Sushi's move over the past decade into expressionist, abstract and even surreal forms, however tasty and eye-catching, has marked a significant departure from its more minimalist aesthetic tradition, which relies on clean flavors and technique to achieve a sparse elegance. When it holds true to this minimalist heritage, sushi is discipline as much as it is cuisine.
Shinji's Sushi Bar lovingly adheres to the classical style. It offers meticulously prepared, sparsely presented and cleanly flavored sushi in an equally spare environment; only an eclectic mix of Western and Eastern paintings adorns a small portion of the white walls.
Good lighting and wood tables make Shinji's family-friendly, though salmon teriyaki and eel or tuna donburi are the only non-sushi offerings. In other words, take the kids only if they are ready to eat the raw stuff.
Owner and sushi chef Shinji Shibuya maintains rigid standards for fish freshness, and his scaled-back approach concentrates on traditional nigiri, sashimi and skinny maki, cut into small pieces.
Nowhere on Shinji's menu do quality and simplicity combine more successfully than in the yellowtail and green onion roll. Each bite showcases the hamachi's delicate, velvety texture and briny sweetness, brought out by the scallions' contrasting crunch and sharpness.
Equally satisfying are similarly restrained renditions of crowd favorites, like spicy tuna and California rolls, the latter featuring cooked shrimp in lieu of fake crab. Lest all this talk of "skinny rolls cut into small pieces" should worry you, rest assured that Shinji's offers generous portions at reasonable prices. Simple rolls cost between $3 and $6 and are cut into eight or ten pieces; three rolls will fill an entire plate.
And don't confuse restraint with a lack of creativity. Take Shinji's vegetable roll, made up of a beautifully prepared yellow bell pepper, avocado and cucumber surrounded by sweet basil, white rice and black nori seaweed. An unusual sushi ingredient, the nori adds freshness and connects the roll to the surprising, well-executed gazpacho sauce plated beneath it.
The signature Tokyo roll similarly illustrates Shibuya's gentle sensibilities, combining firm and sweet shrimp with a topping of homemade mayonnaise and soft, smoky grilled bass.
When I requested one creation of his own choosing, Shibuya responded with baked scallops, rolled rice-side out, with cucumber and avocado, then topped with raw tuna and more avocado. While the avocado-topped side emphasized the scallop's creaminess, the tuna topping composed a tiny symphony of flavor and texture.
Carb counters (and gluttons alike) will want to try the fisherman's salad of marinated salmon, shrimp and tuna tataki served over fresh Asian greens with a tangy dressing, or the lightly marinated salmon tartar, offering a refreshing piquancy and sweetness.
Dry rice and only better-than-average fish marred our first visit, but these problems have vanished recently, with both rice and fish achieving high marks. My lone residual complaint is with the thickness of the sashimi and nigiri slices, but Shinji's other cuts are right on the money, achieving ideal texture.
Shinji's sushi bar offers the rare opportunity to explore a classic tradition while relaxing with family or friends. The casual environment only enhances the elemental grace of Shibuya's creations, making for elegant sushi at affordable prices. Arigato.
-- David Torres-Rouff
Shinji's Sushi Bar
308-M South 8th St., 475-0669
Lunch Hours: Monday-Friday, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Dinner hours: Monday-Thursday, 5-9 p.m., Friday, 5-10 p.m.,
Saturday, 4-9 p.m.