The world is full of restaurants that over-promise and under-deliver when it comes to mushroom dishes. Every serious mushroom lover will recall inquiring about a menu item, only to be disappointed upon being told it has “button mushrooms, creminis, AND portobellos!” (All of which are cultivars of the common Agaricus bisporus, a delicious and respectable mushroom, but not what fans of new culinary experiences are seeking.)
Last week, it was our good fortune to enjoy a truly memorable meal prepared by a chef who really makes things happen with mushrooms. We went to ShinBay, a tiny, ultra-upscale Japanese restaurant located in the Scottsdale Seville plaza at the northeast corner of Indian Bend and Scottsdale Road. I had heard of this Mecca for foodies for some time, but had never yet managed to try it.
Chef/owner Shinji Kurita may already be known to some readers, as he had a cult following at his former restaurant by the same name some years ago in Ahwatukee. His new place in Scottsdale is making even more waves, with two semifinalist nominations for the James Beard restaurant awards since his reopening.
The service, decor and ambiance were top notch. The taste and presentation of each course were exquisite from start to finish, but my favorite dish consisted of steamed Asari clams in broth, with five kinds of Japanese mushrooms.
I recognized crisp, savory buna-shimeji and bunapi-shimeji, i.e. brown and white beech mushrooms (Hypsizygus tessellatus). There were also distinctive enokitake, which is a cultivated variant of the velvet foot mushroom, Flammulina velutipes, grown under conditions of high carbon dioxide concentration that accentuates the long, slender morphology of the fruiting body.
I believe this lick-the-bowl delicious dish also contained eringitake (king oyster mushrooms, Pleurotus eryngii), shiitake (Lentulina edodes) and/or hon-shimeji (Lyophyllum shimeji), but they are harder to differentiate and I did not catch all of the details of the server’s description. There was no identifiable maitake (Hen of the woods; Grifola frondosum) or hiratake (Oyster mushroom; Pleurotus ostreatus).
There was also no sign of the fragrant, hugely expensive matsutake (Pine mushroom, Tricholoma magnivelare) in this dish, but the server stated that this wild mushroom is one of Chef Kurita’s favorites, and he often uses it in broths and shabu-shabu dishes on the more expensive chef’s tasting menu when it is available. I hope to return to this temple of gastronomy before the end of the matsutake season with my two kids, who are very adventuresome fans of gourmet and exotic food, to sample the entire tasting menu.
Mushrooms made another stellar appearance in a course of heavily marbled Kobe beef. Thin slices of this buttery delicacy were brought raw to the table, with enokitake mushrooms and asparagus tips, for each diner to cook to his or her taste on a tabletop griddle. This was Barb’s favorite part of the meal.
All of the other dishes were almost equally delightful, but special mention should be made of the dessert, a light custard with a slightly molasses-flavored cane syrup and fruit. Japanese cuisine does not emphasize desserts, and some of the things that they consider suitable for the end of the meal are not at all to the taste of the average sweet-toothed American. But for this American, it was the most delicious dessert I’ve had at any Japanese restaurant, ever. If you like flan or crème brûlée, you’ll love it.
The menu will vary from week to week depending on what’s in season and available fresh. There is a review on PHXFoodNerds.com that gives you a lushly illustrated look at some of the other delicacies you can expect at ShinBay. It’s truly artistic.
Before you make a reservation, it’s important to recognize what makes ShinBay unique. This is not an ordinary sushi bar, but a gourmet omakase restaurant. This means that you’ll be eating what the chef thinks is good that evening, with a limited but exceptionally fresh and delicious selection. Much of it is not even what a Japanese person would consider sushi. If your tastes in Japanese food run no further than pot-sticker dumplings and California rolls, this is not the place for you. If you don’t eat raw dishes, think twice about coming. (That said, my wife enjoyed her dinner very much, despite her strong preference for having her fish cooked rather than raw.) And whatever you do, don’t ask for soy sauce or wasabi to be brought to your table. Kurita-san has been known to throw diners out of his restaurant for questioning the seasoning he uses on his productions.
ShinBay is also a very expensive place to eat, more costly than any other Japanese place I have eaten anywhere in the Valley– even Roku Akor. But it’s definitely worth it for an anniversary or other special occasion. Kurita’s ingredients are the freshest and highest quality available, and in many cases are seldom seen on this side of the Pacific. That unavoidably costs him plenty, and the menu prices reflect it. You can get a standard prix-fixe four or five course dinner for $55 to $75 even with a last-minute reservation. However, aficionados will want to book 24 hours in advance for the $100 or $125 tasting meal of up to nine courses at the chef’s table. You’ll also want to call ahead if you are vegetarian, allergic to seafood, or have other dietary requirements. The wine list is more modestly priced than the food, with a fine assortment of rare sake and a thoughtfully curated wine selection. Some seldom-imported Japanese beers can also be had, and would be highly suitable for this cuisine.
NOTE: With this post, we have added a Restaurant Reviews sub-category to our blog architecture, in hopes of calling out places we have eaten where mushroom dishes are afforded the respect we think they deserve. We’ll be concentrating on the Phoenix/Scottsdale area that is our home base, but restaurants we visit in the rest of the state and elsewhere will also get attention if they merit it. We’ve also changed the “Recipes” discussion forum to Recipes and Restaurants, and invite your own commentary on local places that are worth a visit by fungus fanatics. If you want to do a full restaurant review with illustrations, by all means do so, and we will post it here and credit you as the author.