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Wednesday, November 8, 2000

Spare, with flair

Posted By on Wed, Nov 8, 2000 at 12:00 AM

The universe is a balance of opposing forces: Hot and cold, sweet and sour, yin and yang. Shiro attempts to balance the opposing cuisines of Japan and France — Japan with its stark simplicity, France with its rich excess. Japanese cooking "with a French flair" is how the sign in front describes it.

The setting mirrors the tension: a 1930 Georgian Revival mansion resplendent with rococo plaster flourishes and leaded glass, now retrofitted with a sleek cherry wood sushi bar and serene tatami rooms in the basement.

We were seated near the sushi bar one evening, and enjoyed a splendid dinner. We began with tempura of mixed vegetables ($8), which included turnips as well as the more usual sweet potatoes, broccoli, asparagus, etc. The dish was garnished with sunomono — sweet vinegared cucumbers, here with paper-thin slices of radish added.

Mushroom was the soup of the day, and it was spectacular — as light as consommé, but with a flavor as complex as the essence of the woods on a fall day (the kind of day when you can find mushrooms growing underfoot).

A tiny scoop of lemony sorbet is served between the courses — an elegant touch.

I enjoyed an entrée of ahi tuna, coated with sesame seeds then cooked so briefly that all but the outer half-inch was still rosy pink inside. The dipping sauce of wasabi cream came close to being a fusion of French and Japanese food, though the fire of wasabi was effectively snuffed out by the cream. This was served with an interesting quinoa pilaf — lots of fiber!

My companion ordered equally delicious grilled sea scallops, prepared with leeks and shiitake mushrooms.

Our server that evening, Gina, had recently emigrated from Korea and spoke essential English. She apologized repeatedly — although our perception was that we were enjoying a lovely meal in a beautiful setting with gracious service. Finally, Gina brought us a free dessert to compensate for the transgressions we could not identify. All was well.

On a subsequent visit, we began with a grand appetizer — soft-shelled crabs ($12), fried with a very light batter, served with pickled daikon and a soy dipping sauce.

The soup that day was spinach, and not the creamed variety but a puree — wow! You'll get your fill of antioxidants in one bowl.

My choice of salmon teriyaki was not very interesting, served with plain white rice and the same sautéed vegetables I’d had with the tuna.

The sushi assortment that my co-diner ordered was lovely, but uneventful. The co-diner felt it was skimpy for the price ($25), and the miso soup that comes with it keeps one from dabbling among the cuisines.

Sake does not appear on the extensive (and pricey) wine list, but it was readily available when we asked.

The service that night was disappointing, and there were no apologies when our server neglected to bring butter with the bread, never refilled our water glasses, or left dirty dishes on the table right through dessert.

Japanese cooking "with a French flair" implies more than Japanese food and French food on the same menu. Sous chef Aaron Richardson, who has been with the restaurant since its opening this past summer, says, "We are trying to put classical French food alongside traditional Japanese food. Slowly, we're working towards a fusion."

This is an ambitious restaurant, still striving for inner harmony. Aren't we all?

Elissa Karg dines for Metro Times. E-mail

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