Underground treasure is a cut above the rest

While Sushi Shige Japanese Restaurant may be nestled quietly below street level at the corner of Granville and Salter, chef-owner Shigeru Fukuyama is clearly serving sushi a level above anything else in Halifax. Fukuyama and his wife, Aya Otara, have spent the last 15 years introducing Haligonians to Japanese food, earning repeat customers and solidifying their reputation as makers of some of the best and most beautiful sushi in Halifax.

Fukuyama (known as Shige) is a renowned Japanese chef. A little bit of research quickly shows an impressive resume of 40 years’ experience in the kitchen. Fukuyama worked for 18 years in his native Tokyo, ten of those just in training to become an Itamae (a chef in a Japanese kitchen). He also spent seven years in Toronto, moving there in 1992 to work for a friend as head chef and to train other Itamaes. In Toronto, he met Otara, and eventually, they moved to Halifax on a whim (after a short visit and deciding the people here are “very nice”).

“Many of our regular customers, we’ve known each other for more than ten years,” says Otara. She and Fukuyama first opened Sushi Shige in 2002 on Spring Garden Road, moving in 2011 to the current 1532 Granville Street location. It’s easy to see that a big part of what makes their restaurant work is that it’s family-run. Fukuyama is the only chef, and Otara looks after the front of the house (with help from staff), which helps ensure consistent food and care. It seems that both Otara and Fukuyama are solely concerned with doing their best work and, above all, making their customers happy. “That’s why we keep going,” says Otara. “I like people eating [with] a happy face. If they’re smiling, that means it’s good, and they will come back.” Fukuyama thanks every customer on their way out, smiling from behind the sushi bar.

The menu at Sushi Shige has a focus on traditional Japanese food, most of which is now recognizable in Halifax. Miso soup, green salad with ginger dressing and appetizers like gyoza, tempura and edamame — all now standard fare, thanks to Sushi Shige and the few other long-standing Japanese restaurants that paved the way. There are of course other, less-travelled options on the menu if that’s what you’re looking for. And while there are sections carved out for noodles, jyu (hot rice dishes with various toppings) and cooked entrées, the raw sushi selection is a full three pages long — an extensive list of nigiri, sashimi and maki options.

“Some Japanese [people] like fusion,” says Otara, “but we wanted to go the traditional way.” While the menu does have dragon rolls and sushi pizza (something Fukuyama says that he’s been making with leftover sushi rice since his Toronto days), Sushi Shige customers are open-minded, and, importantly, they trust Fukuyama. “Our regular customers always order the omakase sushi,” says Otara. “[Fukuyama] knows regular customers [and what they like], he just picks it up.” Omakase, which literally translates to “I’ll leave it up to you,” is a chef’s selection of items set at an agreed-upon price point. There are three ways to have omakase at Sushi Shige. You order either the omakase sashimi or omakase sushi, both starting at $45 per person, both arriving as one large, beautiful platter that’s been preceded by green salad and miso soup. Or, with 24 hours’ notice, you order the omakase dinner — Fukuyama’s favourite thing to make — a multiple course tasting menu made completely at the chef’s discretion that starts at $70 per person (with a minimum of two people per reservation).

I’ve been a regular take-out customer of Sushi Shige for years. And while take-out orders are admittedly an important part of their business, this is not how Fukuyama prefers to serve people. “If the customer has a chance, we want them to eat here,” says Otara. “Because the container and a plate is very different.” There is a lot of thought behind the presentation at Sushi Shige, which becomes apparent when I order the omakase sashimi during my latest visit.

When I step down into Sushi Shige for dinner, it’s early on a Monday evening. First table of the night. I’m immediately warmed by the toasty temperature inside, a stark contrast to the chilly December night left out in the street. I settle into the table reserved for me in the corner. The restaurant is a completely open dining room. It’s very simple, with walls painted yellow and gold. The dropped part of the ceiling is a rich olive-green colour. The L-shaped sushi bar and what’s behind it take up a quarter of the space. Chairs line the sushi bar, and there are about 10 or 12 tables in the dining room. Fukuyama can see almost every seated customer when he’s behind the bar.

I start by ordering some warm sake, a Japanese rice wine. The server first presents me with a wooden crate full of tiny, ceramic cups of varying colours and styles. I choose a two-toned green cup and pour about an ounce of sake. The large sake I order is 200 millilitres, which lasts a while when you’re drinking out of a one-ounce cup. The sake is light-bodied and smooth, even when warmed, and not too boozy.

Omakase is perfect for those who are looking to try something new without having to make the hard decisions. My server informs me that the omakase plates can go up in price by $10 increments, depending on how hungry the customer is. It starts at $45 per person, and that includes miso soup and green salad. I stick with the $45 because she says there will be 16 to 20 pieces, which is plenty for me. The omakase sashimi comes with a bowl of rice.

My omakase sashimi actually has 22 pieces, all of them artfully laid out on an oversized, clean, white platter. The combination of shapes, textures and vibrant colours come together for a stunning presentation. There are nine different kinds of items on my plate. My eye is first drawn to the slices of intensely red-pink tuna next to pure white butterfish. In the very middle of the plate, on a bed of damp, deep-green seaweed, is a hollowed-out sea urchin shell with a small slice of cucumber placed over the circular hole on top which is topped with a mound of dark orange uni (the edible part of the sea urchin). On the other side of the sea urchin are slices of pale pink yellowtail and bright orangey-pink salmon. Living on a scallop shell at the top of the plate are two rosy prawns still with the heads on; they somewhat shield the surf clams and scallops underneath. Beside that: two oysters on half shells.

While Fukuyama can source some of his seafood locally, most of the products he works with are imported from Japan. Fish that is frozen immediately at sea and exported is extremely fresh. Plus, because of food safety regulations, many types of fish served raw must be previously frozen at a certain temperature for a minimum amount of time to kill potential parasites (remember that before making sushi at home).

Fukuyama says his favourite seafood to work with are tuna and sea urchin. I order tuna all the time when I’m out for sushi, but I don’t have a lot of experience with sea urchin, so I jump for that first. The uni is creamy and fresh. There’s a hint of salt but it’s not overly briny or fishy at all; it’s rich and laden with umami. It has the taste and texture of something decadent.

The tuna is vibrant and meaty, with a touch of brine, and the salmon is lovely, but it’s the less familiar fish that I’m enjoying the most on this plate — the soft, milky butterfish and the bright, sweet yellowtail. It’s wonderful to work my way through the omakase platter and experience the wide range of contrast in flavours and textures. My server offers to take the prawn heads back and have Fukuyama deep-fry them, tempura style. I oblige. It seems 22 pieces of sashimi wasn’t such a challenge after all.

During our interview, I had asked Otara if they ever get to visit home, if they have any other family in Canada. “No,” she says, to both questions. No visit for five years. “It’s far. If I want to go [to Japan], we have to take two days before and after to close [the restaurant] to prepare. And I have to take at least two weeks.” It’s often forgotten what business owners give up to be successful, especially immigrants.

The crispy prawn heads quickly arrive back at the table, and they are delicious. They are a first for me, and something I will definitely be doing again. As the warm sake finally depletes, it’s time to wrap up this omakase experience. I forego dessert — a small selection of ice creams (green tea, black sesame, red bean, ginger, mango) — to assist my dining partner in finishing off some maki. Always glad to help. As I say my goodbyes, Otara is just getting her and Fukuyama’s two young children settled in with bowls of noodles at a table off to the side.