By David Minsky
By Jen Mangham
By Bill Wisser
By Laine Doss
By Bill Wisser
By Dana De Greff
By Laine Doss
By Zachary Fagenson
When Shoji Sushi opened in mid-March, it was an occasion of great relief. After all, the particular block of lower Collins Avenue on which Shoji is located was perhaps the only one in SoBe that didn't already house two or three sushi bars; weary south of Fifth-sters were tired of hiking several hundred hungry yards uptown for their futomaki fixes. It immediately became apparent, however, that standard futomaki stuff was not going to be on the bill of fare at Shoji. The place is the third in a block-square eatery empire owned by Myles Chefetz and chef Michael Schwartz, whose other two restaurants, perpetually packed Nemo and casual dineresque Big Pink, certify them as trendmeisters. And what tends to be hip these days, when every Asian-oriented chef seems to be trying to one-up Nobu Matsuhisa, are abuses that make Eighties nouvelle cuisine's "kiwi with everything!" seem restrained.
Actually, though, while post-Nobu backlash has made it fashionable to attribute all departures from "classical" Japanese food to evil American influence, the whole idea of pure Japanese style is a chimera, according to various Asian culture authorities, and always has been. Some of Japan's native dishes originally were foreign-influenced. Peter and Joan Martins, authors of one of the few authentic Japanese cookbooks available back in the Sixties, claim that the very name of one of Japan's signature dishes, tempura, derived centuries ago from a Portuguese word meaning "fare for Fridays," obviously a Western-world Christian custom. Similarly sukiyaki was devised just after the mid-nineteenth-century arrival of U.S. black ships in Japan (when the nation finally was forced to open up to the outside world), as a means to get the almost exclusively fish-eating Japanese to consume more meat like the foreign invaders did.
So there was no real need to be concerned about Shoji Sushi's self-described neo-Japanese concept of East/West fusion to begin with; to end with it's an outright triumph.
For starters, though sushi is the centerpiece at Shoji, the stylish space, which features both indoor and street seating and a sushi bar that's ideal for single diners, is a treat for non-raw-food folks, too. Grilled seafood, meat, and poultry entrées come with standard teriyaki or more unusual dipping sauces like citrusy ponzu or spicy Korean kim chee. Salads come with field greens instead of standard Japanese-eatery iceberg and include old favorites like wakame salad and what are bound to become new favorites, such as a hearts of palm creation using fresh hearts instead of the usual mushy canned pickled sticks. And what might just be the menu's most must-have dish also is a cooked item: shishito. In this simple but scrumptious appetizer, Japanese peppers (as the menu describes them, though I've never encountered them in any other Japanese restaurant) are flash-fried and served with coarse sea salt, a preparation identical to that of Spain's famous Padron peppers. On a first visit, our table of four devoured one appetizer (at least a dozen peppers) within seconds. On a follow-up visit, the only thing that kept two of us from ordering more than two plates was professional guilt; a review based solely on 30 orders of peppers did not seem entirely journalistically responsible.
At any rate Shoji's sushi, and other raw-fish items, can almost make one forget about the peppers. The fish was faultlessly fresh, but anyone who's ever enjoyed Nemo's impeccable West Coast oysters could figure freshness would be a given in any Schwartz/Chefetz eatery. For the most part, almost all maki rolls feature one or two ingredients that are atypical, even weird. But they work. Not that I'd blame you for noticing that one of the ingredients in Shoji's spicy lobster roll is mango -- possible kiwi syndrome here. But the mango was used sparingly in the roll (which also included avocado, scallion, salmon caviar, and spicy shiso leaves lining the seaweed wrapping, in addition to big and tender lobster bites) and in an inspired manner outside the roll, where dots of jalapeño-spiked mango purée substituted for standard spicy chili.
Similarly suspicious-sounding is the hamachi jalapeño roll; even a tad too much hot pepper could render any other ingredients pointless. But the jalapeño was confined to an occasional thin raw ring and drizzles of dipping sauce. Much of the roll's heat actually was provided by more subtly spicy daikon radish sprouts and countered by smooth avocado, crisp asparagus, and a major coating of cilantro leaves.
Best of all the makis we tried was a crisp oyster roll, a shrimp-tempura-roll variation featuring deep-fried battered oysters, plus cucumber, masago, lettuce, chili mayo, and an unusual salty blast from capers that rendered soy-dipping unnecessary. As a raw oyster fan, I normally find cooked oysters uninteresting, but they made this maki a truly melt-in-your-mouth marvel.
As well as imaginative makis, there are imaginative ceviches that blow standard Japanese sunomonos right outta the water; snapper with sake, citrus, sweet peppers, onion, cilantro, and masago was terrific. Next time I plan to spring for the $18 sampler that enables diners to try all four ceviches; the others are based on salmon, scallop, and hamachi.
For purists Shoji has standard fish-on-rice nigiri and riceless sashimi slices, both of which come two pieces per order (one piece is considered bad luck, and bad form, in Japan). The list of choices, though, has some unusual entries, like quail eggs and Alaskan king crab. Daily special fresh seafood during my visits included local grouper (black, the best kind) and wild salmon, more flavorful though less appealingly fatty than farmed fish. And there were three kinds of tuna: the usual red maguro, albacore (the only fish that's supposed to be termed "white tuna," though many other types are), and toro, almost always on Japanese restaurant menus and almost always unavailable. At Shoji toro was available in several forms. But none, frankly, beat the normal nigiri. Tuna carpaccio was tasty but not carpaccio, as the half-dozen slices dotted with garlic sauce and garnished with a tiny heap of hearts of palm salad were seared, not raw. And a circlet of tuna tartare in watery and tame wasabi sauce was really no better than a tartare of nonbelly tuna would have been; buttery texture is toro's main charm, and grinding renders that texture irrelevant.
Possibly the most welcome Western touches at Shoji are the meal framers: alcohol and dessert. Rarely does Japanese-restaurant alcohol extend beyond lowest-common-denominator sake, wine, and beer. Shoji's offerings include an amusing saketini (sake, triple sec, and fresh cranberry and lime juices in a martini glass); unusual quality wines like a Dopf & Irion Alsacian riesling; and Anchor Steam beer. And desserts are astonishing, which really is not at all astonishing since they come from Nemo's pastry guru Hedy Goldsmith. Although her soufflé-light-outside, rich-and-warm-inside chocolate cake, which comes with a pitcher of sweet cream and a garnish of small cherries, rises to the top, every sweet we tried so far at Shoji (everything on the list except the homemade ginger ale float) has been fantastic, even the strange-sounding green-tea cheesecake. So the even stranger-sounding float will be for next time. And there will be many next times.