San Diego has a lot of sushi: high-end stuff, like Sushi Dokoro Shirahama or Sushi Ota, as good as anyone's; see-and-be-seen bars, like those at Nobu or RA; and that strangest of concepts, "budget sushi." Then there's Shino Sushi + Kappo, on the southern fringe of Little Italy (838 W. Ash St.), which isn't exactly any of those. Shino delivers the perfection of high-end sushi but does so without being austere or annoyingly hipster-nightclub cool.
That Robert Nakamura would serve sushi of the highest quality should not surprise. Like his brother Roger, Nakamura trained under Yukita Ota at Pacific Beach's Sushi Ota. Roger co-owns Hane Sushi in Bankers Hill with Ota. Most of the chefs at Shino worked at either Ota or Hane. The bloodlines are good.
Nakamura's sushi shines when he's working close to classic Edomai-style, yet with perhaps a bit of a modern touch: a non-traditional fish here or a slightly different garnish there. It all starts, of course, with the rice rather than the fish. Shino's sushi rice has the perfect seasoning with hints of sweetness and acid. Each grain maintains its independent integrity as the entire block holds together as a whole. This, first and foremost, is what sushi is about.
Clearly, one of the things Nakamura picked up from Ota is the selection of quality fish. His salmon is some of the best I've ever tasted, and his albacore (served raw rather than the more common tataki-style) is not far behind. The garnishes on the albacore—two variations on minced daikon radish (one with ponzu and garlic, one with chile paste) and wispy strips of scallion greens—highlight the fish's natural flavor. Another standout at Shino is the saba—mackerel that's lightly pickled with a brilliant, filament-like garnish of pickled kelp that makes the assertively flavored fish so much more approachable.
Make no mistake, an omakase trip to Shino won't be cheap. It's not difficult to appreciate the reasons one might want to pay less for a sushi fix, but the compromises inherent in the notion are both obvious and extremely unappealing. One too many meals at Sushi Deli proved that point to me far beyond my gut's content.
And that's one of the things that makes Shino different: It's possible to try Nakamura's superb sushi on a budget. The Sushi Combo lunch special—miso soup and six pieces of nigiri (maguro, hamachi, albacore, white fish, salmon, spicy tuna) with four pieces of a California roll for $12—hardly constitutes expensive sushi. These are the very things that "budget sushi" almost invariably is not: outstanding, high-end sushi at extremely reasonable prices.
Shino's sushi is sushi-lovers' sushi. It's sushi for those who know sushi, appreciate its nuances and traditions but don't necessarily want to have to deal with all that seems to come with it.