Restaurant Review

At Shumi in Leonia, Sushi Senseis Hand You Their Masterworks

With much of the catch flown in daily from Japan, "the only fresher way to eat fish is on the boat," says Shumi's David Seo.

The lobster roll at Shumi
The lobster roll at Shumi is captivating. Photo: Cayla Zahoran

Some restaurants streak brilliantly across the sky, but burn out. A few manage to return like comets. Shumi is the latter.

In 1986, master sushi chef Kunihiko “Ike” Aikasa opened the brilliant Shumi in Somerville, which he later sold. In 2017, Aikasa, with protégé David Seo, returned with Shumi Ridgewood, still a magnet for sushi connoisseurs. This February, they teamed as co-owners to create Shumi Leonia—serene in pale gray and white, the better to highlight the stellar food. (And the restaurant made our 2023 list of the 30 Best Restaurants in New Jersey.)

One dish in particular, fatty-tuna poke tartare, had me quivering like the pearls of salmon roe accenting this stunner: creamy Spanish tuna, plush sea urchin, Hokkaido, avocado, shreds of lettuce and scoop of sushi rice. Further elevating the flavors: a blissful, umami-lush mix-in sauce of aged soybean paste, shallots and garlic.

A dish at the restaurant Shumi

The standout fatty-tuna poke tartare. Photo: Cayla Zahoran

The tuna poke is a variation on a course served in the omakase room, where sushi savants happily pay $250 for 15-course meals made and presented by Aikasa and Seo.

“There’s an avid local audience for exquisitely high-quality, amazingly fresh fish,” says Seo, who was born in Seoul, South Korea, and grew up in Livingston and Edgewater. “I got to know and love this town when I went to Leonia High. I had a strong hunch this would work. Eastern Bergen County, and not just its Asian American communities, is extremely sushi friendly, with an eye for quality and innovation. And the tab reflects the sheer caliber of the meal.”

Shumi Co-owners and co-chefs Kunihiko “Ike” Aikasa, left, and David Seo

Co-owners and co-chefs Kunihiko “Ike” Aikasa, left, and David Seo. Photo: Cayla Zahoran

Shumi’s omakase seafood is “flown fresh into JFK that morning,” Seo says. “Most is from Japan, with tuna from Spain, salmon from Scotland, lobster from the North Atlantic, Dungeness crab and Kumamoto oysters from the Pacific Northwest, and blue point oysters from Long Island. Those don’t fly in. But the only fresher way to eat fish is on the boat.”

Following an early career in interior design, Seo, now 45, decided he wanted to “work amidst people and create beautiful, delicious sushi.”

He met Aikasa while running Japanese eateries at Newark Liberty International Airport. “Chef Ike was already a legend from his first Shumi in Somerville,” Seo says “He came into EWR as a consultant, took me on as an apprentice, and here we are. His legacy underlies everything I do.”

raw scallop on shiso leaf in clamshell at Shumi restaurant

Raw scallop on shiso leaf in clamshell. Photo: Cayla Zahoran

Behind the eight-seat omakase room’s marble sushi bar, the two senseis carve and dress every morsel of the omakase, a word usually translated as, “I leave it to you [the chef].” The meal includes a version of the tuna poke mentioned above, but with an additional dollop of precious sturgeon caviar. Bluefin tuna is sliced in front of you from a colossal, ruby-red hunk.

Each omakase course is rapidly dressed with the ideal garnish, whether salty anchovy, peppery shiso leaf, spicy jalapeño, or citrusy yuzu, and handed to the wide-eyed recipient. “Sushi is meant to be eaten as soon as it’s made,” notes Seo. “After the cool fish hits the warm rice, there’s a one-minute window of temperature and texture perfection.”

He adds with a chuckle, “Not that anyone here wants to wait.”

tako salad on the main dining room menu at Shumi

Tako salad on the main dining room menu. Photo: Cayla Zahoran

Vanishing just as fast are warm omakase dishes such as seafood chawanmushi custard, baked oyster with panko crumbs, a gyoza dumpling stuffed and topped with foie gras, and Miyazaki Wagyu beef, silken and miso marinated.

The menu in the 60-seat dining room is not as ethereal as the one-on-one omakase. (In my experience, no meal is.) But the dining room provides a plethora of pleasures, such as the East-meets-West tako salad, showcasing charry grilled octopus. Agaedashi tofu, a sushiya standard of battered, fried tofu in a briny broth, is profoundly flavorful, the tofu teasingly silken, yet meaty.

the dining room at Shumi

The dining room at Shumi. Photo: Cayla Zahoran

Seo’s traditional sushi and sashimi pieces are top-notch, his rolls tantalizing. Some rolls feature fish seared or tempura fried. The textures and flavors of the bewitching five-piece tempura lobster roll unfurl in the mouth: firm sushi rice, delicately crunchy panko batter, moist lobster, piquant scallion, briny salmon roe. I set aside the roll’s towering topper, a whole claw, as a final revel.

Seo’s artistry suffuses the entire menu. His salmon-mozzarella roll—yes, you read that right­—combines raw Scottish salmon with red onion, jalapeño and shiso leaf on sushi rice, topped with mozzarella. The composition is flattened in a wooden box, in Osaka’s oshizushi style. Fleetingly baked, it’s cut into six pieces, drizzled with spicy mayo and eel sauce, and finished with fried onions on top. It’s quirky and captivating.

salmon-mozzarella roll at Shumi restaurant

Salmon-mozzarella roll. Photo: Cayla Zahoran

Equally spirited is fatty tuna on crispy rice. Six little discs of rice, deep-fried until crackly, each bearing a scoop of diced fatty tuna seared in sweet miso, are arranged like numbers on a clock. “I made this for Leonia,” he says. “Many of our diners grew up in Korean and Japanese cultures, which value harmony in all things, especially food and design.”

A creamy panna cotta is the sole dessert. The omakase room’s is made with Jersey strawberries drizzled with strawberry honey. The dining room serves matcha green tea panna cotta with sugary red beans. To me, the tuna poke tartare would make a euphoric finale, like a galactic cataclysm captured by the Webb telescope. Next time my orbit crosses Comet Shumi’s, I’ll save the poke tartare for last.

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Restaurant Details

  • Cuisine Type:
  • Price Range:
  • Price Details:
    Two-piece sushi serving, $8-$17; three-piece sashimi, $10-$19; signature rolls, $13-$23; soups, salads and appetizers, $3-$19; ramen, $19; entrées, $28-$34
  • Ambience:
    Serene, contemplative
  • Service:
    Decorously one-on-one
  • Wine list: