Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Izakaya Heaven

Shinn's impressive menu is both delicious and perfect for any budget

By Nadine Kam

Hamachi is served at Sushi Izakaya Shinn with a tart, salty yuzu sauce and a complement of vegetables and seaweed.

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In December, when the pace of restaurant openings was picking up, I got an e-mail from one of my restaurant faithfuls, who said he saw a new Japanese restaurant called Shinn and was going to check it out and report back to me.

Then, I never heard from him.

No matter, there's been no shortage of newcomers. Now that I've been to Shinn, I know why he didn't get back to me. Da buggah! If I were him, I wouldn't tell me either. Why spoil a new favorite restaurant — and that's what it is — by making it impossible to get into?

The new izakaya is as contemporary as they come. I love the way Japanese restaurants, no matter how sleek, always manage to introduce a sense of nature. Here, it's achieved through walls embedded with river rock, an earthy, textured accent to an otherwise stark palette of blacks and grays.

If it were not so popular, you would have a choice of four seating areas to suit your mood. There are traditional western-style tables, plus a robata bar, sushi bar and tatami area. Early birds can reserve a spot, but once the room fills, you'll have to go where the seats open, though the smoke-averse may not want to sit near the robata bar, where the grill is in constant demand.

The flow of people can seem overwhelming at the door, and Shinn could do a better job communicating with guests about when they might be seated. Workers can also be slow to take names and clear tables. Once you're seated, flow is good, but communication can be sketchy when certain dishes run out. You can be nursing a craving for a dish that never arrives, and it's only when you ask your waiter that he discovers the last (maybe yours) was just sent to another table.


2065 S. Beretania St.
» 946-7466
Hours: 5 p.m. to midnight Mondays to Saturdays
Cost: $40 to $50 for two without alcohol
Ratings compare similar restaurants:
**** - excellent
*** - very good; exceeds expectations
** - average
* - below average.
IT'S RARE TO come across a menu as vast as Shinn's that doesn't have its fair share of bad dishes. But this may be the only restaurant, ever, where I didn't have a quibble with regard to the food. I actually don't know how the restaurant does so much so well. You can get just about anything you want, tailored to fit both appetite and pocketbook. If you're running low on cash you can enjoy $2 to $4.50 skewers from the robata bar, whether it's three pieces of Berkshire pork ($3) or shortribs ($3.25), two pieces of shiitake ($2) or organic chicken tsukune ($3) brushed with a light housemade teriyaki sauce.

Or, you could enjoy a bowl of oden in a smoky broth, filling it with various fishcake such as chikuwa, hanpen or gobo-filled gobouten, octopus, potato and konnyaku, all sold by the piece, at $1.50 to $2.50 per item. It was the first time I'd tried kinkyakumochi ($2.50), an elegant tofu pouch filled with soft mochi, oozing out like melted cheese.

If money is tight, a warm bowl of oden and a couple of robata will send you on your merry way for about $15, but who can stop there, knowing there are plenty of sushi and kitchen specialties as well?

Beyond the regular menu you're handed a list of about 30 daily specialties. Don't faint if you see $36 bluefin fatty tuna sashimi. There are plenty of good things to eat for much less, such as hot starters of clams steamed in sake ($8.25) and kurobuta kakuni ($7.50), which made me think of Morimoto's and how this much smaller restaurant has managed to beat the giant in delivering the magic combination of both style and substance. Where Morimoto's pork was heavy and lethargic, here, it is a delicate, melt-on-the-tongue marvel.

Earthenware dishes in hues of brown, sienna, green and ochre present a warm environment that highlights the freshness and naturalness of the ingredients used. I appreciate the kitchen's lighthandedness throughout, allowing the food to speak for itself without the interjections of human ego.

Cold starters include the requisite ahi poke ($16) and beef tataki salad ($12). You'll also see Botan shrimp with yuzu gelee ($13.50), but you might also go straight for the hamachi yuzukoshou ($14) prepared the same way, dotted with a tart, salty yuzu sauce. Pure heaven! It's served with vegetables, ogo and onion, but I'd stay away from the latter overpowering ingredient because the fish and sauce should be enjoyed in their most elemental state.

Later, when I tried to order hamachi nigiri, I was disappointed to find the kitchen had run out of the fish. In fact, if you show up late — that is, by 8 p.m. on a Saturday night, just before the restaurant's one day of closure — it may have run out of lot of things. Gone when I visited: fish collars, Berkshire pork sausages and jumbo shrimp for robata. I was also tempted by the thought of grilled smelt but was told it's no longer on the menu.

After the hamachi ran out, Kona kampachi was offered as a substitute, to which I readily agreed. But as much as I like the local fish, there's no comparison.

Two recent specials that seemed popular enough to merit a place on the daily menu are grilled moi ($17) and a bowl of udon topped with thin slices of duck breast ($6). The dissected, flattened moi is not very pretty to look at, but delicious. The udon is not the bouncy variety that dominates the market here. Its soft texture makes it ideal for kids, which also makes it popular with parents. Speaking of which, Shinn has been drawing a diverse audience that wouldn't quite mix anywhere else: families, cool kids, foodies, couples, businessmen and old folks. Maybe that speaks to the comfort level Shinn offers, or maybe the food is worth giving integration a try. Imagine what this food could do for world peace.

All these goodies distracted me from the fish mainstays of the menu. Nigiri sushi is available by the piece at $3 to $7. You can get small rolls as well, about six slender pieces for $4 to $8. I tried the salmon avocado roll ($5) as an option to the more common California roll ($7) but discovered why salmon isn't usually used when the heavy salt flavor overwhelmed the avocado. Otherwise, I had more interest in the cooked menu than the raw.

For dessert, there's the no-miss, refreshing almond tofu ($5.50), topped with cubes of plum wine jelly and granita of frozen strawberries. Frozen berries warmed with a pour of grenadine are another option ($6.50).
Now, try to stay out of my way.

Nadine Kam's restaurant reviews are conducted anonymously and paid for by the Star-Advertiser.

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