When it comes to Japanese cuisine in Phoenix, there's nothing that comes close to the level of chef Shinji Kurita's James Beard Award-nominated restaurant, ShinBay.
Like many restaurants in this town, it's located in a strip mall. But unlike other restaurants, that doesn't stop ShinBay from maintaining an air of elegance that's become hard to find. Inside, ShinBay offers just a handful of tables; the focal point is the 12-seat sushi bar behind which Kurita works.
The restaurant's décor is a sleek blend of natural materials, including wood (found on the ceiling instead of the floor) and natural stone on an accent wall. Like the food, the atmosphere is a seamless blend of traditional Japanese sensibility with a modern touch. The classical music playing through invisible speakers is a perfect backdrop for Kurita's refined cuisine.
It's best to make a reservation. In fact, it's required if you want to partake in the popular Chef's Course, an omakase-style dinner consisting of at least five courses. A preset multicourse meal is the only option offered at ShinBay, ranging from the $60 three-course ShinBay Course, up to the Chef's Course, which starts at $100 a person.
You may want to stick with a cup of hot tea with your meal, but if you prefer something more substantial, you can select from ShinBay's list of wines and sakes. The are options by the glass and bottle in both categories, as well as a few Japanese beers available by the bottle.
Kurita's spectacular menus, predetermined before your arrival by the chef, change from day to day and season to season. Your experience might include pieces of whole Wagyu steak that you cook on a tabletop charcoal grill, or a whole soft-shell crab, lightly dusted in flour, then sautéed and served with a side of broccoli florets and green beans with sesame dressing.
But no matter which menu you choose, your meal almost always includes a version of what's become Kurita's signature dish: the Tsukuri Six, or seafood bites.
It's as impressive visually as it is delicious to eat, with each bite offering a new array of flavors and textures. Often, the plate features Kurita's tuna tartare made with finely chopped bluefin and accented with pine nuts, avocado, and fresh wasabi. There's also usually a variation of New Caledonia blue shrimp, served during my visit with a rich amaebi (sweet shrimp) reduction and topped with salty white sturgeon caviar. It's accompanied by the deep-fried shrimp head, meant to be enjoyed in its entirely.
The standout feature on my visit was the single Kumamoto oyster. For being only about the size of quarter, the little mollusk offered bold and memorable flavor thanks to a touch of ponzu gelée, a thin slice of cherry tomato, and a gob of unctuous, almost smoky uni, or sea urchin.
Other courses included a bowl of housemade tofu, silky-smooth and still firm, with a fresh, clear flavor brightened up with a topping of scallions, ginger, and a salty dipping sauce. There was also a carpaccio of wild fluke with grapeseed oil, ponzu, scallions, and ginger and a plate of five types of nigiri sushi, each with its own glaze.
My favorite course was the sake mushi, or sake steamed clams, a dish that might be compared to Italian linguine con le vongole. In Kurita's dish, five types of Japanese mushrooms, including crunchy strings of white enoki mushrooms, are served in place of pasta noodles and mix with at least a dozen Asari clams swimming in a pool of unforgettable sake butter sauce.
If you sit at the sushi bar, you're likely to come face-to-face with Kurita himself, though it will take courage to interrupt the chef while he's working so serenely and diligently at his craft. For me, it was enough to watch Kurita mold perfect balls of rice with a few graceful turns of the wrist and debone fillets of glistening fish. It's an excellent reminder of how lucky we are to have the chef's talent in our town.
The 9 Other Best Sushi Restaurants in Metro Phoenix
Whether you're a California roll fan or a diehard sushi diner, this city offers plenty of options for your raw-fish fix. Just because we live in the middle of the desert doesn't mean we have to suffer mediocre maki rolls loaded with cream cheese and imitation crab. Our list of the best sushi restaurants in Phoenix includes options for everyone. The Valley is home to some of the best Japanese and sushi restaurants in the country, and even for those who aren't interested in fresh amaebi there are a number of local spots that deliver sushi in high style.
Shimogamo Sushi Restaurant: Even a spicy tuna roll at Shimogamo in Chandler is elevated to include fresh fish mixed with ponzu, Sriracha, chili oil, masago, and cucumber. The restaurant comes courtesy of owner Yoshio Otomo and has been serving the southeast Valley for more than a decade. In addition to "traditional" sushi offerings, you'll find some unique items on the menu such as the Kanpyo Roll with sweet pickled squash wrapped in seaweed and rice. As with most sushi spots, the best seats are at the bar, where you can sit and chat with the friendly sushi chefs. (2051 W. Warner Road, #14, Chandler, 480-899-7191, www.shimogamoaz.com)