Dining Review: Shimogamo

Nikki BuchananJanuary 11, 2023
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Blue crab kakiage at Shimogamo
Blue crab kakiage at Shimogamo

Photography by Kyle Ledeboer

Always solid, this Chandler sushi stalwart veers abruptly into greatness under the reins of a new chef.  

Launched in a Chandler strip mall by Yoshio and Sanae Otomo in 2003, Shimogamo is well-known to local sushi cognoscenti as a solid but somewhat less-than-spectacular sushi option in the East Valley. 

Well, I’m here to tell you that’s false. Shimogamo is absolutely spectacular.

Since the pandemic, this reliable neighborhood stalwart has grown both in size and stature, quietly morphing into a sophisticated destination restaurant replete with artful cocktails, premium sake and traditional dishes seldom found on Japanese restaurant menus in Phoenix, all set in a warren of handsome, intimate dining rooms. Modern and fusion-y at times, the food isn’t merely good, it’s categorically great. 

What happened? A lot. To begin, the Otomos’ daughter Mika, a certified sommelier working for an international restaurant company in California, transferred to Tokyo, where she met and married Daisuke Itagaki, the executive chef of Prime 42, a posh international steakhouse with Japanese inflection. When the couple had a child, they moved to Chandler to be near Mika’s parents, and… well, you can see where this is going.

Salmon caviar canapés
Salmon caviar canapés

Over the past two years, the couple has brought fresh ideas to the enterprise, hoping to create an elevated but affordable niche that lands somewhere between the Valley’s many Americanized sushi restaurants and Shinji Kurita’s bucket-list-y ShinBay, where it’s easy to drop $800 on dinner for two. Much like Kurita, Itagaki sources an ever-changing selection of rare, top-quality Japanese fish, not to mention three types of Wagyu beef, including two ultra-premium brands rarely found in the States.

Not everything is fancy or expensive, however. A small bowl of Japanese eggplant, braised in soy, ginger and dashi, then strewn with feathery dried bonito flakes, is simple, hearty Japanese home-cooking. So is nanbanzuke – fried red snapper, marinated in a vinegar mixture sparked with chiles. It’s Japan’s refined version of escabeche, sharp and a little sweet.

Mushroom tofu is reminiscent of the agedashi tofu found in every sushi bar in town – except the house-made tofu isn’t fried first, but simply simmered in a soy- and dashi-based broth brimming with enoki, maitake and shimeji mushrooms. Creamy tofu becomes a sponge for the salty-sweet, umami-packed broth in which it floats, and the result is pure comfort.

The sashimi and nigiri selections are revelatory, too. Curls of fatty amberjack sashimi – each a shade of the palest pink, and resting atop a perfumed puddle of truffle ponzu – lean toward luxury. Consecrated with a dash of truffle oil, the fish is heaped with radish sprouts, which lend a touch of bitter freshness to all that decadence. A signature dish for good reason.

Green tea panna cotta
Green tea panna cotta
udon carbonara
udon carbonara

Hirame usuzukuri – halibut shaved in nearly transparent slices and flecked with pink sea salt – deserves its own fan club. Served with amazu, a clear dipping sauce of sugar, vinegar and chiles, this lean fish fairly bursts with clean, pungent flavor.

Clever toasted canapés, topped with salmon, pickled daikon, miso-cured cream cheese, caviar and gold leaf, are decidedly playful in contrast to Japanese classics such as saikyo-miso cod – black cod marinated in sweet-savory miso and grilled until it’s crunchy at the edges, pure silk in the middle. Served with a golden swipe of yuzu-lifted miso and pickled red onion, it’s luscious.

Miso is also put to excellent use with duck breast, marinated in hatcho (an aged red miso imbued with strong umami flavor), then grilled in an aromatic hoba leaf, which imparts its own flavor to the charred meat. Never has duck seemed more tender
or intense.

The favorite grilled meat of the night, however, is pork belly, tenderized in koji (the fermented, cooked rice used in sake-making) and grilled until it’s browned and crunchy, its caramelized edges akin to candy. It honestly leaves me at a loss for words.

Many dishes at the new Shimogamo evoke the lightness and refinement for which Japanese cuisine is famous, including Japanese whiting fish (kisu), cloaked in a veil of tempura batter and served with dashi dipping sauce and tiny mounds of green tea and truffle salt. Even seared Hokkaido scallops, afloat in seaweed-butter sauce, are rich but restrained.

I find no evidence of restraint with bacon-laced udon carbonara, however, a creamy riff on the Italian classic that I prefer to the original. Fat, slippery udon noodles make this naturally rich dish seem even more opulent. Blue crab kakiage, another retooled classic, sets crab salad, bound with citrusy mayo, atop a tangle of vegetable tempura, an irresistible interplay of creaminess and crunch, sweetness and salinity.

Many Japanese restaurants fail at dessert, plunking down ready-made mochi and calling it a day. Not Shimogamo. Imagine dreamy cheesecake, fortified with Atsuo Sakurai’s Arizona-made sake, or green tea-infused panna cotta, sealed with brown sugar jelly, its jiggly surface poked with a crunchy, sesame-studded tuile. Both feel 100 percent Japanese – delicate and not too sweet.

I’m thrilled about Shimogamo’s shift in direction. The expansion, remodel and elevated menu make an old favorite feel brand-new. Chandler never had it so good.

interior of Shimogamo
interior of Shimogamo
Shimogamo

Cuisine: Japanese/Sushi
Contact: 2051 W. Warner Rd., Chandler, 480-899-7191, shimogamoaz.com
Hours: Su, Tu-Th 5-9 p.m.; F-Sa 5-10 p.m.
Highlights: Truffle amberjack ($22); hirame usuzukuri ($21); koji pork belly ($19); blue crab kakiage ($19); miso-marinated duck ($26); udon carbonara ($16)

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