Depending upon the Japanese dialect, shokudo could mean anything from "canteen" to "peaceful dining" to "path to food." Regardless of the definition, the essence remains the same: It's a casual spot for easy eating, and that is exactly what owner and general manager Yoko Takarada and executive chef Armando Litiatco have in mind at Shokudo.
See also: Slide show: "Closer Look: Shokudo."
When World Resource Café became Lincoln Road-kill last year because of a 40 percent rent increase, Takarada turned to a crappy bodega in Buena Vista that had to be gutted. Now, designer Andre Swindell has transformed the space into an upscale modern diner built largely with sustainable materials such as reclaimed wood. The design elements are subtle: polished concrete flooring, white marble tabletops, and a faux-copper ceiling. Dark leather banquettes make the best use of a long and rather narrow layout, but when the weather turns from humid to hospitable, the pretty garden area out back is inviting.
Lunch Monday through Sunday noon to 3 p.m.; dinner daily 5:30 to 10:30 p.m.; happy hour Monday through Friday 5:30 to 7:30 p.m.
Hamachi and salted duck egg $14
Ahi tuna poke $14
Grilled pork belly $8
Rock shrimp tempura salad $9
Coconut haupia $8
See also: Slide show: "Closer Look: Shokudo."
However, Shokudo's draw isn't the décor. Its allure is diverse, affordable Asian cuisine, which has been missing from midtown and the Design District.
Although the word fusion seems dated, the food here combines ingredients representative of each Asian region, and much like the menu at World Resource, Litiatco playfully adds a Latin element to the plating. The ideal man to helm a kitchen of this nature, he celebrates a Filipino-Chinese background with an aptitude for mixing cultural flavors. Previous gigs at Daniel Boulud's Daniel in New York and Nancy Oakes's Boulevard in San Francisco clearly provided Litiatco with an education in attention to detail as well a creativity reminiscent of culinary child's play.
At first I found it difficult to navigate a confusing crudo that read like a patchwork quilt: "hamachi and salted duck egg, with tomato, red onion, jalapeño, and a Calamansi dressing" (a fruit native to the Philippines, known as "golden lime"). A chef's ability to create harmony amid food chaos is respectable, but this dish simply didn't sound good. Although skinny slices of fish required patience to fork up all components at once, the arrangement proved worthwhile as each bite surprisingly worked wonders. The egg was firm and salty, and the peppery jalapeño spice was tempered by tart fruit juice. Even with all of that going on, I could still distinguish the freshness of the hamachi. I was converted.
The ahi tuna poke was more prosaic but no less satisfying. Chunks of bright-red tuna — along with avocado, scallion, and whole macadamia nuts — were molded into a mound and served with a side of crisp taro chips. Why was it so good? The fish possessed not a trace of darkened oxidation or filmy iridescence. It was not overdressed, masquerading as sushi-quality fish. The high caliber was immediately recognizable.
Shokudo's sushi chef, Dandy Benjamin, also worked at World Resource and Toni's Sushi (whose original SoBe eatery on Washington Avenue is still going strong). During the yearlong hiatus, Benjamin worked under Toshiya Sato at Zuma (another alumnus of Toni's Sushi and World Resource), and although the sushi menu is very limited, the fish is so pristine it shouldn't be skipped. Whether you order sashimi and nigiri by the piece or go for one of the more fantastical rolls, the tuna, hamachi, eel, and salmon are all in the pink, so to speak.
A "dumpling" section offers traditional pork, shrimp, and pot stickers, reinterpreted slightly to reflect a global mentality. The pot stickers are unexpectedly filled with turkey, the siu mai combine shrimp and turkey, and the "momo" offers a taste of Tibet, with curried potato stuffed inside. A simple steamed shrimp-and-chive dumpling was straightforwardly delicious — arriving plump and translucent, showcasing gently cooked prawn within.
Braised-beef buns and pulled-pork buns will lure you with familiarity, but go for the soft-shell-crab variety, topped with a chiffonade of napa cabbage and drizzled with a creamy paste of homemade sriracha rémoulade. Light and spongy, the bun's crisp exoskeleton protects the soft crab flesh inside. A trace of oil adds an extra measure of enjoyable lube, like a drop of superior olive oil over almost anything Italian.
