It's best to belly up to the sushi bar at Mashiko, not solely for the traditional benefit of a little face time with your favorite sushi chef, but also to make sure you're getting the special stuff. So close to your fellow fish fiends, you are able to ogle their order, like the spiny shells of sea urchin that were being churned out on a recent evening. Cold depths of winter might not immediately bring to mind dinners of cold sushi, but it's peak season for the stunning shellfish of our area, and Mashiko has their skilled hands on some of the best right now.
On a recent evening, after securing an order of uni on the halfshell, we pulled the creamy orange innards from the spiky purple urchin. As we ate, we watched our neighbors get served an even more enticing temptation. "Is that abalone?" I asked, my voice dripping with envy. After confirming that it was, the chef checked in on his stash and reported back that it was the last of it. He consoled me with the final serving of another creature, the last of his cherrystone clams. Larger than our local Manilas, these eat crisp and briny, like an excellent oyster. I was sated for the moment and pressed on, pestering the chef about what else was good.
Tartares of geoduck and scallop were sent to the diner on the end, but in the classic fashion of the sushi bar, we listened to the chef, and I could not regret it less. The deep savory flavors of the sake-poached oysters he served stood out head and shoulders above any other cooked form of oyster I've tried. In a loose sauce, these barely-cooked bivalves possess a hit of umami so rich that if it weren't for the balance of red onions and cress, it would overwhelm the tongue. The individual flavors of sake and oyster are there, but like any great dish, it's the sum of those parts that make for a dish that adds up to much more.
Much like the limited supply of shellfish, Monday night dinners tend to come to an end all too early. Stuffed with shellfish, we snuck in one last bite that, while not shellfish, was so incredible, it would be heinously selfish of me not to let you in on the secret. Thin custard, called chawan mushi, is a subtle and smooth way to warm up after a cool sushi dinner. Order it early, as it takes a while to make, but finish your meal with silky smooth bites flavored with mushrooms and tender pieces of black cod.