Cafe Reviews

Cafe Review: Your Ticket to Sushi Heaven? $250 Plus at ShinBay

Jackie Mercandetti Photo
A mixed plate of seafood bites, including jellyfish (left) and ShinBay's opening trio (right).
People always ask about my favorite sushi in town. The answer is ShinBay, reincarnated earlier this year in the paved heart of Old Town Scottsdale. In an austere room of slate grays, blond woods, and countless nested serving vessels, the chef, Shinji Kurita, hosts two seatings per night. Synchronized meals unspool in a blur of beat-driven modern instrumental music and fluid knifework, a joyful ballet of fish sliced and sculpted and brushed and blowtorched, a meal less dinner and more movie.

The opening scene: an L-shaped bar with 13 seats, Kurita and his assistant Ochi at center, and you stumbling in.

A hostess opens the drink menu. If you thought the ShinBay dinner price tag was steep at $185 before tax and tip, the drink menu might stagger you. One high-end sake bottle costs $2,700. Instead, consider the beer page. Staff can give you a studied play-by-play on each esoteric Japanese brew. They’re rare, reasonably priced, and delicious, not to mention tailored to fish. Sansho herb ale has a creamy mouthfeel, fading into savoriness. Cyonmage pale ale is leanly hoppy, balanced at a low, malty frequency.

click to enlarge Executive Chif Shinji Kurita - JACKIE MERCANDETTI PHOTO
Executive Chif Shinji Kurita
Jackie Mercandetti Photo
Not long after your seating, Kurita plates his first course: a trio.

To begin with a trio is fitting for a restaurant in its third incarnation. Kurita’s path into the upper echelons of the culinary world began in Japan, where he learned the ropes in his parents’ restaurant. In 2001, he opened one of his own in Ahwatukee. In 2010, after a hiatus, he opened in Scottsdale. It was during this run that he picked up a pair of James Beard nominations. That run ended in 2016. Round three began in downtown Scottsdale this March. This is exciting for fans of Japanese food, sushi, beauty, and a good comeback story. ShinBay offers nada but omakase-style sushi, a wandering menu-less menu of small bites, which change by the season and availability of fish from Japan.

Seatings begin at 6 or 8 p.m. The night I was in, just three other diners were.

And just one other diner when the opening course, the trio, arrives. In three colorful, cup-like vessels come three salvos of flavor. Ochi gives a brief explanation, passing platters from the open kitchen over the counter for us to grab, set down. Tunes drum, synth, warble, flow. In a graceful detached rhythm, Kurita works, rolling a lobe of salmon for the second course. Watching him work with his decade-old knife, the feeling, from the start, is a kind of overflowing joy.

click to enlarge The first-course trio. - JACKIE MERCANDETTI PHOTO
The first-course trio.
jackie Mercandetti Photo
Japanese eggplant with miso and bonito shavings open, a slapshot of smoke, funk, and umami. After this taste, though, yam noodles with burdock root in the second vessel seem on the plain side. Mozuku seaweed from Okinawa ends the trio on a springy, briny note, bits of mountain yam cool and compact on top.

The first course history, my neighbor to the right, a deaf regular, flashes a thumbs-up.

Shortly after, the second course is out: thin slices of halibut cured with kombu. Translucent, the gel-like slivers rest in a pool of ponzu made with cold-pressed sesame oil. Through the diaphanous strips, you can see the black of the wide-brimmed bowl, shaped like an upside-down cowboy hat. Cucumber, cherry tomato, radish, and micro greens form a two-bite salad on top. The fish is clean, bracing, impossibly fresh. All the non-fish parts sharpen this sensation — a theme that continues.

At the start of this second course, two late diners arrive. It takes two more courses, but Kurita catches them up to me and my seat neighbor, staggering the two separate course flows by lesser degrees until they merge.

click to enlarge Executive Chif Shinji Kurita preparing the third course. - JACKIE MERCANDETTI PHOTO
Executive Chif Shinji Kurita preparing the third course.
Jackie Mercandetti Photo
Third comes the best course: a plate with eight bites, mostly of fish, like a mixed appetizer plate for Poseidon. Cooked shrimp veer fantastically sideways thanks to a creamy brown paste — lobster reduction the consistency of peanut butter. Mounded in hollowed green citrus, chopped Hokkaido scallop moist with yuzu-miso blitz your consciousness like a flashbang. Perched high, there is also a dish of jellyfish, one of the few foods I don’t like. But Kurita’s two thin slips — the color of wet ice, not too chewy, touched with soy — tell me that I’d just never had good jellyfish until now.

On this mixed plate — the quirky, memory-searing scene that makes the movie — there is also a Kumamoto oyster, cold. This oyster, just one component of the greater palate-like plate, comes under yuzu kosho, chopped tomato, and ponzu jelly, lending a lush and complex electricity to the oyster’s clean ocean spirit.

After this plate, Ochi plops down a giant bowl heaped with ice (not jellyfish!). Resting on the ice chips are small sashimi slivers, two kinds. First, painstakingly sliced jumbo clam, which in its delicacy more resembled a mildly saline finfish. There are also bulbous curls of Mexican shrimp, gray and fiery red and glistening. I’m not sure how a simple soy marinade makes this shrimp so good, but it is some of the best I’ve ever tasted.

From here, a long parade of nigiri begins. Sitting in a plain chair in a simple room watching Kurita slice as you sip and take in the music, marinating in the scene of him sculpting the rice, pressing the fish, and shaping it close to his ear as if listening, you witness art. To call it cinematic is almost an insult, because movies aren’t so great these days. If it’s cinematic, it’s old cinema, with a flow so classic and beautiful that it jars you from all your stresses and hardships, from the ruinous news cycle and your awareness that the earth is slowly superheating.

click to enlarge The soft chain mail of kohada nigiri. - JACKIE MERCANDETTI PHOTO
The soft chain mail of kohada nigiri.
Jackie Mercandetti Photo
Some nigiri is brushed with soy and a sake reduction, some with soy and ponzu. Some leaks into the beautiful slits knife-tipped into the speckled fish skin, facing up from the rice like soft chain mail. Some fragrant rice blocks are roofed with divine shad, some with delicate freshwater eel. Some are torched with a blue flame for just a few seconds, to alter fish chemistry. All bites are clean and fresh, especially those topped with scallions and ginger chopped seconds before. My only major beef is that after five or six nigiri, they start to get repetitive, and you may pine for the variety and imagination of the earlier courses.

Nonetheless, by the time Konacha green tea and your check come hot (there is no dessert — another shortcoming), you’ll probably find the 90-minute meal worth the investment if you love sushi or fish, beauty or a good comeback story. The experience will live long in your memory. At one point near the end, my deaf seat neighbor tapped my shoulder. I turned. He pointed to the chef and lifted his hands to the heavens. I smiled full and nodded in agreement.

3720 North Scottsdale Road, #201, Scottsdale
Hours: Seatings at 6 and 8 p.m. only, Wednesday to Sunday

Omakase $185 (plus tax and tip)