Restaurant Review

Hidden Gem

Tucked on a side street at the end of a corridor in the back of a nondescript building, Shumi has bucked the odds for 21 years by serving superb sushi.

If you have a GPS in your car, have you ever just plain refused to believe the thing? I was ready to give mine a slap one recent evening as it led me to a bunker-like commercial building on the dimly lit last block of a side street in Somerville. There were two small windows for a photographer’s studio (“Instant Passports, Photo Restoration”) and a sign advertising “Apartments For Rent.” I didn’t notice the inconspicuous Shumi sign until hours later. But all four spaces in the parking lot were taken, which I took as a positive.

Pulling open a plain glass door, we followed a long corridor lined with wedding and bar mitzvah photos to its L-shaped end. Facing us was the entrance to a restaurant called Jack’s Pot. (More on this later.) We looked around and spotted to the left of Jack’s Pot the entrance to another restaurant.
We figured we were getting warm because outside the door were big foamboard photos of a young sushi chef—grinning in one, sticking out his tongue in another—circa 1987. In the margins, dozens of customers had penned thanks and appreciations to “Chef Ike,” congratulating him on Shumi’s twentieth anniversary.

Those inscriptions help explain why this quirky, tucked-away space is now entering its third decade, a rarity for any restaurant. Further hints come from the alphabetized pouches where the staff stores customers’ personal chopsticks; the backlit shelves full of sake bottles labelled with customers’ names; and the rack of logoed golf balls from famous courses that well-travelled patrons have given Chef Ike Aikasa, a single-digit-handicap golfer. (In Japanese, shumi means hobby, though chef and co-owner Aikasa says he chose the name more for its pleasant sound.)

Clearly, people feel at home here. But what keeps them coming back is what they can’t find at home—or at many Japanese restaurants—sushi that’s exceptional in quality, variety, and presentation. Throw in some of the lightest, crispiest, most mouth-watering tempura I’ve had in a while, and the result is longevity.

For me, love at first bite came with a cooked delicacy, tuna jaw—a Tokyo tradition hard to find here. It may sound off-putting, but it’s just grilled chunks of cheek meat from yellowfin tuna. Juicy, delicious, almost beefy in flavor, yet very tender, it makes a great starter. Likewise the fried oysters, where the operative ingredient is lush, fresh oysters, not the coating, which is crisp and delicate. It comes drizzled with two kinds of creamy, spicy sauce, which you could ask for on the side, though they complimented the fried food brightly.

As for raw sushi, ultra-fresh is just the starting point for Aikasa, who runs the restaurant with his wife, Amy, and their partner, Jack Pak. He has terrific suppliers, not all of whom he will divulge, but one that is renowned is New York Fish House, which flies in bluefin tuna and other choice seafood from Japan. The ethereal texture and subtle flavor of Shumi’s toro, maguro, and hamachi are the superb payoff.

Aikasa, soft-spoken and good-humored, goes into no-more-mister-nice-guy mode when fish is delivered. “I inspect every day,” he says. “Many restaurants not know enough to judge by eye. I take very fresh only. If I not complain, they bring bad one again. So I have to complain all the time.”

Ask Aikasa, 55, what sets him apart and he answers, “technique”—the result, he says, of years of training in Tokyo. Not so much knife skills, which you take for granted, but cooking skills. Aikasa tells the familiar story that when customers sit down at a sushi bar in Japan, the first thing they order is the cold omelet sushi. “If it’s not good, they leave,” he says. Why? The omelet takes technique—the right combination of beaten egg, sake, soy sauce, bonito broth, sugar, and salt, slow cooked in a rectangular pan, turned frequently to avoid browning. The result should be light, moist, faintly sweet. Aikasa’s is.

Aikasa prides himself on subtleties: how long to marinate mackerel in rice vinegar; how to season sushi rice perfectly; how to make a lip-smacking nitsume, the thick, tangy-sweet sauce brushed on unctuous broiled eel; how to cook monkfish liver so it comes out velvety, Japan’s answer to foie gras. (This is another delicacy you won’t find at every sushi bar.)

Now, back to Jack’s Pot. About a year ago, the Aikasas and Jack Pak took over the office next door and converted it into a dining room with a different color scheme than Shumi’s. The aim was to add 20 seats to Shumi’s 80, but also to make it easier for Shumi regulars to bring friends and relatives, including kids, who might not care for sushi. Pak is a versatile chef, trained in Thai but able to do pastas, broiled fish, shrimp scampi,  burgers, even surf and turf.

You can order from either menu no matter where you sit. I didn’t have the nerve to eat penne primavera at the sushi bar, but on our second visit, when we sat at a table, we tried it, and it was nice, with fresh zucchini, sugar snap peas, and cherry tomatoes in a Parmesan cream sauce.

For dessert, in addition to the usual suspects, Shumi has something exotic I had to try: aloe vera. Would it come in a tube, like sunscreen? No, what the waitress set in front of me looked like a bowl of cold water with ice cubes floating in it. Was another shoe (or Shumi) yet to drop?

No, that was it. Turns out, the ice cubes are soft, cool, translucent squares of aloe vera, a little firmer than Jell-O, with a mild, melon-like flavor. Not bad, but the clear liquid was best—light and refreshing, with that mild, melony flavor, plus a little tang. Another eye-opener at the end of the long corridor.

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Restaurant Details

  • Cuisine Type:
    Asian - Japanese
  • Price Range:
  • Ambience:
    Friendly, informal, with walls that amount to the chef’s scrapbook
  • Service:
    Sweetly polite, efficient, unobtrusive
  • Wine list:
  • Shumi
    30 S Doughty Ave
    Somerville, NJ 08876
  • Hours:
    LUNCH: Tuesday through Saturday, noon to 2:30 pm
    DINNER: Tuesday through Thursday and Sunday, 5 to 9 pm; Friday and Saturday, 5 to 10 pm
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