Review: Papa Shogun’s Italian-Japanese fusion creates inventive combinations you’d never imagine

Papa Shogun in Raleigh fuses Italian and Japanese cuisines

Papa Shogun owner and chef Tom Cuomo talks about the central role food has played throughout his life
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Papa Shogun owner and chef Tom Cuomo talks about the central role food has played throughout his life

Reading the Italian-Japanese fusion menu at Papa Shogun, you can’t help but be intrigued — and at times disoriented — by the descriptions. And unless you’re an expert in both cuisines, you’ll probably find yourself pulling out your phone to Google a few terms.

Some descriptions have you salivating at the prospect of flavor and texture combinations you’ve never experienced but can almost imagine. Fresh pulled mozzarella, for instance: “kombu garlic bread, shiso, togarashi.” The contrast of creamy cheese and crunchy grilled bread, punctuated by the shiso’s distinctive anise note and togarashi’s complex blend of spices — it’s right there on the tip of your tongue.

Others leave you wondering how in the world such disparate elements could possibly work. Take chicken parm ramen: “tomato tori paitan, arugula, chicken katsu.” Once you’ve puzzled out that tori paitan is the chicken version of tonkatsu ramen broth, you wonder how tomato fits in.

The chicken parm ramen is made up of tomato tori paitan, arugula and chicken katsu at Italian-Japanese fusion restaurant Papa Shogun in Raleigh. Juli Leonard

It takes a leap of faith to order, but knowing that the menu is the creation of owner/chef Tom Cuomo should bolster your courage. Cuomo’s resume includes work under James Beard Award-winning chef Wylie Dufresne at the celebrated wd-50 in New York, and more recently, at Matt Kelly’s Mateo in Durham. Clearly, the chef has got some solid fusion cred.

Having taken the plunge myself a couple of times, sampling from both the lunch and dinner menus, I feel confident in saying you can feel free to jump right into either one wherever you please. (There’s considerable overlap between the two menus. Several of the dishes I ordered at lunchtime are also available in the evening, and vice versa.)

OK, so maybe my first visit was a little more cautious than a plunge. Let’s say I dipped my toe into the waters of the lunch menu, spreading the risk by sharing the meal with a friend.

Farro caponata looked promising, with a list of ingredients that didn’t stray too far off the traditional caponata path: “toasted farro, Japanese eggplant, pickled red onion, pine nut dashi, pickled raisins, fried capers, demi-sec tomatoes, toasted pine nuts.” The chef delivered big time on that promise, transforming a classic Italian salad into a more versatile dish. With the farro tempering the assertive flavors of a traditional caponata, this could easily serve as a light lunch on its own.

The tonkatsu milanese is made up of a boneless heritage pork chop, topped with a tomato katsu sauce and a small salad of arugula and pickled red onion in a yuzu vinaigrette at Papa Shogun in Raleigh. Juli Leonard

Encouraged, we ventured into slightly deeper waters with kombu gnocchi. Made with soba noodle dough flecked with bits of kelp, the gnocchi delivered a surprising payload of flavor in those innocuous-looking pillows of pasta. Charred oyster mushrooms, a rich mushroom dashi, and a garnishing cloud of shaved ricotta salata dialed the umami up further still.

But the biggest surprise of the meal for both of us was the chef’s take on tramezzini. I was skeptical as to how the listed fillings — shio kombu, cucumber, radish, avocado, yuzu wasabi mayo — could possibly work. But I was curious, and my friend was happy to go along for the ride. The result, piled between thin slices of French pan loaf bread and cut into triangles, made believers out of us.

The adventure continued a few days later, when I returned on a Saturday evening with my wife to explore the dinner menu. We noshed on complimentary togarashi popcorn and sipped a crisp prosecco as we took in the surroundings.

Located in the former Kimbap space in Seaboard Station, Papa Shogun is a compact L-shaped dining room with just 30 or so seats, wrapped around an open kitchen. Just inside the entrance, a large cartoon print of a woman bathing in a bowl of ramen adds a playful note to an otherwise minimally decorated space.

White brick walls and red metal cafe chairs at simple bleached wood tables and banquettes set a casual mood that might be described as urban-industrial-meets-Japanese-austere.

The pulled mozzarella is every bit as good as I imagined. No, make that better. I hadn’t counted on the bonus umami boost from the kombu in the garlic bread.

The mozzarella also makes a cameo appearance in yaki onigiri, joining roasted red peppers atop a small fleet of beautifully seared rice balls, floating down a miniature river of savory, creamy red sauce. Served on a black slate stone, the presentation charms the eye as well as the palate.

Stuffed yakitori shiitakes (“oregano crumb, lemon butter, togarashi, shiso”) come off as surprisingly one-dimensional, and expectations that “oregano crumb” implies a certain crispness are not met.

But the chicken parm ramen that follows erases all of my earlier doubts with a sauce that marries a tomato-packed vegetable stock and a long-simmered, collagen-rich chicken stock to produce a coppery sauce that’s as rich in meaty flavor as a bolognese. And that’s just the backup chorus for the star of the show: chicken, juicy beneath an exemplary parmesan-breaded crust and dappled with dollops of blistered mozzarella.

We’re so impressed with the chicken parm, in fact, that we opt to continue the breaded fried cutlet theme for a shared entree: tonkatsu milanese. This time it’s a boneless heritage pork chop, topped with a tomato katsu sauce and a small salad of arugula and pickled red onion in a yuzu vinaigrette.

Fresh pulled mozzarella is served with kombu garlic bread, shiso and togarashi at Italian-Japanese fusion restaurant Papa Shogun in Raleigh. Juli Leonard

Dessert is olive oil cake Mont Blanc, which sandwiches the cake between layers of chocolate ganache and chestnut puree, topped with an Alpine peak of meringue and powdered sugar. It’s good but very rich and dense, leaving us wishing the cake layer was thicker. Still, we agree that it has been a most enjoyable meal.

Chef Cuomo has just rolled out a new menu for spring. Several dishes will remain substantially unchanged (the kombu gnocchi, for one, “will never leave the menu”), but you can expect more dishes showcasing fresh spring produce. I haven’t had a chance to dive into that menu, but I feel safe in repeating what I said earlier: Feel free to jump right in wherever you please.

Papa Shogun

111 Seaboard Ave., Suite 118, Raleigh


Cuisine: Italian-Japanese fusion

Rating: 3 1/2 stars

Prices: $$-$$$

Atmosphere: casual, urban industrial

Noise level: low

Service: pleasant, generally attentive with occasional minor lapses

Recommended: farro caponata, fresh pulled mozzarella, yaki onigiri, kombu gnocchi, tramezzini, chicken parm ramen

Open: Lunch Tuesday-Friday, dinner Tuesday-Saturday

Reservations: accepted

Other: beer and wine; accommodates children; excellent vegetarian selection; parking in lot.

The N&O’s critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals. We rank restaurants in five categories: 5 stars: Extraordinary. 4 stars: Excellent. 3 stars: Above average. 2 stars: Average. 1 star: Fair.

The dollar signs defined: $ Entrees average less than $10. $$ Entrees $11 to $20. $$$ Entrees $21 to $30. $$$$ Entrees more than $30.