Cafe Reviews

ShinBay in Scottsdale Is the Gold Standard of Phoenix Japanese Restaurants

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,

Hana Japanese Eatery: Since 2007, Hana Japanese Eatery has been bringing fresh sushi and Japanese food to the Central Phoenix neighborhood. Brother and sister team Lori and "Chef Koji" Hashimoto are dedicated to sourcing the freshest fish possible and oftentimes you can catch Chef Koji carving up a whole fish right before your eyes. If you're a fan of sushi rolls, Hana has a selection of familiar and signature offerings including the Hana Roll with shrimp, crab and pickled root with tempura flakes. Make sure to check the special boards for the extra menu items such as ankimo (monkfish liver) and aji (Spanish mackerel). (5524 N. 7th Ave., 602-973-1238,

Roka Akor: The focal point of this restaurant is definitely its robata, or giant charcoal grill, but that doesn't mean doesn't also offer great sushi. There's a small but satisfying section of the menu dedicated to nigiri, sashimi, and maki rolls, as well as few quite memorable cold plates. One of our favorite dishes is the butterfish tataki with white asparagus and yuzu, which features thinly sliced fish and a drizzle of yuzu sauce. For a more impressive dinner go for the Deluxe Sashimi Platter, which features thick pieces of fish artfully arranged atop a mountain of ice. (7299 N. Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale, 480-306-8800,

Yasu Sushi Bistro: From the outside you'd never know this strip mall restaurant is actually a cozy, upscale neighborhood stop that happens to serve some of the best sushi in town. At Yasu Sushi Bistro chef and owner Yasu Hashino offers up all sorts of sushi, from nigiri and sashimi to a list of specialty rolls. Regulars can attest that the best options are probably those found on the separate menu of daily specials. That's where Hashino showcases an interesting array of fresh options like blue crab handrolls and sanma (mackerel pike). (4316 E. Cactus Road, 602-787-9181)

PURE Sushi: This stylish spot in North Scottsdale may not be the most authentic sushi experience in town, but PURE Sushi will do a good job of satisfying your sushi fix. The sushi menu includes a lengthy list of nigiri sushi such as toro (tuna belly), uni (sea urchin), and uzura (quail egg). Less adventurous diners can opt for familiar sushi rolls, including California roll (with or without smelt egg), yellowtail with scallions, and spicy salmon. The specialty rolls are interesting creations like the Fire Dragon Roll, which features shrimp tempura, spicy tuna, cucumber, fresh tuna, cilantro, and jalapeño. (20567 N. Hayden Road, #100, Scottsdale, 480-355-0999,

Pallets Food and Bar: There are places with better sushi offerings than Pallets Food and Bar but the affordability and atmosphere at this downtown spot make it a neighborhood favorite. The restaurant and bar also serves Chinese and Vietnamese cuisine, but the sushi menu is the largest of all. There are all the favorites like spicy tuna and salmon rolls, as well as handrolls, sashimi, and nigri sushi. The best part is that the restaurant offers 15 different types of craft beer, so you can wash your meal down with a cold brew of your choice. (1011 N. 3rd St., 602-254-1168,

Hiro Sushi: For a sushi dinner that's less about style and more about great food, Hiro Sushi really can't be beat. The mom and pop restaurant comes courtesy of chef-owner Hiro Nakano, who honed his skills in Japan for more than 25 years before opening his restaurant in North Scottsdale. It's a cozy place with a long sushi bar where chefs dish up excellent sushi in all forms. Be sure to read the special boards that hang behind the bar, as that's where you'll find features like hamachi kama (yellowtail collar) or conch dressed in a sweet miso sauce. (address, phone number, website)

Fresh Wasabi: If you find yourself on the west side of town, be sure to keep Fresh Wasabi in mind. The Glendale restaurant serves fresh fish and an incredibly long list of specialty rolls. The unique creations sometimes bear sexy names including the Booty Booty Roll with shrimp tempura, cream cheese, avocado, and ell. The sushi combos are a simpler option — for example the Chirashi Sushi combo, which includes a variety of sashimi over a bowl of rice, as well as miso soup and salad. (6645 W. Bell Road, Glendale, 623-878-3374)

Sushi Roku: There are lots of places for dinner in Scottsdale, but even in the area's crowded dining scene Sushi Roku stands out. The restaurant's atmosphere transports you to a different place — namely, to Las Vegas — with its over the top décor and uber good-looking staff. Oh, and the sushi isn't bad either. During happy hour the restaurant becomes remarkably more affordable, with $3 hand rolls and $5 cut rolls. We particularly enjoy the spicy scallop handroll. (7277 E. Camelback Road, Scottsdale, 480-970-2121, — Lauren Saria

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Lauren Saria
Contact: Lauren Saria