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Shirauo, or icefish, from Aomori.

Image: Alice Levitt

Last year, fugu was plentiful. This year, the warm winter meant a meager season for the blowfish. But other highly seasonal Japanese fish are thriving, both in the Pacific and at Kata Robata. The most theatrical is the shirauo, known in English as icefish. Seeing a bowl full of them makes the reason for the name clear: They are immature Japanese smelts. They're not very appealing when fully grown, but are a hotly sought-after delicacy when they're still bite-sized and transparent.

Do you want your food to be transparent? I tasted the fish to see. Admittedly, food that looks back at you with skull-spanning eyes are not for everybody. But I grabbed the Incredible Mr. Limpids and bit in. Their slippery, smooth texture is interrupted with a pop at first bite that reminded me of arrowroot noodles. The initial flavor is as clear and bright as the fish themselves, but they end on a bitter botanical note that reminded me more of Campari than fish. Will I order them again? Only if I have Instagram in mind.

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Hay-smoked sawara, or Japanese Spanish mackerel.

Image: Alice Levitt

But there's currently an embarrassment of other limited-time riches among the fish at Kata. Among my party, sawara, or Spanish mackerel from the Ishikawa prefecture of Japan, was a winner. Lacking the oily, fishy flavor that's typical of mackerel, the tender fish soaked in its hay smoke, leaving it tasting as much like lightly smoked cheese or ham as a sea creature. Japanese cherry salmon from Hokkaido is another fish worth tasting, with its complexion as red as the name implies and flavor as luminous as the initially pure-tasting icefish, but without the bitterness. 

Chef Manabu Horiuchi will be coming up with novel preparations of his native fish for as long as the season lasts, likely until mid-April. From Aomori, the same prefecture as the icefish, there's toothsome flounder which he serves in a shower of seaweed powder. Like all seasonal eats, these dishes are all the more special for their ephemerality. All the more reason to make that reservation now. Who knows if, like the fugu, they won't return next year? 

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