In a “Second Helpings” review, our restaurant critic revisits Shiro’s Sushi — now without Shiro — to see if it lives up to its reputation.

Share story

Twenty years after Shiro Kashiba opened his eponymous Belltown restaurant, people still wait for a seat at the sushi bar, even though Shiro-San is no longer there to welcome all comers with a hearty “Irasshimasen.”

Kashiba recently moved on “in pursuit of other projects,” according to a news release, though he actually sold the restaurant several years ago to an investment group. (They also own I Love Sushi in Bellevue and Kusakabe, a kaiseki-style sushi restaurant in San Francisco that recently acquired a Michelin star.) Without Shiro, however, Shiro’s turns out to be remarkably unchanged since The Seattle Times reviewed it last in 2007.

Chef Jun Takai leads Shiro’s new chef team. The most senior sushi chef, Toshio Matsudo, is a 47-year veteran skilled in the classic Edomae tradition that has always been this restaurant’s signature style. On Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday nights, Matsu-San offers a 14-piece omakase (chef’s choice) tasting limited to four guests at a time. I was among the quartet in his corner of the sushi bar recently, enjoying what amounted to Sushi 101.

“No soy sauce,” he admonished before placing the first pristine pieces of nigiri before me — a trio of flounder, tuna and sockeye. Sansho pepper added a frisson to the flounder. The two others — and those that followed — had little embellishment beyond a swipe of wasabi or soy sauce (applied by the chef).

Each piece was sized to be a single, perfect bite, with just the right ratio of fish to rice. The grains clung together long enough to reach your mouth, where you could detect the subtle difference in temperature between the cool fish and the warm, seasoned rice.

All the seafood was pristine. Briny geoduck. Sinfully good toro. Japanese snapper. A rich slice of yellowtail belly from Japan. Sweet Hokkaido scallops and shrimp. Later the shrimp head appeared, deep-fried to a fine crackle, to be eaten with a squeeze of lemon.

Wasabi jolted king crab. Soy sauce glazed torch-seared Japanese mackerel. Salmon roe tasted like a salty mash-up of lox and tapioca. Salt and lemon underscored the sweet, musky flavor of uni. A slab of tamago, a firm, custard-like omelet, came all too soon, signaling the end of the run.

Second Helpings: Restaurants revisited

Critic Providence Cicero evaluates restaurants last reviewed 10 or more years ago.  

About halfway along, matsutake dobin mushi arrived. The teapot (dobin) contained broth crowded with slices of prized matsutake mushrooms and a single shrimp, but the soup wasn’t the romp in the forest for nose and tongue that it should have been.

Each chef does omakase in his own way. You can order omakase at a table, too, just as you can order a la carte no matter where you sit. The adjacent dining room and two smaller back and side rooms, however, seem drab after the bright lights and theater of the sushi bar. If they can replace Shiro, why not swap out the dark gray carpet, black tablecloths, scuffed wood paneling and dented light shades?

Items from the a la carte menu met with mixed success. Miso soup stocked with cubes of creamy tofu and mitsuba (wild Japanese parsley) stood out for its robust broth. Tempura included three very large, lovely shrimp plus a range of vegetables in light, golden jackets that shattered beautifully. Assorted sashimi were impeccable.

But unripe grape tomatoes undermined soy-and-sesame dressed “rainbow poke” made with chewy salmon, soft tuna and crisp cucumber. Nanban-zuke, fried fish pickled in vinegar, fared better in the version made with tender chunks of salmon belly, than with hard, tasteless smelts. Shiro’s signature dish, black cod marinated in sake lees and broiled, was not the showpiece it should have been. The flesh tasted bitter; the skin was limp.

Service, sometimes spotty in the past, has improved under manager, Tatsuya “Tiger” Nakawake. The soft-spoken staff is responsive and patient with questions. At the start of the meal they bring o-shibori, a warm, wet cloth for your hands, and a handy wipe for those picking up nigiri the proper way, with fingers not chopsticks.

One night, the staff was even keeping an eye on an infant sound asleep in a large stroller parked by the host stand. That’s going the extra mile, as Shiro himself might have done. At the sushi bar, I met a woman from San Francisco who eats here. Once on the way to the airport, she called from the cab to say she wanted sushi but didn’t have time to stop. Shiro told her to come by and met her at the curb with an order to go.