You’ve Got to Try ShinBay

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Kohada nigiri with battera kelp; Photo by Rob Ballard
Kohada nigiri with battera kelp; Photo by Rob Ballard

Sit down, shut up and eat your impossibly good fish. All hail the return of omakase maestro Shinji Kurita.

For adventurous food lovers, omakase – a multicourse Japanese dinner built around, but not limited to, raw seafood – is a thrilling bucket-list experience, and half the fun is trusting your sushi chef to surprise you with rare ingredients and preparations you’ve never heard of or tasted before. It’s often a wallet-busting undertaking, but one you’ll never forget. It’s like skydiving, only for food freaks.

Here in Phoenix, there are just two names you need to know if you want that kind of blowout: Nobuo Fukuda and Shinji Kurita. We’ve been lucky to have Fukuda safely ensconced at Nobuo at Teeter House for nine years now, where he conducts a six-seat weekend omakase clinic on Friday and Saturday nights, but Kurita – Fukuda’s longtime friend and mentor from their days working at Yamakasa in the late ’90s – has always been more ephemeral. Over the past 14 years, he has opened and shuttered two sushi bar/restaurants named ShinBay, one in Chandler (2001-2006), the other in the Scotts-dale Seville (2011-2016), earning two James Beard Award nominations (Best New Restaurant, 2012, and Best Chef Southwest, 2013) along the way.

At long last, Kurita’s back in the game, this time partnering with restaurateur Hyunwook Lee to open a third, omakase-only ShinBay iteration on Scottsdale Road in Old Town. I’m hopeful this elegant revival – which feels more structured than his previous walk-in restaurants, but where the food is concerned, more playful, too – will have a long run. Kurita’s omakase is brilliant. So, too, are his new digs, which share a roof with the second location of Lee’s Korean barbecue concept, Sizzle. The slim, 12-seat space is an austere but stunning mashup of textured stone and wood featuring a gorgeous sushi bar wrapped in traditional hinoki (cypress wood). Like Kurita himself, it’s old-school and modern at once.

Ocean trout wrapped with daikon, lime cup with clams, firefly squid with green miso, snapper “head cheese,” blue shrimp with lobster head, snow crab with caviar and skewered octopus; Photo by Rob Ballard
Ocean trout wrapped with daikon, lime cup with clams, firefly squid with green miso, snapper “head cheese,” blue shrimp with lobster head, snow crab with caviar and skewered octopus; Photo by Rob Ballard

Kurita, who earned a reputation early on for his monster talent and eccentricity, is famously taciturn, a perfectionist so focused on his work that he doesn’t have the patience for idle chitchat. He’s also never liked the hurried pace that comes with a crowd, and at his new ShinBay, he caps reservations at four people for the 6 p.m. seating, six people for 8 p.m. His omakase is priced at $185 per person with a 15 percent gratuity automatically added. Wine or sake, ordered from an iPad, can easily push the bill north of $600. This is the price of admission for Kurita’s maelstrom of premium and exotic ingredients, including Japanese fish that seldom arrive on these shores.

The first course, which focuses on vegetables, arrives on a slender platter holding three small, beautiful bowls. One contains yamaimo (tiny cubes of slippery mountain potato) set atop a slick brown tangle of noodlelike mozuku (mild Okinawan seaweed sharpened with vinegar). It’s cold, bracing, hot-weather food. A second bowl is filled with skinny sticks of earthy, faintly crunchy gobo, a Japanese root vegetable with a bittersweet flavor akin to artichoke. Sprinkled with togarashi (Japan’s fragrant version of chile powder) and sesame seeds, it’s similar to kinpira, served by Japanese mothers across the land.

A third bowl combines shimeji and enoki mushrooms with spinach, snap peas and carrots, all overlaid with wobbly, translucent dashi gelatin, the smoke and brine of it capturing the primal taste of Japan.

Round two is a composed plate of various seafood preparations: impossibly sweet snow crab from cold Alaskan waters, capped with a soft, loose, double-boiled egg and a dot of salty Osetra caviar; a lime cup filled with tiny orange clams, sweet and supple, set atop ponzu-splashed seaweed, a sprinkle of spicy togarashi for contrast; two cylinders of silky New Caledonia blue shrimp, their own richness magnified by a thick smear of fantastically creamy lobster sauce, the raw shrimp served in classic ama ebi fashion with a crisp fried shrimp head alongside; a bright orange round of succulent, highly marbled ocean trout (rightly dubbed the Wagyu of the sea); a skewered bite of shoyu-marinated and slow-cooked octopus, its texture an unearthly cross between satin and meat; baby-tender firefly squid (caught in Toyama Bay and so named for their glowing tentacle ends), sparked with tongue-numbing sansho chile and spinach-tinted green miso; and the pièce de résistance (if I can actually choose one) – a sticky, gelatinous snapper terrine, strewn with fresh ginger and green onion chiffonade, that Kurita likens to head cheese. Fabulous.

Chawanmushi with white fish, scallop and uni; Photo by Rob Ballard
Chawanmushi with white fish, scallop and uni; Photo by Rob Ballard

The third round is simpler and more restrained, offering a break from the richness and big flavors of the previous course. Sakura-dai (Japanese sea bream at its seasonal peak and named for Japan’s cherry blossoms), its silver skin flash-cooked with a pour-over of boiling water, is still raw and rosy-fleshed, offered with nothing (and needing nothing) but a lime wedge, fresh wasabi and a dip in shoyu. The same is true for the glistening Santa Barbara shrimp and shaves of halibut, wrapped around creamy, ocean-flavored uni, that share the plate.

Kurita’s fourth course is classic chawanmushi, a savory steamed egg custard brimming with hunks of lustrous white fish, scallops and vegetables, a delirium of soupy texture and umami flavor.

And then comes the nigiri – 10 courses of 10 different fish, each presented as a single perfect bite of rice and flesh, each given the tiniest splash of ponzu or shoyu and a flourish of green onion or ginger. There’s kelp-cured hirame (halibut), baby red snapper, shimmery kohada (shad), delicate, ivory-colored needlefish, oilier aji (horse mackerel), firm Japanese greenling and rich black-throat seabass, a delicacy that fetches high prices in Japan. After a quick marinade in light soy, mirin and sake, juicy amber-colored pop beads of ikura (salmon roe) are spooned over rice to create a mini version of the rice bowl called ikura don.

The last course – a crisp, nori-wrapped hand-roll stuffed with rice, cucumber and saucy sea eel – is so sweet and rich it could stand in for dessert. And does.

interior of ShinBay; Photo by Rob Ballard
interior of ShinBay; Photo by Rob Ballard

Not surprisingly, ShinBay is spectacular, as good as it ever was and maybe even better. I’m crossing my fingers that this one sticks.

ShinBay

Cuisine: Japanese
Contact: 3720 N. Scottsdale Rd., Scottsdale, 480-361-1021, shin-bay.com
Hours: 6 p.m. or 8 p.m. seating, W-Su
Highlights: Nothing stays the same, and you’re not ordering, so trust the chef and don’t worry about a thing. It’s all fabulous.

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