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Shinsei: Turning Diners into Disciples

Shinsei is both sleek and homey to its hordes of regulars.
Sara Kerens

As someone who spends a good bit of time in restaurant dining rooms, I'm accustomed to being told "Just let me know if you have any questions about the menu." But the offer usually comes from my server, not a diner at a nearby table.

What's remarkable about Shinsei, a glossy sushi boutique that's on the brink of celebrating its 5th birthday, is the loyalty it's cultivated in its adoring customers, many of whom consider the upscale restaurant a sort of neighborhood canteen. The enthusiastic sashimi Sherpa seated to my right was celebrating a birthday with his wife and children, and while he could parse the menu with the fluency of someone who long ago lost count of how many times he'd visited, it was clear he wouldn't have contemplated taking his special occasion anywhere else.

When restaurateurs sweep the Orient for the elements that add up to what Shinsei calls "pan-Asian," they often gather up minimalism and tranquility by the sackful. Shinsei's décor is appropriately sleek—Buddhas and bamboo abound in the chocolate-brown-walled room—but the restaurant isn't infected by the coolness that lesser restaurant engineers mistake for elegance.

Shinsei's ferociously hospitable: Diners morph into disciples because servers there have a knack for anticipating needs and uncritically accommodating them. When a trying guest at a nearby table gutted a pressed sushi order, ordering the roll without its defining avocado and wasabi, her server tactfully warned her once that she might prefer another roll instead. She said she wouldn't, so he took down the adulterated order and then scurried off to fetch it. His eyebrows never elevated.

The emphasis on personable service surely originates with owners Tracy Rathbun and Lynae Fearing, whose husbands have burnished their reputations as chefs by shaking hands and slapping backs. Mrs. Rathbun and Mrs. Fearing have recently extended their culinary reach, opening DUO, a kitchen store and catering venue, late last year. Around the same time, Jason Czaja was hired as Shinsei's executive chef, replacing TJ Lengnick, who is now cooking at Whiskey Cake.

If the owners' attentions have been diverted by the retail project, there's no sign of it at Shinsei. Nor is there much evidence of a new influence in the kitchen. While I never had the opportunity to eat at Shinsei during Lengnick or Casey Thompson's tenures, the menu appears relatively unchanged from the menu that wowed critics back in 2006.

Czaja, 32, has vowed not to let Shinsei ossify, but is busy internalizing the restaurant's traditions. That means customers like the helpful birthday celebrant who took a profound interest in my order don't have to feel their way through an array of unfamiliar dishes or cope with the loss of a treasured appetizer. Presumably the regulars wouldn't stand for anything radical: On one night I visited, the advertised chef's special was "Dean's lobster taco," borrowed from Fearing's recipe box at The Mansion. That's hardly a periscope into Czaja's culinary soul.

But if the food here isn't groundbreaking, it's still exceptionally good. Start with something from chef Shuji "Elvis" Sugawara's sushi bar and a glass of crisp sake from the restaurant's well-annotated list. (Resist the urge to finish at the sushi bar. With so many engaging dishes emerging from the kitchen, it's a mistake to fill up on raw fish and white rice.) Or, if you're seeking a cocktail stopover, try a brisk vodka limeade, made with just-squeezed juice and a touch of ginger. Teetotalers can find a similar herbaceous balance in a lovely iced peach tea.

Shinsei's rolls aren't overwrought smorgasbords of sea creatures; Sugawara refreshingly relies on quality rather than sheer quantity to impress. So instead of rolls straining with five kinds of fish, Sugawara pairs tuna with mustard and yellowtail with avocado. Simple. If I had a complaint about the rolls I tried, it would be that they were a smidgen too orderly: The rolls were twisted up so tautly, it was difficult to differentiate the tastes and textures of the various components.

None of the clean fish flavors were squandered on a pristine plate of Spanish mackerel sashimi featuring alternating translucent shards of the silvery fish dabbed with straw-colored olive oil and yuzu, thin discs of Japanese cucumber and red-ringed radish rounds. Such a delicate dish wasn't designed for gobbling, but it's impossible to exercise much chopstick restraint when confronted with it.

Among the starters, the edamame is so popular I initially assumed it was complimentary. It's not, but it's certainly worth $6. Shinsei serves the soybean pods two ways: plain, which I found curiously undersalted, and spicy, a designation derived from sliced bird peppers and a modest spritz of chili sauce. Once ordered, edamame appear almost instantly, an asset in a restaurant that can lag when customer traffic is heavy.

The appetizer section is dominated by obligatory Asianesque dishes—spring rolls, lettuce wraps and potstickers—but I especially liked a crab cake that showed up as a special. Served on a plate swabbed with curry sauce, the roll was made almost entirely from oceanic picked crab meat. It suffered only for being plucked from the fryer too soon, a timing issue that disrupted the cake's structural integrity. The kitchen was apparently equally shy to fry an order of shrimp tempura, which turned up soggy, and thickly breaded sweet rock shrimp, which shouldn't have been so soft.

But the fryer guy was in full command of his instrument on Shinsei's signature Brussels sprouts, which are doubly delicious for being counterintuitively less-than-virtuous. The flash-fried sprouts, shedding their leaves in a pool of sesame oil, are crisp, vaguely bitter and thoroughly irresistible. The restaurant could probably get away with selling them by weight, barbecue-joint style.

Fried rice is another justly celebrated side. A vegan's carbohydrate nightmare, the glutinous rice is swaddled in stock and served with an egg on top. The rice glints with bits of carrots and peas: It makes the perfect counterfoil to a half rack of sticky, mahogany baby back ribs, slick with hoisin sauce, scallions and sesame seeds. The ribs and rice combo is a tasty, sophisticated homage to columned Chinese menus.

Full-blown entrées are equally good. A New York strip special, swamped with mushrooms, soy sauce and chili oil, was a study in umami. A gorgeous black cod with nutty miso overtones flaked as effortlessly as tumbling dominoes; the fish is plated with floppy bok choy and a sipping portion of corn chowder that has a sunny, vintage flavor.

The Southernisms evoked on the cod plate resurface on the dessert menu, which includes a parfait of soft banana pudding studded with banana slices and capped with crumbled ginger snaps. It tastes homey, which befits a restaurant so many customers consider their own.

That group certainly includes the guest who offered me menu suggestions (and who, astoundingly, has never sampled the winning black cod. If you're reading this, amigo, make it a belated birthday gift to yourself). Before leaving, his wife instructed their teenage children to "thank Elvis" and to scribble a note in the hardback book used as a check presenter telling a server "how much you love her." Along with Czaja and his capable staff, they're deserving of the gratitude.

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