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Appearing live, on your plate

October 23, 2002|Russ Parsons | Times Staff Writer

You order sweet shrimp at Haneda Sushi & Seafood restaurant in Koreatown and the chef nods his acknowledgement. On the television above the bar, ESPN is blasting baseball highlights. After a moment, the chef hands you your dish: two shrimp tails wrapped around two heads. You take the plate and the antennae start to wiggle. It's as if they're waving hello, or, more appropriately, goodbye.

Live seafood, available in better sushi bars for some time, is increasing in popularity. It's not uncommon to find places selling shrimp, abalone and lobster and sometimes even whole fish such as halibut and sculpin that have been killed just before the chef slices them raw onto the plate. Like those antennae, sometimes parts are still moving when it reaches the table.

And it's not something that's restricted to small restaurants in insular ethnic communities. It's at Westside sushi places like Matsuhisa and Nishimura as well. At the entrance to the popular Santa Monica sushi bar called the Hump, there's a sign that reads, "Warning! This sushi bar does prepare live sea food in full view, at the counter."

This live seafood is somewhat different than what you may be used to. It's chewier and perhaps not quite as flavorful, and cut a little thicker. But it represents the cutting edge of the sushi fanatics' quest for the very best -- fish so fresh it might even slap back. Connoisseurs appreciate the very best live abalone because of the way the slices curl against your palate as you eat them.

And while eating live food is nothing new -- consider the oyster -- there is a difference when that aliveness is obvious rather than theoretical.

Granted, what's available in Southern California might seem mild compared with some bars in Asia, which are built around massive pools that hold swimming fish for customers to choose for their dinner, or to the Korean delicacy of serving a bowl of tiny fish swimming in a clear broth.

Still, the trend does not sit well with everyone. In an editorial for the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals newsletter, Paula Moore condemned customers at these restaurants as "bored restaurantgoers who want something truly new and exciting. Apparently, it's not enough that we eat all manner of dead animals

Actually, aside from the most obvious cases, the presentation of this live fish isn't really that different from that of more run-of-the-mill sushi and sashimi. In fact, thrill-seekers may go away from most places disappointed.

Usually everything is handled discreetly, obscured from view by the frosted glass cases that circle the bar. The whole live food will be presented to you for inspection, then reappear moments later looking like a regular plate of sliced sushi. The point of the exercise, it seems, is freshness, not frisson.

This is not the case at the Hump, where diners have a full view of the sushi chefs' artistry. They're not kidding about that sign. At lunch one day, a chef reaches into a refrigerator behind the bar to retrieve four Santa Barbara spot prawns. He quickly slices off the heads, and begins to work peeling and de-veining the bodies. But wait. Is that an antenna moving? It is. Then a couple of them are. Then it's the front legs.

By the time the bodies are presented on their tray, firm and sweet and gleaming like carved alabaster, the severed heads are bouncing about the cutting board like so many Mexican jumping beans. (Later, these will be served as well, two of them stuffed and deep-fried, two of them in a small bowl of beautifully sea-scented miso broth.)

The whole thing may be a bit disquieting, but you have to admit it is hard to find fish any fresher than this.

"It's mainly the texture," says chef Shunji Nakao. "It's firm. It's not exactly chewy and it's not crunchy, but it's something like that."

Despite the sign at the door, Nakao says the Hump hasn't had a problem with any customers so far. "But you know, some people don't like to look at it," he says. "Most people, though, when they come in, they ask us what is good and when we tell them 'live shrimp,' or 'live lobster,' they always order that."

Live seafood seems particularly popular in Koreatown sushi bars. In fact, it seems to be a point of pride in that neighborhood, with live tanks positioned prominently by the front door.

For Koreans, live fish is "something people remember from home, so when they see it here, it's special," says Chol Pak, president of Pacific Fresh Fish Co., a 20-year-old company that supplies many sushi bars with live fish. "We like the texture and taste of it," he says. "We prefer live fish to dead fish."

Against one wall of Pak's warehouse in the downtown seafood district is a massive set of tanks, looking like huge aquariums. They are packed with spot prawns, abalone and lobsters.

There is also a tank of California halibut. The flat fish are stacked on the tank's floor like so many gray river rocks. As in the ocean, only the occasional flap of a fin reveals they're alive.

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