In a book titled "Japan in Transition," copyright 1899, Stafford Ransome, a reporter for the Morning Post in New York, remarked, "The best authorities agree generally that Japanese food is usually extremely clean, and is served artistically and most delicately; that some of it is rather eatable, but that most is extremely nasty to the taste; and I think that, with hardly one exception, they maintain that a European cannot live on it satisfactorily for any length of time."
Mr. Ransome goes on to suggest two reasons Japanese cooking confounds Westerners. Using chopsticks wears them out, and sitting cross-legged on the floor puts pins and needles in their legs. Perhaps in part because Shogun supplies chairs to everyone and forks to those who ask, the restaurant seems always to be packed.
Are people drawn by food that is clean, artistic, delicate and rather eatable? What about the problem Mr. Ransome refers to when he says, Eurocentrically, "Most is extremely nasty"? Japanese dishes can include lotus roots, steamed bean curd, cuttlefish, seaweed, fern sprouts, dried sardines, dried gourds, eel, chrysanthemum leaves and cockles. Given its potential strangeness, why do people go to Shogun?
I suggest, for the sushi and sashimi. Shogun's raw tuna is excellent. Yes, people used not to eat raw tuna, which came in cans, got mixed with salad dressing and put between fluffy white bread slices by one's mother. Now they do, and I, for one, love it.
But do they want anything of what's strange? The fern sprouts and dried gourds? On a recent visit, convinced that raw tuna wouldn't flesh out a whole article, we tried some of Shogun's less obvious preparations. Perhaps few people order them. We thought we should give them a try. My qualifications for judging Japanese food are two years' living, eating and cooking in Japan. My companions' qualifications were an affection for good food. The three of us agreed, one shouldn't stray from the sushi and the sashimi. (For those not familiar with it, the latter is sliced raw fish and vegetables served with condiments.)
For $42.75, it would be possible to sample all 23 different sushi pieces one by one, including mirugai, akagai, torigai, masago, shime saba, for the adventuresome; flounder, octopus, tuna and yellowtail for those who like to know what they're eating. For $14, we ordered a sashimi and sushi dinner that brought us wasabi (Japanese green horseradish), soy, shaved daikon, pickled ginger and a lovely assortment of fresh, handsomely and immaculately set out fish: tuna, flounder, shrimp, a maki wrap of small, sweet eggs, salmon, sea legs and even mackerel, marinated in lemon to counter fatty mackerel's tendency to fishiness.
We began our meal, however, with an appetizer of tempura ($6), six gyoza ($4.25), or fried shrimp dumplings, and yakitori ($4.25), or skewered chicken. The batter-dipped, deep-fried vegetables and fish were agreeable but not exceptional, e.g., light but not very light. Green beans, shrimp, sea legs, a floret of broccoli and slices of potato, eggplant, green pepper and carrot offered considerable textural variety.
Gyoza are originally Chinese, but Japanese by adoption. These had absorbed more oil than one would like, but dipped in a delicate sauce based on soy, they went well with beer (Kirin, $3.25) and sake ($3). The skewered, broiled chicken was dry, its marinade commercial and vapidly sweet.
For entrees, in addition to the sashimi/sushi dinner, we ordered sakana shioyaki ($13.50), or broiled fresh fish, and yosenabe ($12.50), described as "seafood & vegetables in a light broth" in the menu, and translated as "a little of everything" in a Shibata Publishing Co. cookbook of mine. The broiled fish was tuna (actually, "sakana shioyaki" implies a whole fresh fish salted to enhance flavor). It came in three thin slices, grilled to a dryness gone tough at the edges. We were grateful for the accompanying, delicious grilled bean sprouts mixed with onion and green pepper.
The yosenabe, or fish stew, looked beautiful, with three long Alaskan king crab claws extending from one rim to the other across a heavy metal pot. However, it was messy reaching in to remove the legs from the wet broth, and difficult extracting the crab meat from the shell. A Japanese diner with crab-sticky fingers would require hot cloths, but probably the problem wouldn't arise. Also, the scallops and shrimp were overcooked, though we liked the broth, the greens and the udon noodles.
European-style sweets aren't customary after Japanese meals. We weren't surprised that Japanese bean cake was dry, or that vanilla ice cream with plum wine meant ice cream and, at the bottom of the dish, just a tablespoon of a gentle spirit.
Shogun, 316 N. Charles St., 962-1130
Hours: Lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Tuesdays to Fridays; dinner 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Tuesdays to Thursdays, until 11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. Sundays
Accepts: Mastercard ,Visa,Diners Club
Features: Japanese cuisine and sushi
No-smoking area: Yes
Wheelchair access: Yes