Shuta Kamezaki’s father is a fisherman with a sense of humour. Head chef at this new Tokyo import on Changle Lu, his name, ‘Kamezaki’, means ‘snapper’ in Japanese. His brother is called ‘Ayuta’ – ‘sweet fish’ – and, growing up, they had a pet dog called ‘Ajitaro’, ‘horse mackerel’. Born in Niigata, but raised in Papua New Guinea and New Zealand, Shuta began as a sushi underling eight years ago in Tokyo, joining the city’s revered sushi shrine Tsukiji Aosora Sandaime in 2008. Here, he heads the restaurant’s first outpost outside of Japan, which is already a hit with Shanghai’s in-the-know salarymen.
And you could scarcely say that they’re undeserving of early devotees: the deceptively simple sushi is uniformly excellent. Inventive and yet familiar, traditions here are tinkered with, not trounced. Shuta makes the creative liberties taken at, say, Haiku, look crass and outsized. It makes Sushi Raku look frugal and overpriced, The Geisha, ordinary – and even makes us wonder whether hallowed omakase fave Sushi Oyama is really worth the wait, or the price.
At the L-shaped, juniper-wood sushi counter, Shuta and his staff (all from Japan) work with a stolid, temple-like calm; service (local) is amiably gormless. A generous, bright sashimi salad (120RMB) comes with a fruity sauce with a faint, cider-like zip. The fish immediately introduces Shuta’s (inherited) use of seasoning.
Around 20 years ago, Aorora Sandaime’s Tokyo chef Maeda Yasuei began using citruses and rare salts, for which owner Motonobu Ishikawa’s restaurant later become known. Here, unrefined slabs of pink Himalayan crystal salt from Pakistan are used to serve sashimi and season sushi (an update of the tradition and a more recent trend in Tokyo, chef Shuta tells us).
The first sushi from our set on one visit (160RMB/eight pieces, includes salad) is a brilliant combination of competing flavours: sole, carefully calibrated with lime juice, is given a fizzy, saline tingle from black bamboo salt and only the faintest whisper of wasabi (note: there are two ways to piss off a serious sushi chef: a) douse everything in soy; b) ask for extra wasabi – you’ll be granted neither liberty here).
Blow-torched, fatty Australian wagyu beef, with a white-wine glaze, has a smoky-sweet balance and gets a hot jolt from English-style yellow mustard. Lemon zest registers beautifully on a heavy slice of flawless, crimson akami tuna, and botan shrimp – firmer, larger, more unctuous than Alaskan pink shrimp used in assembly-line sushi – has a restrained soy sweetness that doesn’t outstay its welcome.
Stored in Japanese hikoni wood barrels, rice is loose, unclaggy and is really only just enough to be a vehicle for flavour. The smaller-than-usual-sized pucks here follow another Tokyo trend; Shuta tells us the average rice weight has fallen from 18g to 15g in Tokyo in the past several years.
Fish is sourced from Dalian and, while it limits Shuta’s menu slightly, he’s still found some rarities. Kinmedai (splendid alfonsino), a red-skinned, deep-water fish, is favoured in Tokyo as a comfort food, particularly in winter, when fish become fattier and oilier to survive colder waters. Here, it’s served aburi-style – part-seared – piqued with lime and soy, and has a lovable, buttery softness, underscoring Shuta’s ability to make small conceits of flavour add up to more than the sum of their parts.
If you sit at the counter, sushi arrives in procession, not as a single platter. Shuta has an easy charisma and, as in all peak dining experiences, nothing here feels transactional. As he lays down the final piece of the set, seared kawahagi (filefish) topped with its own steamed liver, scallion and lemon, he confides this is actually something of a day-job for him. His real dream is to become a tour-boat fishing captain in New Zealand. ‘That way I can make people happy twice in one day,’ he says, with his endearingly toothy pirate grin. ‘First the catch – then the cooking.’