons if certain faves were ever cut. (Check out the sample menus on Shiro’s Web site for a little mental masturbation.) One of our more recent meals there was prompted by a visit from a Florida transplant (gone from Pasadena for the past decade) who wanted to show his East Coast wife what he, lots of critics and many Angelenos (judging from the consistently stellar ratings from Zagat) consider to be one of the finest restaurants in Southern California.
And what did he crave? The catfish, of course, the same dish Mel raved about during her 1987 visit and I rave about every time I have it. Like Green Street Restaurant’s Dianne Salad, Shiro’s catfish has become the stuff of legend. I’ve never been in when it wasn’t available, and I can rarely resist it. We (a party of five) devoured three of the beasts. Shiro’s other entrees are relatively generous, but they’re always dwarfed by the gargantuan proportions of the catfish.
I always feel the need to share with tablemates who’ve ordered the “normal” dinners. That evening, the companion who chose pan-sautéed Scottish salmon with dill mustard sauce ($30.50) cleaned his plate in record time and gladly accepted multiple chunks of sweet catfish flesh and crunchy skin from me, while the person who ordered a charbroiled chicken breast with province herb mustard sauce ($25.50) helped to strip down a second to bare bones.
A perennial favorite that’s usually available is Shiro’s shrimp mousse ravioli appetizer with shiitake mushroom cream sauce ($11). However, for our pre-Halloween repast, my mate and I tried a heap of tender tempura shrimp with garlic aioli and a smidge of pink Hawaiian sea salt ($14.95) gussied up with mixed greens and a red pepper dice. We also shared a less compelling (and very expensive at $19) Dungeness crab salad on a bed of julienne cucumber “linguine” with some slender Japanese eggplant slices and a bland dressing purporting to contain, alas undetectable, ginger.
We eschewed wine in favor of two interesting brews (Belgian Affligem Blond and Utah Uinta Hop Notch IPA — $7 and $8). And we skipped Shiro’s desserts (all $8.75). Of course, if his occasional baked figs with ice cream and balsamic vinegar sauce or chestnut mousse cake with chocolate sauce had been available … but they weren’t.
So, instead, we said our adieus to the gracious staff who had tucked Calvin’s earthly remains into a nice white container with a fresh garland of cilantro and a container of ponzu in preparation for our celebration of his worthy sacrifice and his final sendoff the next night, held with a couple of pre-Halloween Snickers for dessert and with great appreciation for both him and Shiro.
1505 Mission St.,
Full bar/Major cards