A Sea Change for a Somerville Sushi Gem

Ai Sushi, formerly Shumi, has a new name and is under new ownership, but the restaurant’s focus on exceptional omakase remains the same.

Sashimi at Ai Sushi in Somerville. Photo by Shelby Vittek

Earlier this year, a beloved Japanese restaurant in Somerville quietly underwent a rebranding. Ai Sushi, formerly called Shumi, got a new name, new owners, and a new sushi chef. But for all the change the restaurant has undergone, one thing remains the same: It’s still a difficult-to-find gem.

Tucked away in a nondescript commercial building on a side street just south of Main Street, Ai Sushi is easy to miss. When I was invited to dine at the restaurant last month, Google maps directed me to tiny parking lot in front of Casa Luna, the Mexican restaurant attached to the building. But there was no Ai Sushi sign in sight. It took several laps around the commercial building and a call to the restaurant before I could locate where, exactly, Ai Sushi was: through the glass door by the Farmer’s Insurance sign, down the narrow hallway and to the left to a back suite, where a neon “Open” sign hung. (Our dining editor Eric Levin had a similar experience when he reviewed Shumi a decade ago.)

Photo by Shelby Vittek

Shumi’s transition into Ai Sushi happened in May, when David Grodman and his partner, Joy Noobanjong—who worked as a waitress at the restaurant for more than 10 years when it was still Shumi—took over operations. When I visited last month, they were still looking for key members to add to their kitchen team, and still in the process of making the space their own. John Junichi, “Chef John,” who worked alongside Shumi’s sushi chef, “Chef Ike,” is the new head sushi chef, and brings the same attention to detail to the sushi. According to Grodman, the fish is still sourced from the same place.

Inside, the restaurant’s decor is minimal, though Grodman says they’re still working on replacing artwork and decorations removed by the previous owners. But what Ai Sushi lacks in décor it makes up for in the quality of the food: fresh fish and exceptional omakase, best enjoyed at a seat at the sushi bar.

Photo by Shelby Vittek

If you’ve never eaten omakase style at a sushi restaurant before, the first thing you need to know is that it essentially means you’re in the chef’s hands. It’s more than just a tasting menu—the sushi chef decides what you will eat and paces the sushi courses appropriately, instructing when to use soy sauce and when not to. The next thing you need to know is that you should come hungry.

Following a first course of delicate, fresh pieces of sashimi was a seemingly endless sushi feast—presentations that included Scottish salmon, toro (fatty tuna), red snapper, mackerel, Japanese snapper, fluke, Dungeness crab, monkfish liver, uni, scallop, clams and more, made with well-seasoned rice. By the time Chef John handed us our last hand rolls, we were stuffed—too stuffed to finish our final bites, and certainly too stuffed to consider dessert. It was a joyful—albeit slightly overwhelming—experience.

Ai Sushi’s omakase starts at $60, or $80 for one that includes sashimi. The menu spans other favorites such as tempura, chicken teriyaki, and ramen, but omakase really is the way to dine here.

Ai Sushi, 30 South Doughty Avenue #4, Somerville; 908-526-8596. BYO. Lunch, Tuesday-Saturday; dinner, Tuesday-Sunday; closed Mondays.

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