Skewers of pork belly seduce on sight and follow through with a charred afterglow. Gelatinous meat is slow-braised for hours until tender, basted with a teriyaki sauce made in-house, and lovingly grilled until properly rendered. A side salad of palm hearts and citrus cut the heaviness and provided refreshment between bites of pork fat. Classic beef negimaki and chicken yakitori are also available in skewer format, all with an equally impressive scorch along the edges.
The wine list is varied, with domestic labels from California and Washington starting at $21 for Pinot Grigio and Merlot and going up to $126 for a bottle of Stag's Leap Cabernet. Imports from Italy, Argentina, France, Germany, and Chile are all reasonably priced, ranging from $24 to $44. Plum wine hails from Japan, as does the sake on a curated list, which offers aficionados the choice of splurging on specialties or selecting an 11-ounce bamboo flask of a more basic junmai, priced by the glass as well. There is also a sake tasting of three selections, giving you the opportunity to flex your sake muscles without a major commitment.
Chef Litiatco's kalbi are the result of a secret recipe earned only after a year of "kissing up" to the mother of a Korean classmate. He won't divulge what's in the marinade, but these stellar beef ribs sit in the fridge for 72 hours to soak up all of that saucy goodness. Order a side of soy-soaked potatoes for the Korean equivalent of steak frites.
Other main courses fall under the "rice" category, including pork braised in a banana leaf and Thai red curry with bell peppers, basil, bamboo shoots, and a choice of chicken, beef, shrimp, or crab.
Banchan, which refers to the small plates served with Korean food, is available by the piece, in a trio, or by the "royal dozen." The most famous of these, kimchee, reminds me that refrigerators are the monsters of modernity. Cabbage simply does not taste this good before the fermentation process. Prior to the invention of the ice box, the traditional mix of vegetables and spices was buried in the ground to achieve the end goal (humans are so clever). Here, the kimchee is vacuum-sealed to ensure that the brine soaks through completely, resulting in the quintessential marriage of sweet and sour. Pickled radish, spicy anchovies, and braised tofu also live up to the promise of Korean street fare.
From a Singapore-style chow fun to classic ramen to japchae — a vegetarian dish that starts with sweet-potato cellophane noodles — all the noodle offerings exhibit the kitchen's resourcefulness with flour and water.
Green-tea-infused soba noodles appear on the menu in both salad and soup form. The latter, unfortunately, is the only redeeming factor in the "cha soba with seared duck breast." Matcha powder is incorporated into the dough, giving the noodles a savory, tea-like resonance, but the squished and skewered slice of duck leaning on the edge of my bowl was tough and overcooked. Even after being submerged in the dashi, the meat remained inedible. The broth itself was a bit bland — garlic chives failing to pump up the flavor of enoki and shiitake mushrooms. A seafood clay pot brought a much heartier and happier broth, replete with an array of shrimp, chunks of fish, pork belly, shiitakes, spinach, and Chinese sausage. The fresh sausage is procured from a local source, but I found it to be unpleasantly sweet when consumed alone.
Desserts also adhere to the everything-Asian philosophy. Ask for the coconut haupia, a Hawaiian pudding that at Shokudo resembles Hostess Sno Balls and arrives shoved into a cappuccino cup. At first I was baffled by its plain whiteness, but lurking under a foamy layer were dense coconut cake and custard that were mild and not overly sweet. The wonderful treat delivered the pure essence of coconut. Green-tea custard evoked the spirit of crème brûlée but was marred by a grainy texture. Other desserts include Japanese mochi, a spring roll of caramelized banana, and halo halo, the kitchen sink of sweets, which incorporates plantains, palm fruit, jackfruit, coconut hearts, sweet bean, rice crisp, agar jelly, and mango ice cream (served on shaved ice with milk).
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You'll find that your own "path to food" begins on the northern edge of the Design District and ends in the Far East. Visitors and locals alike are certain to embrace Shokudo as a welcome addition to the neighborhood.
See also: Slide show: "Closer Look: Shokudo."