Did you manage to land a seat at Shibumi? Fine. You are probably halfway through the cucumbers then, maybe a nip of sake, at least a hint of an evening well-begun. The cucumbers have been sliced, peeled in a fashion that makes their skins look like watered silk, and thickly sliced, and arranged in an earthen bowl. They have been lightly salted. The seeds at the center have been replaced with slivered shiso leaf, pickled plum, crunchy seeds and chewy, smoky bits of bonito. When you bite into a thick slice, it explodes with flavor but not quite with juice; the short cure has rendered the vegetable crisp and delicate, with a kind of tautness where you might expect the crunch.
Perhaps you have ordered a small carafe of full-throated Kimoto sake, made using a centuries-old method that has become almost extinct. The cucumber agrees with your choice. The cucumber likes this sake a lot.
Shibumi, a modest, season-dependent izakaya on a lonely block downtown, feels like a Tokyo restaurant in important ways, which is probably kind of the point. It is well hidden at the base of an automatic parking garage whose combination of sterile emptiness and mechanical failure can make its customers feel like Jacques Tati’s hapless Mr. Hulot. Its main architectural feature is an opaque, cloud-shaped window that looks like a Victorian stained-glass detail blown up to the size of a fat ewe. The long bar and most of the dining tables are fashioned from a single old cypress tree dredged up from a swamp — some of the joinery may remind you of 1903-era Craftsman woodwork, which is to say of the first time that the Japanese aesthetic swept Los Angeles. The bottles behind the bar, both Japanese whiskey and glowing European tinctures, are as obscure as the softly disturbing music on the sound system. No matter who you are, there will come a moment at Shibumi when you feel like the least hip person in the room.
Shibumi comes from David Schlosser, a Los Angeles chef whose résumé includes stretches at l’Orangerie and stages at some of the best kitchens, but also at Ginza Sushiko and Urasawa, as the embassy chef in Tokyo, and at Kyoto’s revered Arashiyama Kitcho. Rumors of Shibumi have been flitting around the Internet for years.
Schlosser, slicing abalone, puréeing wasabi root with sharkskin, fussing over the placement of a sliver of jellied carp skin on a platter of sea bream sashimi, presides over his corner of the bar with the kind of slack-eyed intensity you find in the very best chefs; commanding his team of chefs with subtle nods and glares, occasionally wandering over to explain the provenance of an especially flexible toothpick or a smear of house-aged miso, or to praise the radishes and beets from Shear Rock Farm in Santa Paula, from which he sources nearly all his vegetables.
One of the loveliest presentations at Shibumi may be the crudités plate, served in a Japanese crate with with a tiny saucer of puréed, fermented rice, that pops with color like a Flemish still-life. There is a salad of ripe avocado buried under wild leaves, flavored simply with seaweed and a little soy; and a dish of the silkiest puréed corn, given weight with a bit of yuba, tofu skin, and texture with a wisp of puffed rice. Warm egg tofu, a little like a trembly custard, is garnished with tongues of sea urchin roe and a pudding-soft dab of wasabi, hip-deep in a forest-green seaweed purée thickened with a touch of kudzu root.
That thing that looks like a horse tail hanging from a metal hook in the back kitchen? That’s the drying innards of a squash. The hanging fish tail? That’s for good luck. The wee sliver Schlosser has just presented on a tiny plate? That’s a bit of yubeshi, a long-cured confection of walnut-stuffed yuzu that was reputedly a treat carried by samurai warriors as a gift for their hosts, and which has the jolt of pure umami. It is hard to think of a dish at Shibumi that doesn’t include at least one ingredient fermented, cured or aged in the back, and Schlosser can’t help himself from rummaging through the jars in the back – sometimes it feels a little like being in a friend’s basement as he shows off snatches from a dozen old albums. The fatty grilled pork is half-drenched in koji rice, fermented with the same mold used to make miso and sake, and the lovely grilled Holstein filet (I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a cattle breed credited on a menu before this) is flavored with diced “monk-style’’ pickles as well as a smear of wasabi.
Meaty, pink-tinged salmon trout is hot-smoked over cherrywood bark, and served with what is probably best described as puffy fish-skin chicharrónes that dissolve into sweet liquid in your mouth. The monkfish karaage, rolled in crisped rice and fried, are fine, gooey inside, but lean pretty close to standard izakaya cooking. What you’re going to want instead, weirdly enough, is the broiled yellow beets slathered in barley miso. Beets may be unknown in Japan, but their sweet earthiness might as well be custom-made for the loose white paste.
Not even the cocktails are immune from Shibumi’s precision. One night there was a drink made with fermented loquat juice and a strong, bitter-almond liqueur made by macerating its seeds, garnished with a wisp of fresh ginseng root. There is usually a cocktail on the menu made with cherry bark and the essence of cherry blossoms. After-dinner cordials may include a sharply bitter infusion of kumquats and pussy willow, or a strange, fragrant concoction of Italian bitter-almond liqueur and funky Pineau des Charentes from the area where Cognac is made.
Is it an odd Japanese restaurant where the vegetables are more compelling than the sashimi, the customers are instructed to eat the grilled omusubi like a mushroom-rice taco and the desserts include both koji-flavored ice cream and beyond-traditional fern-root mochi drizzled with syrup? Perhaps. But Schlosser’s smack of pure obsession may be precisely what downtown needs.
A long-anticipated izakaya opens in downtown L.A.
815 S. Hill St., Los Angeles, (213) 265-7923, shibumidtla.com.
Cold plates $6-$18; hot dishes $12-$28; desserts $8.
Open Tues.-Sun., 6 p.m. to midnight. Credit cards accepted. Full bar. Lot parking.
Cucumbers stuffed with shiso; chilled corn soup; egg tofu with uni; cherry bark-smoked salmon trout; grilled pork with koji rice.
MORE REVIEWS FROM JONATHAN GOLD