My knee-jerk (and culturally dimwitted) reaction to learning about Papa Shogun—and its blend of Japanese and Italian cuisines—was that it sounds like a gimmick. Then, in the time it took me to remember that life is much more enjoyable when you don’t go through it as a jaded, hidebound snob, I realized I was probably wrong. So I googled “Japanese Italian food,” and guess what? Japan is not only ravenous for Italian cooking, but extremely good at it.
Italian food—or Itameshi—started popping up in Japan at the end of the nineteenth century. By the end of the twentieth, through the careful incubation of chefs and eateries, it had become a genuine cultural phenomenon. As with tempura and other culinary imports, Japanese chefs experimented and innovated, bringing local ingredients and techniques to the kitchen table, creating not so much a fusion but rather a left-field take on traditional Italian dishes.
Papa Shogun is the Triangle’s local purveyor of Itameshi, and it’s certainly not a gimmick. But “Japanese Italian food” is an oversimplified term for what it actually does. Papa Shogun’s menu reads like a brash and flamboyant collision of two wildly different cuisines. The reality—for better and for worse—is much subtler.
Opened last year in Raleigh’s Seaboard Station, Papa Shogun is helmed by Tom Cuomo, whose impressive résumé cites stints at such defiantly unsubtle New York restaurants as wd-50 and Carbone. From the former, Cuomo developed a flair for experimentation, and from the latter (as well as ad hoc cooking lessons in his grandmother’s New Jersey kitchen) an apparent familiarity with some hardcore Italian food.
Cuomo’s credentials, alongside the restaurant’s youthful air, make the relative delicacy and restraint of Papa Shogun’s food a little surprising. With a few exceptions, these are humble Italian dishes, infused here and there with Japanese ingredients—sometimes brilliantly, sometimes unnoticeable.
We started with the fresh pulled mozzarella, sprinkled with togarashi. The cheese is competently made, beautifully presented, but ultimately nothing special, the attractive spray of seasoning overwhelmed by the richness of the mozzarella. More delicious is the mozz’s accompaniment, a kombu-sprinkled garlic bread; ten-year-old me could have devoured fifty pieces.
We moved on with a few more small plates, all of them perfectly OK, yet oddly disappointing. In my current state of eggplant infatuation, I anticipated great things from the farro caponata. The dish got a lift from some electrically sweet pickled raisins, but came off like a health-food bowl that might best be enjoyed after a triathlon, hinting at a universe of fascinating and complex flavors that disappeared under the tang of pickled red onions.
Better were the yaki onigiri, grilled Japanese rice balls that evoked arancini but with their own exotic spin. They are texturally delightful, but the rest of the preparation—a scattering of olives, capers, and agrodolce—is too staid and familiar, like a sauce I would throw together in my kitchen, incongruous next to technically exquisite onigiri that I could never, ever pull off.
But things were on an upward trajectory, evinced by the shrimp scampi in a deliriously rich sauce of miso, butter, and Calabrian chili. My only complaint was that I wanted more miso—more of that nutty, fermented, salty funk.
Then came the summer squash, the first dish in Papa Shogun’s lineup that truly clicked. Locally sourced zucchini and yellow squash, charred to perfection, dotted with generous gobs of butter permeated with the soy-and-citrus intensity of ponzu, and finally bathed in an ebullient shiso pesto. It’s all-consumingly delicious, sweet and smoky and silky and bright.
This is a glorious dish, maybe a genius dish, and a lesson in what’s possible when Papa Shogun really goes for it.
The rest of our meal occupied a slice of the quality scale between pretty good and very good. We moved into pasta territory with the mushroom gnocchi, little pillows of earthy savor topped by charred oyster mushrooms and a snowfall of shaved ricotta. I found it very good, but I would have found it better had the mushroom dashi broth promised by the menu been in evidence.
I loved the triumphantly weird linguine, noodles slicked with a transparent sauce of umeboshi, dried and salted Japanese plums. It has a striking, invigorating scent that falls somewhere between plum blossom and seawater—strange, wonderful, and addictive.
Papa Shogun’s tendency toward subtlety does occasionally reap rewards, as in the dead-simple panzanella, with soba noodles replacing the traditional cubes of rustic bread. It’s clever, summery, refreshing, and charming.
Our final dish of the evening (not counting some forgettable cannoli) was, finally, an exercise in maximalism. The tonkatsu Milanese—a pork cutlet pounded into an enormous oblong disk and fried to perfection—is a showstopper, a study in pure dining fun. Once you dig through the forest of arugula piled on top, the tonkatsu itself is basically a delivery vehicle for pure porky crispness, with balancing acidity provided by a fabulous katsu “ketchup.” It’s a joy to behold, and I dug in with childlike glee.
And it was a representation of what I wanted, and didn’t quite get, from Papa Shogun: more.
I want more effort from the unadorned dining room. I want it to look like Wes Anderson and Akira Kurosawa collaborated on decorating an Olive Garden. I want a bigger wine list. I want more sake. I want cocktails, shochu, whiskey. I want more noise, more spectacle. I want edge and ego.
I want more flourish from these dishes. More miso, more dashi, more fermented madness, more fat and funk and richness. More bizarre chimeras, more logic-defying combinations. More braggadocio and flash. More fun. More, more, more.
As it stands, there’s a disconnect between what I expected from Papa Shogun and what I actually got that I find difficult to reconcile. It’s a great little neighborhood restaurant, already in the upper echelon of its kind. But when I read that menu, I want a Big Night Out.
Papa Shogun is clearly a labor of love, with a team capable of technical precision and blinding creativity. Where that leaves them, at this moment, is with an almost limitless potential for more.
Comment on this review at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Support independent local journalism. Join the INDY Press Club to help us keep fearless watchdog reporting and essential arts and culture coverage viable in the Triangle.