An omakase menu’s dazzling dance between classicism and updatings might include delicate fluke (hirame) topped with finger lime. Brittany Conerly

From the Dining Critic's Notebook

Behind the Review: Small But Mighty, Shoyo Is a Meditation on Craft

On Greenville Avenue find a tiny omakase operation where, under the surface, lies a world of skill.

In our Behind the Review series, we bring you the extras, the sprinkles on top, the talking points that went unaddressed, the tidbits that end up on the cutting-room floor in our research and reporting. Here, then, is the post-review course.

In the months since it opened in June, Shoyo has brought an intimate, exquisite sushi omakase experience to Lower Greenville. In twice-a-night performed orchestrations—at 5:45 and 8:15 p.m.—chef-owner Jimmy Park and sushi chef Shin Kondo execute an elaborate choreography. In my review (which appears online here and in the November issue of the D Magazine), I delve into the food, the delicate morsels:

“Another bite brings sweet, creamy raw shrimp that fills your mouth with the pop of finger lime. Atop smoked Scottish salmon belly, Park perches an orb of deep-fried mozzarella and a dab of pesto.”

But all that jewel-box simplicity belies the work beneath.

Whenever you’re feasting at a high-caliber sushi establishment, the polish rests on mastery of the details under the surface. It’s those parts I wanted to dive into—not our experiences, but theirs.

“At first, I only wanted a six-seater,” Park told me recently, so he could focus on details with laser-like absorption. With a 12-seater, he does the same.

When I wrote and filed the review, Shoyo was a four-person team; now, it’s down to three. Here is what that means.

“At first, I only wanted a six-seater.”

A certificate of quality on the wall announces provenance from Toyosu, the market that replaced Tsukiji as the preeminent seafood market in Japan, built on reclaimed land in Tokyo Bay.

Twice a week, fish comes in from Japan. Picking up the delivery around noon on a hectic day last week is a late start. Eight boxes hold 20 or so different fish that bask whole on the ice. Back in the kitchen behind the minimalist dining room, Park will descale, gut, clean, cut, and debone all of them himself. He will cure, whether with salt, vinegar, or kelp, nimbly shuffling through a roster of ancient techniques. Other practices involve washing the fish in salt water or running hot water over the skin. The freshwater eel he must cut while it’s live. At the sushi bar, Park will slice the white fish, readying it for service later.

Meanwhile, other specimens come in daily. Kondo cares for tuna. “A lot of tuna we do age,” Park says. “It’s way too fresh and young” when it arrives. Kondo also handles the sweet shrimp, which he deveins and pats with special absorbent paper. He helps decide which fish should be cured in what ways, which should be untampered with entirely. Nick Thompson, a third team member behind the scenes, busies himself fashioning the homemade mochi (the sweet red beans and chestnuts that will anchor an elegant dessert) and the pertly vinegared sushi rice.

The other little thing to be attended to: pickled ginger. During the season, it’s either the baby ginger, shin shoga, which is very expensive from Japan or slightly less pricey versions from Fiji or Hawaii. Thirty pounds of ginger will be cut, salted, boiled, and marinated in a secret elixir. Not every day, of course, but every few weeks. These will form the tiny mounds to the side of each hand-made plate.

Then it’s “all the little ingredients that we put on the fish.” The pestos, the wasabi salsas, the kelp sheets that will be layered over mackerel, the lacquered miso caramels. “I usually do that right before service,” Park says.

At some point, “I have to prepare for the second course, our sashimi [fan],” Park says. “As I’m prepping the fish, I’m thinking about the course. Those minutes help you think. I’m always a step ahead.” Then they fashion the day’s two fresh tamago omelets, which they will cut into blocks and hand guests as a close-to-parting gesture.

With the restaurant down to three team members, “Every day so far, we haven’t had a break. Nonstop,” Park says. Because sooner than he would like, he must shift gears for the first service. He must face the stage.

“Expectations are super high, so that’s what’s even more exhausting. There’s no mental break,” Park says. “As soon as we’re done prepping, we have to go straight to the bar, and that’s game time, so our faces have to be ready. That’s been the biggest and hardest part. Physically and mentally.” Because what people see is a tip of an iceberg. The elegant undulations of his wrist as he prepares bite after bite are but flourishes, ultimately. “But at the end of the day,” he says, it’s worth it.

“Long story short, a lot of people say, ‘Oh, wow! What you do [at the sushi bar] is so hard!’ But this is a very small fraction of our day. Making the sushi and coming up to the sushi bar is a small fraction.”

And what I’m struck by is how much skill goes into a shoebox-size sanctuary of a place. A place where you’ll find the creaminess of soft-shell crab in a nanban, a very old traditional Japanese dish, and shira ae, an equally traditional and rare (on our Japanese restaurant menus, anyway) tofu cream dish with blanched spinach and ikura (cured salmon roe). But also there’s the melting, shattering mouthful of an eel “sandwich” slathered with nori cream on Texas toast that’s been deep fried into ethereality. Keep in mind how much work is expended by three chefs to execute such volleys.

Perhaps in the future, Park says, he may offer a vegetarian omakase one day out of the month. Or limited, exclusive to-go boxes, so people who can’t score a reservation can still experience Shoyo. “I’m always thinking about how to make it better,” Park says. But he reminds himself to stay present and be patient. He has one piece of fish in front of him. Then another and another.

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