|Washugyu Tobanyaki||Dominic Armato|
ShinBay was built with the latest in stealth technology.
That's the best explanation I've got. Midway through dinner this weekend, I started asking myself how it could be that Shinji Kurita's modern Japanese gem has garnered so little press. As the meal progressed, I became more and more agitated that the restaurant was never more than a third full. Why aren't food bloggers and the mainstream press shouting from the rooftops about this place? Why aren't folks clamoring to get in? Turns out, that's been the plan all along. And it's an approach that speaks volumes.
Through the first half of the year, there's been a smattering of press, both brief and vague, that's a little puzzling for a still recent Phoenix import. ShinBay had returned. The Ahwatukee eatery was the stuff of legend, closed five years ago and still spoken of in hushed, reverent tones, run by a respected and immensely talented chef who was once again opening his own place after five years in the trenches. But what's been written has been long on anticipation and almost completely devoid of culinary detail. That it would be an upscale and modern Japanese eatery was well-established, but a full three months after opening, had not a single feature been published? An opportunity for a night out arose, my ladylove requested raw fish, and there was little question where we'd be going.
|Mirugai with Spiced Vinegar||Dominic Armato|
Though items can be ordered a la carte, we opted for the omakase (here called the "Chef's Course Menu") which, though unavailable at opening, can now be obtained by calling in advance. You'll be asked how much you'd like to spend, from $100-$200, and I figured $150 would ensure that there were no significant constraints without quite going no-holds-barred opulence (as though $150 weren't opulent enough). The next night, we found ourselves walking into a serene and stylish space that's sleek and fashionable without trying too hard. Minimal and modern Japanese design and a classical soundtrack not only provide a welcome respite from the standard-issue Scottsdale nightclub atmosphere, but also betray a certain seriousness about the food that's equally refreshing. And as we'd soon discover, the food is nothing short of serious.
The first course, a bit of sunomono, was a small taste of mirugai (surf clam) that made for a lovely prologue. A few slices of the briny and chewy clam were paired with onion and cucumber, pickled in a house-spiced rice vinegar that lent a smooth tartness and just a touch of heat.
|Hirame with Ponzu||Dominic Armato|
While the mirugai was a simple and pleasing start, it was closely followed by a dish that blew right past pleasing into fabulously delicious. Billed as hirame (halibut, in this case... why are fish translations always so imprecise?), we received plates of very thinly sliced fish, dressed with ponzu, drizzled with hot grapeseed oil and topped with an "onion medley." The dish was immediately reminiscent of Nobu Matsuhisa's signature New Style Sashimi, and yet it brought enough of its own character to avoid feeling like a copycat dish. The grapeseed -- a neutral flavored oil -- served to lightly sear the fish and add a certain amount of gravity to a ponzu that was already surprisingly muscular. It had a pleasant sweetness and a certain full-bodied flavor that I couldn't quite place, and the result was a light fish dish that had an almost meaty sensibility, and above all boasted incredible flavor and texture. I started to wonder if we might be in for something truly special, and then, a few scant minutes later, truly special crashed the party.
What hit next was a remarkable sampling of sashimi, both in terms of flavor and presentation, that confirmed -- only halfway through dinner -- that ShinBay is deserving of and will assuredly be receiving gobs of attention. We were instructed to start at the upper left corner and work our way around in a clockwise fashion, and so we did. First, what played almost like ahi poke, tuna that had been cut into small cubes and mixed with grapeseed oil, soy, diced avocado, pine nuts, freshly grated wasabi root and slivered ginger, then paired with a crispy fried slice of lotus root and airy rice cracker. The fish was sensational, and nearly matched the texture of the avocado, making for a cool, almost creamy tartare offset perfectly by its crunchy counterparts. The orange clam was intense, bringing a briny essence and firm, chewy texture that was further enhanced by sweet miso and generous dash of shichimi togarashi, pleasantly sticky and full-flavored and more than a little spicy. The aji was done in familiar fashion, with ponzu, lime, scallion, onion and ginger, and needed no unusual, creative twist as the fish was absolutely stunning, possessed of that bold and distinctive mackerel flavor that can taste unpleasantly off when the fish is anything other than perfect... and this was nothing less than perfect. Up next, thinly sliced tako, brought live to the premises I believe, touched with white soy, a tiny piece of tart and salty pickled plum, and micro shiso. With octopus, texture is paramount, and this was a lovely specimen with a gentle chew and just the slightest bit of an assist from its accompaniments to highlight the delicate flavor. Next, a succulent, smooth and juicy Fanny Bay oyster, dressed with ponzu gelée, uni and radish. This is always a gimme of a combination, and Kurita's is perfectly executed and anchored by perfect ingredients. The only disappointment for me was the lightly seared scallop with truffle oil, truffle salt, shaved truffle and tomato. I try not to speak in absolutes, but truffle oil so often strikes me as an overpowering distraction, and this was no exception. Your mileage may vary. But it was still a lovely scallop, and nothing was going to take the shine off this impressive plate.
