Eat This Now: Fried Whole Shrimp at Cafe Hiro
The first thing I do when I walk into Cafe Hiro is wave a salute to the man himself, Chef Hiro Ohiwa. The second thing I do is look at the blackboard. Sure, there's the regular menu, where the uni spaghetti resides, but with chefs like Ohiwa, I pay close attention to what's been scribbled on this temporary list, for there are bites offered here that's often reflective of not just the season, but what Ohiwa thinks I should eat. It's the closest thing to "omakase" at OC's preeminent modern Japanese restaurant that's a little bit French and a touch Italian. The blackboard lists usually no more than a few appetizers, a handful of entrees and two desserts. Some things are routinely rotated out, never to be seen again for months, if ever. An octopus sashimi salad showed up one night several weeks ago, slices planed as thin as tissue, and just as light, each piece laid onto the sides of a towering salad of fruity-dressed daikon. By the time you read this, it's unlikely that Ohiwa is still offering it.
But there are blackboard items that seem to have applied for permanent resident status. The mushroom salad, wilted and tossed with greens in an ultra-savory truffle oil dressing, has become so dependable, you can set your watches to it. Another recent addition has stuck around longer than most. The fried whole shrimp was there the last three visits I made. A spin on the classic salt-and-pepper dish you've probably seen at Chinese restaurants, Ohiwa sometimes showers his simple, lightly-battered shrimp with tongue-numbing Japanese hot pepper, sometimes not. You eat it heads and all, crushing the crispy rendered skull between your teeth, relishing the sweet tail meat, and then plucking what crumbs and wok-tossed scallions may remain on the plate with your chopsticks.
I can't guarantee that shrimp will be there when you decide to go, but there is yet another reason to visit Cafe Hiro sooner rather than later. Cindy, Ohiwa's front of the house manager and one of the best restaurant servers in the universe, is expecting a baby and thus leaving her job by the end of the month. She told me that Ohiwa convinced her to stay after she had her first child, but with this second one on the way, it would be impossible. She will be missed. So go now, before both the fried shrimp and Cindy are gone.