Shige Sushi is a Japanese Adventure in Sonoma

From familiar to exotic, this Japanese restaurant in Sonoma is very Japanese.

After polishing off most of a grilled sardine, the question remains: To eat the head or not eat the head. A triple dog dare doesn’t seem to make it look any more appetizing, and ultimately, after a few steely attempts, we decide to leave it on the plate. We had, after all, done a fairly bang-up job on the rest of the almost foot-long critter — with chopsticks, no less.

Choosing your adventure, whether toe-dipper or full-on explorer is what Shige Sushi and Izakaya in Sonoma is all about. With an extensive menu of authentic Japanese and American-style rolls, you can stick with salmon rolls, potstickers and chicken teriyaki or go all-in with salted sardine, monkfish liver and homemade plum wine. Spoiler alert, we did a little of both.

Shige sushi restaurant in Sonoma. Heather Irwin/PD
Shige sushi restaurant in Sonoma. Heather Irwin/PD

Shige Sushi isn’t exactly new. Owners Shige and Toki Mori moved from their bento-box sized restaurant in Cotati to the former Shiso Japanese restaurant just outside downtown Sonoma. With nearly triple the size, including an outdoor patio, they’ve expanded the menu to include both a sushi bar and izakaya (or pub) fare like meat skewers, tonkatsu (thin cutlets of fried chicken or pork), braised pork belly and chicken curry.

Don’t expect all-you-can-eat specials or cheap ingredients. Shige Sushi and Izakaya is a spot that feels transplanted from a funky Tokyo suburb directly into Sonoma. Though you will be graciously welcomed (with hot towels), this isn’t an American restaurant with Japanese food. It’s a Japanese restaurant with Japanese food.

Even for a sushi connoisseur, there are a lot of unfamiliar items on the menu, but it’s worth taking a little time to wade through.

Skewers at Shige sushi restaurant in Sonoma. Heather Irwin/PD
Skewers at Shige sushi restaurant in Sonoma. Heather Irwin/PD

Each item is first written in Japanese and then (sort of) in English. Some things are abundantly clear, like “teriyaki” or “pot stickers,” others need a little more explanation, like “grilled salted saury” (Sanma Shio Yaki, $16), that turns out to be a sardine. A few items have no English names, just vague descriptions. The Shige Panic Roll ($19.50) just has a row of question marks. Adventure time!

Inside, the restaurant is a visual cacophony of Japanese posters, paper lanterns and tchotchkes — the opposite of minimalist design, but a vibrant and playful decor that welcomes the hubbub of families and casual dining. There rarely seems to be enough staff to handle the ebb and flow of customers, but servers are always gracious and owner Shige is a constant presence in the dining room.

At the end of the meal, if you’ve been intrepid in your eating, Shige might just come over and pay you the biggest compliment of your life: You eat like a Japanese.

Best Bets

Kushiage Set, ($18): Five skewers with chef’s choice of fried meat, seafood or vegetables. Ours included a beef roll, baby octopus, scallops and chicken. There are two pieces on each skewer so it’s great for sharing.

Oni Karaage ($9): Fried chicken Japanese-style. Rice flour gives the batter a great crunch. Spicy includes a dollop of chili sauce which is more angry-looking than actually hot.

Kaarage (fried chicken) at Shige Sushi restaurant in Sonoma. (Heather Irwin/Sonoma Magazine)
Kaarage at Shige sushi restaurant in Sonoma. Heather Irwin/PD

Tsukemono Mori ($8): If you’re a Japanese pickle person, these are the real deal. We love the funky, briny, chewy-crunchy textures of vegetables not easily identifiable.

Sashimi & Sushi (MP): Here’s where things get really interesting. The specials board is a bit hidden at the far end of the sushi bar, but lists fresh additions not on the menu. You’ll find the usual suspects like tuna, salmon, octopus, yellowtail and prawns along with some less common things like ankimo, or monkfish liver. It’s described as the foie gras of the sea, and holds up to the name, with a rich, fatty, slightly fishy taste. Tuna belly, which has a higher concentration of fat, is also worth trying. It melts in your mouth like butter, with the fresh taste of the sea. Tamago nigiri, which is a sweetened omelet placed on rice is freshly made here, and you can taste the difference. Where the commercial version is overly sweet with a smooth texture, handmade tamago has a more complex sweet-and-salty flavor, with bubbles of browned egg. Very hard to find. “Tofu skin” is inari, or little pockets of fried tofu with rice inside.

Rolls ($17.50 – $19.50): Our favorite was the “Ken Chan,” a roll that breaks all the rules with shrimp tempura and crab salad inside and tuna poke and crab on top. Also great is the Crazy Ninja, with tuna, hamachi and avocado inside and spicy tuna outside.

Sake at Shige sushi restaurant in Sonoma. Heather Irwin/PD
Sake at Shige sushi restaurant in Sonoma. Heather Irwin/PD

Sake: Shige has an extensive selection of sake, and the menu makes it easy to figure out what you’ll like, with a chart of sweet, dry, light or full-flavored bottles. It clearly explains how sake is made and you can get a glass or single-serving bottle depending on the type. Even for sake beginners, its a fun way to order something you’ll like versus taking a stab in the dark.

Sweet Plum Wine: This sweet, syrupy concoction isn’t for everyone, but if you’re a fan of dessert wines, you’ll be hooked. It’s got just enough tartness to steer it away from saccharine but is a hearty, low-alcohol concoction worth trying.

Cheesecake: While they don’t have it every day, Japanese cheesecake is a lighter version of American style, often with matcha mixed in.

Overall: Japanese food without apologies, but with a gracious welcome to anyone who loves sushi and a little adventure.

Shige Sushi is at 19161 Sonoma Highway, Sonoma, 707-933-9331, Open for dinner Tuesday through Sunday from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m.