Japanese food is simple food, compounded of a very few basic ingredients that combine for different, but subtly related, flavors.
There is none of the baroque exuberance of Thai food, or even the regional variations that lend so much variety to Chinese cuisine. Like its famous gardens and interiors, Japan’s food is restrained.
Still, I do get hungry for it. And, to assuage that craving, Shohko Cafe is an ideal place to go. And lunch might be the ideal meal here if the Thursday we tried it is any indication. It was uncrowded, unhurried and serene.
I ordered one of my favorites, a bento box – the Japanese version of a cafeteria tray, I guess you might say, with raw fish sashimi ($21). I was disappointed only that it didn’t arrive in an actual bento box, but rather on a giant plate, with various little plates containing the goodies nestled on top.
I chose tuna as my fish, and three large and succulent pink slices arrived atop a tangle of daikon radish threads. Alongside were just-wilted spinach, a seaweed salad and a heap of crisply fried vegetable tempura. It was a nice mix of textures and flavors.
The spinach, heated just past raw, was draped in a tahini dressing that was a nutty complement to what otherwise could be the blandest of dishes. The seaweed salad – by far my favorite – was slightly crunchy and dressed only lightly with a rice-wine vinaigrette.
I should have mentioned that soup – a minimalist bonito broth with miso (fermented soybean paste) and a scattering of tofu – came first. It, too, was tasty and best savored by sipping from the bowl.
As a sort of bonus, my sashimi came with a heap of vegetable tempura, at which Shohko excels. The batter was lighter than light and perfectly crisp. I tasted sweet potatoes – a tempura favorite.
Also a strip of sweet pepper, a couple of onion rings and a wedge of summer squash. And a lone shrimp (I could have added more at $1.50 apiece).
All were excellent, and accompanied by a broth-like and comparatively bland dipping sauce, as well as bright green (and very spicy-hot) wasabi horseradish and plain soy sauce.
My companion asked for a complete order of seafood tempura ($18) and was equally pleased. Calamari, scallops, shrimp, fish and crab were coated with the same light batter and hauled piping hot from the deep-fryer to the plate.
Alongside were more wasabi and soy sauce for dipping. We were impressed not just by the crispy and fresh coating, but also by the ingredients – my guest pounced on the calamari bits and the scallops, leaving the shrimp and fish to wait until round two of sampling.
Shohko has been open for 35 years, making it a veritable institution among Santa Fe restaurants. Yet, here we are, in another age altogether, and the intrigue remains.