Flavors: Montana Sushi Rolls Created by Chef Dae Shin at Nara Restaurant
Owner and chef Dae Shin of Nara Restaurant in Billings serves up food inspired from his Korean roots and Montana upbringing.
In 1996, Dae’s mother, Young Ran, opened the restaurant with her sister-in-law, Mia Settergren. After a couple of years, when Settergren made the decision to leave the business, Dae’s father, Young Soo, joined the business.
While mom cooked in the kitchen, dad took on the duties of making sushi. Soon after, Dae was recruited to wash dishes.
“So when the restaurant was purchased, I was 12 years old. My mom and dad would have me come down and do dishes for a whopping $5 a day. That was a pretty good deal that I had then,” Shin says. “As I got older, my dad needed my help so he started training me on what he knew, which was a great stepping stone for what I am doing right now.”
Years later, in 2004, Shin's father sent his son afar to learn more about their craft.
“He wanted me to go and expand my knowledge, and so he had to go to Korea where he had some contacts," Shin says. "There was an awesome sushi place in Daegu, Korea, where there was an awesome five-star hotel.”
Shin spent three months there until he was beckoned back home.
Shin was born in Seoul and was 10 years old when he immigrated with his parents and sister to the United States.
“We landed in Portland, Oregon, and that’s where we had our first layover, and that was different," he remembers. "Me being 10 years old, I didn’t really have a whole lot of what to expect, since back then the internet wasn’t really around so I didn’t really have a whole lot of what to expect.”
Shin recalls flying into Billings and seeing trees and big houses. “Korea is mostly skyscrapers and big apartment buildings,” he says, so it was a “big shock to me.”
He credits his cousin, Noah Settergren, for his learning how to speak English. Being the same age, they became good friends. Having grown up in Montana, Shin admits, he speaks "broken Korean.
"I speak with my parents, and I don’t really like to speak Korean that much because I know how I sound so different."
While his parents lived with their traditions and old ways, Shin was creating new paths — and that was reflected in the sushi he was making at the restaurant. He started combining the established ingredients of seaweed and seasoned rice with new ingredients, instead of the time-established seafood, vegetables or eggs.
"When my father took over (the restaurant), he was very traditional, and he didn’t like to use cream cheese on any of his rolls. I mean, we have a roll called Philadelphia roll, but he refused to use cream cheese," Shin says. "As time passed on, and different sushi restaurants started opening, up he started realizing that it’s not what we wanted, it was what the customers wanted.
"So that’s how he started adding new things, and then as I took over, I decided to expand the palate of our customers, and started adding different things we could find locally here.”
These days, he has added bacon, fried eggs and beef to his rolls.
Shin uses the foods he had been exposed to in his life, beginning with food from his roots. Currently, his favorite cuisine is Mexican, which he believes pairs well with Asian foods because both have powerful flavors. Shin also derives inspirations from other chefs.
"Whenever I travel, I like to go and try the sushi at different places," he says.
Korean cuisine integrates elements from Chinese and Japanese food, but it has its own distinctive personality. The dishes are pungent and flavorful with the addition of seasonings such as soy sauce, vinegar, sesame, and ginger. Gochujang, or red chili paste, is a savory, sweet, and spicy fermented condiment very popular in Korean cooking. And no meal comes to the table without another fermented item: kimchee, a spicy garlicky cabbage condiment.
Shin and his wife, Tanya, took over Nara from his parents in 2012. His mother continued to cook the hot dishes, but when she left three years ago to return to Korea with her husband, Shin had to reinvent her recipes.
“She passed on zero recipes to me,” Shin says. She would not release the recipes for her signature kimchee, bulgoki — marinated beef — or chun, a Korean pancake.
“I tried to call her over the phone when she was in Korea and she said, ‘don’t do it,'" Shin says. "I just kept pushing for the recipe and she finally gave me a rough recipe."
These days with Kaycee Eagleton, a classically trained chef in the kitchen, Dustin Ritts, four years behind the sushi bar with Shin, and Tanya working on public relations and administration, Nara Restaurant is picking up momentum. The menu offers 15 options of Nigiri, six choices of sashimi, 27 different specialty rolls and 17 makis along with a dozen entrees and daily specials.
The chun is no longer on the menu and Shin has created his own version of bulgoki. Poke nachos, pork belly tacos and Korean chicken wings are new to the Nara menu.
Shin believes sushi is what drives his restaurant. The Rollin' Red — made with spicy tuna, cream cheese and jalapenos on the inside and avocado on the outside topped with tempura lobster pieces, bacon, green onions, sesame seeds, volcano sauce, spicy teriyaki sauce and sriracha — continues to be a crowd favorite.
The Slammin' Salmon is his wife’s favorite with salmon, cucumber, avocado and asparagus on the inside with spicy asparagus sauce, sesame oil and sesame seeds. His creativity continues with the Dragon Breath, which includes mango, and El Jefe, with shrimp tempura, crab salad and Hamachi, or yellowtail.
Shin’s rolls are large, vast like the landscape in Montana. While traditional sushi rolls are consumed in one delicate bite, the specialty rolls at Nara can reach three inches in diameter.
"I have seen where people use a fork and a knife," Shin says. "I prefer people wouldn’t do that.”
He suggests smaller bites, but he makes the rolls larger to “balance all the flavors together.
"My main suggestion is to try to unlock your jaw and get it down!”
With ‘Dae’ meaning “the great one” in Korean, the chef is living up to the power of his name.
"I would like to be the one in town that pushes flavors," he says. "I’m not the one to shy away from bold flavors, so I am the one that’s going to be pushing for that. Whenever we come up with new dishes, I say we need more flavor than this — more garlic, more spices, more ginger, sesame.
"So don’t come here if you’re not a big fan of flavors.”