photo credit: Stan Lee
When you are a person who eats out a lot, it can feel like you’re in a relationship with a restaurant. For a while now, we’ve been dating Shibumi, the Japanese restaurant in DTLA that’s like no other Japanese restaurant in the city.
Our first date was mind-blowingly great. We were excited to try out a place that didn’t serve brussels sprouts and octopus, and Shibumi’s kappo-style food didn’t disappoint. (Kappo is essentially a step up from an izakaya, involving shareable dishes.) The corn soup was the best we’ve ever had, and we had to be physically restrained from eating any more of the crispy monkfish. The dark room and the big central bar made us feel like we were in Tokyo. Most importantly, there was a $7,000 Japanese toilet with a heated seat in the bathroom.
It was a couple of months before our next date, when we introduced Shibumi to our friends. But something happened. The food overall just wasn’t as good and for some reason our server stopped serving us, became a chef, and never returned. Maybe Shibumi was catfishing us.
New years are for second chances though, so we went back to work on the relationship . And this time, we figured out how Shibumi works best: you need to sit at the bar. By yourself is fine, and maybe even preferable. Order the insane sounding Japanese “caviar” as a snack and ask which sake you should have. Get the sashimi, the shrimp dumplings in mushroom broth, the grilled pork, and if you’re lucky, that crispy monkfish (we’ve only seen it on the menu once). Save room for the fermented apple and koji ice cream dessert.
In some ways, Shibumi can feel a little unapproachable, especially if your Japanese eating experiences mostly consist of ramen, tempura, and Sugarfish. But now that we’ve taken the time to get to know it, we think you’re going to like it. You might even want to date it.
Described to us as a kind of fish jerky, this snack has little slices of cured fish egg sack and scallop cured in koji (a fungus that’s the basis for soy sauce) for a month. If this sounds at all insane to you, then you’re probably not going to order it, but if you’re feeling adventurous, do it. The fish flavors are strong, but the salty richness of the scallop is excellent. It comes with a little cup of sake to sip as you take nibbles, and pieces of refreshing daikon to have in between.
Chilled Corn Soup
One of the best soups we’ve ever had and about as corn-y as a dish can get. And we mean that not in the dad joke way. The crunchy bits of rice and surprise bits of jelly at the bottom make it even better. If it’s on the menu, order it.
A big serving of chrysanthemum greens (an Asian green vegetable, kind of like Chinese broccoli) covered in hemp miso (yes, that’s miso with hemp seeds) and, in case you were uncertain about all those references, a big hemp leaf for decoration. Sounds like a made-up stoner dish, is actually delicious, and a good way to come out of a meal here feeling like you ate something nutritious.
Silky Egg Tofu
A big square of silky tofu, topped with uni and fresh nori, this is obviously going to be really up your alley or not. We found the nori/seafood taste a bit too strong and the texture a bit too close to slimy, but maybe you’ll be into it.
Hearty shrimp dumplings in a bowl of very subtle mushroom broth. We like that they’ll bring you your own bowl and dumpling if you’re in a group. If you like big flavors, this isn’t for you, but it’s also the best example of the kind of stuff you would find in Japan.
Grilled Heritage Pork
So, so good. Insanely juicy pork, with pickled daikon and shredded leeks on the side. A must-order.
Crispy Monkfish Kara-Age
This was only on the menu for our first visit, but if you see it, do not hesitate. Like those crunchy chicken nugget-like things you get at your local Japanese takeout spot, only about a million times better. This is the dish that kickstarted our Shibumi love affair.
Koji (R)ice Cream
A great way to finish. Super creamy koji ice cream that’s also slightly salty. The cold fermented apple it comes with is unbelievably good.