|Madagascar Shrimp Yakimono with Uni||Dominic Armato|
Next up, yakimono. We received a rather exotic crustacean, an enormous Madagascar Shrimp that played almost like a giant lobster tail, grilled, trimmed, and topped with uni that had also been lightly seared -- a blowtorch, perhaps? Presented simply and paired with a condiment dish featuring salt, a lime wedge, and a tiny dollop of citrusy and spicy yuzu kosho, this was all about enjoying the critter as simply as possible, though the little bit of briny richness added by the uni was more than welcome (for what it's worth, I can think of few contexts in which I wouldn't find uni more than welcome). Once we'd devoured the meat, with pleasant chew and smoky flavor, I got to work on the head. In an upscale context, I feel a little silly about attacking something like this with my fingers and slurping up every little bit of goo I can extract, but it would be a tragedy to let such a specimen go to waste. Honor before propriety.
|Shrimp and Sea Bass Mushimono||Dominic Armato|
Our mushimono course was wonderfully and almost painfully delicate, sea bass and blue shrimp gently steamed in a sake broth with mushrooms, chives, lime and a soft and gentle block of house-made tofu. Though it was served with ponzu for dipping and sliced scallions and chili daikon for mixing in, I used only a whisper of the ponzu. This dish was so elegant, so gentle and so sophisticated that I hated to come blazing in with something so brash. And though every element was so precisely executed and so gently expressive -- the stunningly tender shrimp, the flaky sea bass, the melting tofu -- it was anchored by a broth that almost seemed underpowered until I took a moment to really drink it in, get my nose in the bowl and inhale, and its beautiful balance and delicate charms came wafting out. A sweet and gently enchanting dish, it was almost like a small meditation in the middle of the meal.
|Washugyu, Asparagus, Enoki||Dominic Armato|
From gentle steam we moved on to roaring fire, and the tobanyaki course brought a little sizzle to the table. The toban, a glazed ceramic plate, arrived atop a small earthenware grill, piping hot and ready to cook. To add to the toban, some stunningly marbled washugyu, enoki mushrooms and asparagus, along with salt and a house barbecue sauce, light and sweet, tasting mostly of ginger and soy. But first, a small cube of beef fat hit the toban's surface with a loud sizzle and primed it for the ingredients to come. Where one goes from here is a matter of personal preference. I chose to cook the washugyu on one side only, giving it time to develop a good sear, while still leaving a bit of warm, raw beef on the other side. And alternating beef and vegetables allowed the latter to cook in the fat of the former. The sauce, while unassuming, was right on target, a perfect match for Japanese-style beef (oh, when will this embargo end?) without being so strong as to overpower it.
