Speaking of sustainability

The most surprising thing about Restaurant Shiro is how little it’s changed in nearly 25 years

By Erica Wayne 04/14/2011

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When erstwhile PW reviewer Melody Malmberg wrote what was very possibly the first review of Restaurant Shiro in June 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 25 years later, Shiro is still a terrific, mainly seafood, Franco-Japanese-California restaurant. It’s a little bigger, having annexed the space next door a few years back, and Mission Street is a little less sleepy. But the most surprising thing about Shiro is how little it’s changed. Walk in and (aside from prices, which have about 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.” Gault-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 2011 selections are mostly north of $35, but still tasty.)
 
Vintages change, but much of the menu has remained pretty 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.) Our latest Shiro meal last month was prompted by a visit from a Florida transplant (gone from Pasadena for the past 10 years) who wanted to show his East Coast wife what he, lots of critics and many Angelinos — 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 signature catfish (a two-pound beauty), served whole, its skin scored and stuffed with ginger slices, deep-fried and served with a bouquet of fresh cilantro and a sweet and pungent ponzu sauce ($30.50), the same recipe and presentation Mel raved about during her 1987 visit. Like Green Street’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. 
 
Despite the fact that Shiro’s other entrees are relatively generous, they’re all dwarfed by the gargantuan proportions of the catfish.
 
Even the Maine lobster medallions and sea scallops with “crustache” sauce ($32.50) looked puny by comparison. I always feel the need to share with tablemates who’ve ordered the “normal” dinners. The companion who chose (to me not very interesting) Atlantic salmon with dill mustard sauce ($28.75) cleaned his plate in record time and gladly accepted multiple chunks of sweet fish flesh and crunchy skin from me, while the lobster orderer helped to strip down a second to its bones.
 
Another old favorite that’s usually on the menu is Shiro’s appetizer ravioli, filled with shrimp mousse and served with shiitake mushroom sauce ($10). Two of us were seduced by a “special” of similar ravioli filled with black truffle mousse and served with a truffle cream sauce. The price was twice that of the standard, but the dish was only half as satisfying. (Dare I say anything could ever be over-truffled?) The asparagus and tomato salad with tarragon dressing ($10.75) was interesting, but I would probably have preferred walnuts over the sweeter pecans that garnished the plate. 
 
Some of the recipes I think are Shiro’s most stellar weren’t on the menu the evening of our last visit. Among the usual starters is a seafood salad with tarragon-citrus dressing that Merrill Shindler once wrote he’d “gladly drink straight from the bottle …” And the simple PEI mussels steamed in garlic butter are always delectable. I used to occasionally order the main-course Chilean sea bass a la japonaise until I learned the fish was endangered; it still sings to me (but not as loudly as the catfish).
 
Once through appetizers, entrees and three bottles of wine ($50, $47 and $75), we still managed to make room for three desserts (all $8.50) and five spoons. I’d been hoping that baked figs with balsamic vinegar sauce and vanilla ice cream, date mousse cake or chestnut mousse cake with chocolate sauce would be among the night’s offerings, but no such luck. So we tried the apple tart with vanilla ice cream and caramel sauce, a chocolate torte soufflé with coffee ice cream and crisped wontons filled with poached pears and raspberry sauce (all good but a bit small — about a bite apiece as we rotated plates). 
 
As we headed home for nightcaps of single malt and liqueurs, our Florida ex-pat revisited our dinner with laudatory reminiscences. We could tell he was fixing the details in his mind to recite to envious Tallahassee friends and to store away nostalgically until he and his wife could come back for a follow-up dinner on their next trip west. Lucky us, who don’t have to wait that long! 

Restaurant Shiro
1505 Mission St., South Pasadena
(626) 799-4774
Full bar/
Major cards/ Dinner only
 
 

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