Some culinary pyrotechnics are always part of the hibachi restaurant experience, and Shogun puts on the usual performance at its griddle-top group tables. These days, however, the real fireworks at this sprawling suburban Japanese restaurant take flight at the sushi bar, specifically the corner that is the roost of the sushi chef everyone calls Kaz.
He pairs sweet scallops with fat plonks of foie gras, all drizzled with thick loops of balsamic vinegar. He wraps raw salmon around shiso leaf and ginger, belting the little bundles with thin ribbons of kelp. And he crowns iridescent pink slices of skipjack, a buttery flavored find, with pungent dabs of miso before gilding them with a bit of olive oil and firing off dashes of sea salt and black pepper from small grinders.
Where’s the California roll and the seaweed salad? That’s all still here, along with the teriyaki lunch deals and banana tempura for dessert. But Shogun, the oldest Japanese restaurant in town, is building a new niche and a fiercely loyal following for a contemporary approach to sushi and Japanese cooking, one that’s become popular in some other American cities but is harder to find in our region.
There’s a fusion element at work here, and with a playbook that can include fresh pea shoots, roasted garlic and blasts of acid and oil, it can sometimes resemble Italian crudo or Peruvian ceviche. But at Shogun, it still feels very Japanese, which is a testament to the tradition and personal style mixed up here by the maestro behind the sushi bar.
Kaz is the Anglicized nickname for Kazuyuki Ishikawa. Lean and longhaired, focused but always friendly, he’s a Tokyo native who learned his skills on the job.
He moved to Los Angeles in 1995 and eventually met the chef he now calls his mentor, Tom Sagara, at the Beverly Hills restaurant Boss Sushi. That’s where he was working in early 2011 when Shogun owner Masako “Peggy” Kamata showed up for dinner.
She was visiting the West Coast specifically to recruit a Japanese chef to help update her Metairie restaurant, which she first opened in 1982. After dinner, she made her pitch to Kaz, and a few months later, he was in New Orleans.
Kaz is head sushi chef at Shogun, though it can feel as though he’s running his own shop in one small part of this large restaurant. To get his contemporary sushi, you must snag one of the 10 seats in his section of the sushi bar when he’s working (usually Thursday through Monday).
This sometimes means waiting, as his fans readily do. He’s been training other chefs here, however, so you can sit elsewhere and sample different renditions from his understudies.
One approach is to order a course or two in this style, interspersed with your old favorites or a longtime Shogun signature, like hanabi (fried rice cakes topped with chopped raw tuna and tobiko).
But for a fully immersive experience, request to dine omakase style.
This will yield a meal of small courses that unfolds like a chef’s tasting menu, only there is no menu. The progression of dishes is highly fluid and customized as you give the chef feedback.
So, during a recent omakase outing, my enthusiasm for duck breast, sliced like sashimi and left nearly as raw under an exterior sear, led to a course of lushly flavorful Kobe-style (though American-sourced) steak. It was treated as delicately as the fish, touched briefly with a kitchen torch for texture more than true cooking and draped over sushi rice.
Four other courses in this particular meal focused on seafood, another brought a savory egg custard soup called chawamnushi, and dessert was ice cream made from black sesame seeds, which tasted like Middle Eastern halva.
As the courses vary, so can the cost. At Shogun, an omakase dinner of a half-dozen dishes should cost between $50 and $60, before tax, tip or drinks. Individual sushi plates can range from $5 to $14.
If it’s a different approach, Kaz has found one particularly adept collaborator on the other side of the sushi bar. Eli Ramos, a young New Orleans native with a passion for Japanese culture, is a waiter who works with Kaz like a sideman, guiding newcomers through the nuances of the style.
The precision and concentration at work here is plain to see, but there’s also a strong current of bonhomie at this sushi bar. Kaz throws back sake with his regulars, he and his chefs join the “Happy Birthday” song choruses that periodically rise from the hibachi tables and when an unusual dish goes to one couple, everyone seated near them cranes to look and might get a sample.
It feels like strangers are suddenly dining together. And when you put yourself in this chef’s hands, it always feels like an adventure.
Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter @IanMcNultyNOLA.