When it comes to sushi in Seattle, Shiro is the man. If you're lucky enough to get a seat in front of him at the counter at Shiro's in Belltown, he becomes the benevolent dictator of your temporary paradise. You do not ask Shiro for wasabi—if he thinks something needs it, he'll put it in there. He'll tell you how much soy sauce to apply to individual pieces of fish (or "NO SOY SAUCE!") and, in some cases, how long you should chew them. And don't go in there ordering anything with aioli or mango or cilantro (or all three), cowboy: Shiro does not roll that way.
It's not arbitrary, any of it. In the case of elaborate sushi rolls, all that stuff can be used to hide inferior fish—and, conversely, fresh, beautiful fish just doesn't need it. In his new memoir, Shiro: Wit, Wisdom & Recipes from a Sushi Pioneer, Shiro describes what happens to those who don't share his traditionalism:
A few years ago, two hearty fellows in cowboy hats came into my restaurant and ordered a couple of fusion rolls ["fusion" is his euphemism]. I politely explained that Shiro's isn't the best place for that kind of sushi and pointed them in the direction of a restaurant I thought they would like [Wasabi Bistro, no doubt]. I'm not sure what they thought of having their business turned down, but I hope they found what they were looking for.
Shiro's book is worth getting for the photos alone. This man's life has been extremely well documented, and the old pictures are marvelous: Shiro as a child in Kyoto, Shiro climbing various mountains in Japan with his buddies, Shiro making his own wedding cake in Seattle, Shiro's prized 1969 Toyota Corona with the Smith Tower in the background. (He also saved every train ticket, letter, business card, etc., he ever got, and gorgeous examples of those are included, too.)
Along the way, the credibility gathers around him: He trained with the best in Tokyo, he opened the first full-service sushi bar in Seattle at Maneki, he opened the first conveyor-belt sushi restaurant in Seattle. (This last one was ahead of its time, at Hana on Broadway in 1986; no one knew what to do, and the belt was eventually taken out. Shiro is no longer involved with Hana.)
His guiding principle: shun, or "in season." Shiro was doing local/organic/seasonal before many chefs today were born, both out of ideology and out of necessity. Upon coming to Seattle in 1966, he realized that serving all the Japanese sushi favorites—fish native to those waters—was not only going to be expensive, it would be just stupid. He walked the piers and saw fishermen throwing away salmon roe, so he asked them for it. Later, he did the same thing with his fish suppliers and salmon skin. He pioneered geoduck sushi, digging them himself when they were everywhere in the sand of Puget Sound, which was teeming with fish. In his wisdom, which is practically infinite, he's worried about the future, about the environment: "It's scary," he says concisely. But, in the end, he says of his life so far, "I have been very lucky."