In sushi circles, Shinano is synonymous with seafood superiority. Back when most Clevelanders were first discovering the joys of a freshly prepared California roll, this East Side restaurant was dishing up traditional Japanese delicacies to sushi-savvy locals. For almost two decades, quality and authenticity were all that was needed to lure diners to Shinano's modest home in a modest strip center across from a modest shopping mall in Richmond Heights.
Over the years, though, Shinano watched its fan base shrivel up like day-old fish as customers continued their eastward migration. Diehard groupies occasionally still made the trek, but with so many newer and more convenient options, who could blame them for overlooking an old friend? So, taking a page from the "If you can't beat them, join them" playbook, management finally decided to pack up the restaurant and ship it off to sunny Solon.
While the move likely does bring the restaurant closer to some fans, it also brings it nearer to some pretty stiff competition. In Solon, Woodmere and Beachwood alone, there are half a dozen Japanese restaurants serving sushi. That's a pretty crowded field from which to stand out. So, does Shinano stand out?
Based on looks alone, the restaurant isn't going to attract much positive attention: Shinano traded in one shopping-center address for another. Granted, it traded up. The freshly built suburban digs are spare, sterile and bright - like a doctor's-office waiting room, only with less atmosphere. While the old locale wasn't exactly a looker, at least it was comfortable.
Of course, what's important is the food. And what's really important is the fish. Arriving in pairs as it should, the nigiri sushi is skillfully cut, assembled and presented. Perched atop a smallish mound of moist, seasoned sushi rice, the unimpeachably fresh folds of tuna ($5), yellowtail ($5) and salmon ($4.25) all are a delight to consume.
More popular perhaps than the regular sushi are the rolls. From the straightforward to the dizzyingly elaborate, attractive wheels of fish, rice and seaweed roll out from the bar in a never-ending progression. For purists there is the negi hamachi ($5), an austere pairing of yellowtail and scallion. Spicy tuna rolls are all the rage, and at less than a buck a bite, who can resist? King crab meat is the star of the Chad's roll ($8.75), a hefty inside-out arrangement with shrimp, avocado and a shotgun blast of tiny fish eggs.
But diners can't live on raw fish alone, lest they end up like Jeremy Piven. The good news is that diners need not order from the sushi bar to expect quality food. Shinano's menu of prepared Japanese dishes appears larger than it used to, with scores of vegetable, noodle, meat and seafood items. Demonstrating a high-wire act of timing, the kitchen turns out a bento box ($23.95) containing brittle-crisp shrimp tempura, smoky-hot salmon teriyaki and still-cool sashimi. Soup and salad are included with the meal, as are veggies and rice.
The mussels used in a substantial appetizer ($5.95) are so hefty they must be butterflied prior to preparation. Dipped in panko and fried crisp, the meaty bivalves are served with a thick Worcestershire-based sauce. Whole grilled squid ($7.50) is as far from run-of-the-mill calamari as one could probably get. Broiled, sliced and served au natural, the charred fish is pleasantly meaty and dense. What the dish lacks is an accompanying sauce or condiment.
There are oodles of noodle dishes, including those built around ramen, udon and soba. If you enjoy your noodles in broth, go for the ramen ($8.50), which is served in an elegant earthenware crock. Suspended in a dark, flavorful broth and topped with slices of roast pork, the squiggly noodles make for a fine lunch. Better suited to dinner is the yaki soba ($9.95), a plateful of stir-fried buckwheat noodles, pork and cabbage in a pungent brown sauce. Shinano also offers the rest of the "yaki" classics - teriyaki, kushiyaki and yakitori - in a variety of fish, beef and chicken iterations.
Given the heightened popularity of sake these days, I'm surprised and disappointed that Shinano doesn't stock more than a handful of warm and cold varieties. The omnipresent Ozeki brand ($7) is the house pour for those who like it hot.
Because many of the servers made the move from Richmond Heights, most have intimate knowledge of the menu. There does, however, appear to be a slowing of the tide when it comes to speed and efficiency, a lapse that hopefully will disappear over time. Fix that, and Shinano will be able to hold its own against most of its nearby challengers.Shinano