|Amaebi, Otoro, Duck Nigiri||Dominic Armato|
And then. Came. The nigiri. Oh, my, the nigiri. A parade of nigiri so stunning I alternated between gleeful giggling and awestruck silence. It was served two or three at a time, small pieces less than half the size of what one would typically expect, almost comical in appearance until the first bite, when the flavor of the fish comes charging through and you realize that anything more would be unnecessary. The nigiri is served in a very upscale style seldom seen in our now sushi-happy nation, where there is no dipping or condimentizing or firing up your fish with a massive wad of fake wasabi. Whatever the fish needs is applied by the chef, and when done well -- as it was here -- whatever the chef applies is exactly what it needs. We had kisu, a Japanese whiting, with a hit of wasabi lurking beneath its milky surface and lime and salt atop. We had sweet and mellow hirame, pressed between kombu for an umami boost and served with a hint of pickled plum. We had more of the stunning aji with spicy shoga (grated ginger) to play off its funkier qualities. We had succulent bigeye tuna with thick, sweet nikiri soy, enhanced with mirin, sake and dashi. We had briny orange clam touched with and requiring nothing more than a hint of lemon. We had bigeye otoro so creamy and wonderful that it made the need to leave bluefin alone for a while seem not so daunting a task. We had more. And more. And I feared the moment when it would stop.
|Halibut Nigiri||Dominic Armato|
One of my favorites from the flight of nigiri was the amaebi, topped with a touch of osetra caviar and what was described as "shrimp reduction," a creamy mousse that reminded me of the shrimp pastes used in Southeast Asia, except very clean, sweet and refined. The whole thing combined to provide an intense bite of all-encompassing shrimp flavor, the focused essence of the beast in a tiny taste, potent yet refined. It was a show-stopper for me. Another favorite was halibut presented two ways, a slice on the left with chili daikon, ponzu and scallion, familiar to me in flavor if rarely of this quality. On the right, a slice of what was described as the halibut fin -- a first for me -- with an unusual texture in some ways reminiscent of raw scallop, a rich and full-flavored cut enhanced with a bit of nikiri soy and yuzu kosho, a sweet, spicy and citrusy treatment for a luscious cut of fish, served warmer than its counterpart. Both bites were exquisite, both were extracted from the same fish, and both were completely different in their character. By the end we'd sampled a dozen pieces, and when considering them as a whole I was blown away by how distinct they were, that we'd been served a dozen bites, each completely evocative of the fish being presented, each seasoned in a manner that ensured the fish was the focus. It was as educational as it was delicious, and when our server asked if we'd like to call it quits or try a little more, it was everything I could do to declare an end to the parade. I could have continued on like that all night long, but I figured I'd better save it for another visit.
|Sweet Chawanmushi with Fruit||Dominic Armato|
Hot green tea and a lovely little dessert rounded out the evening, sweet chawanmushi with black sugar syrup, diced mango and kiwi, raspberry and a cherry on top... a metaphor for the meal if ever there was one. It's 24 hours now since we walked out of ShinBay, and I'm still replaying the meal in my head, over and over, particularly the nigiri course which I just can't get out of my mind. Without reservation, this was a stunning meal, and it only further compounds my consternation that more hasn't been made of ShinBay three months after its opening and that it wasn't packed to the rafters, even in August. I realize now that this is by design. They've been keeping things quiet, taking their time, slowly adjusting, slowly refining, slowly getting everything just so. With such a patient rollout, I can only presume that whoever is backing the endeavor is fully committed and taking the long view, which bodes well for such an ambitious undertaking during a time when most are playing it safe. ShinBay's launch has been so quiet that it almost feels as though I'm breaking confidence by writing about it, but there's no way I could possibly hold this in. I could barely contain myself long enough to edit the photos and write the post. I arrived in Phoenix long after the original ShinBay had closed, and I never got to Roka Akor under Kurita's direction, so I'm afraid I can't offer any comparison to his previous work. But I can say with confidence that this is a truly special restaurant, and I trust it's just a matter of time before it's ablaze in the spotlight. If this meal is representative of the future of ShinBay -- and I've no reason to believe it isn't -- we've just been given a stunning gift of a restaurant and most of us don't even know it yet. And if Kurita is still adjusting, still refining, still getting everything just so, then I can't wait to see where he's going to take us. The mythical ShinBay is no longer legend. It's reality, and it's sitting in our backyard.
|7001 N. Scottsdale Road|
|Scottsdale, AZ 85253|
|Wed - Sun||5:30 PM - 10:00 PM|