Shibumi Embraces Imperfection, but Its Japanese Small Plates Are Flawless

Grilled heritage pork, koji rice, pickled daikon and leek at ShibumiEXPAND
Grilled heritage pork, koji rice, pickled daikon and leek at Shibumi
Heather Platt

When an exciting new restaurant opens in Los Angeles, L.A. Weekly heads in for a First Look, a short review based on a single visit. If you're hungry for more, see our starred restaurant reviews.

Nearly a year after chef David Schlosser announced plans to open Shibumi, the eagerly anticipated kappo-style Japanese restaurant has finally begun seating customers in downtown L.A. 

For such a long-awaited debut, the interior feels surprisingly understated. The door is unmarked and the dark walls are bare save for minimalist light fixtures. The wooden tables are set with little aside from neatly folded black napkins. At the centerpiece of the dining room is a bar made from 400-year-old cypress wood, behind which Schlosser performs for captivated diners, slicing fish with precision and plating it on beautiful, mismatched ceramic.

The restaurant embraces the Japanese wabi-sabi aesthetic that equates imperfection to beauty — nonconformity traditionally is thought to be more pleasing to the eye. The asymmetrical, mismatched pottery used here is probably the best example of wabi-sabi.

Cucumbers stuffed with shiso leaf, seeds, umeboshi and bonitoEXPAND
Cucumbers stuffed with shiso leaf, seeds, umeboshi and bonito
Heather Platt

The concept of wabi-sabi doesn't refer just to the small details of the restaurant but also to the concept as a whole. Schlosser is not conforming to any notion of what might be trending in L.A. right now.

Having spent years working for renowned chefs all over the world — including at L'Arpege in Paris, Aureole and Shuko in New York and Urusawa, L'Orangerie and Ginza Sushiko here in L.A. — Schlosser found his greatest culinary muse from his years in Japan. It was there that he became inspired by the more healthful food culture (which also works well here in Los Angeles). 

To be clear, Shibumi is not a kaiseki restaurant. (Kaiseki refers to the more formal Japanese style of dining on a set menu.) The kappo style at Shibumi falls somewhere between kaiseki and the informal izakaya-style. Ordering off the small, à la carte menu at Shibumi is easy because everything is so well-priced and appealing.

Crispy monkfish "kar-age" with sudachi citrus and kelp saltEXPAND
Crispy monkfish "kar-age" with sudachi citrus and kelp salt
Heather Platt

When you order from Shibumi’s highly curated sake list — which is the opposite of imperfection — the server approaches with a rustic wooden box filled with an array of ceramic cups from which to choose your favorite. As the night goes on, your once-empty table becomes a showcase for the mix of food and pottery. 

Start with refreshing chilled appetizers such as crisp, savory cucumbers that have been stuffed with shiso leaf, sesame seeds, umeboshi (pickled plums) and bonito. An avocado, hemp and wakame salad's bitter leaves mingle nicely with the fatty avocado. The pottery, imported by Robert Yellen — chef Schlosser's friend and mentor while living in Japan — is a conversation starter. But bite into the perfectly tender grilled heritage pork with koji rice, pickled daikon and leeks and you might forget everything you were saying about the pottery. 

Crispy fried monkfish “kar-age” with kelp salt is presented with a slice of sudachi citrus and some peppers to nibble on. Anywhere else you would expect some kind of creamy dipping sauce for your fried fish. But here, the monkfish is optimal as is, with nothing more than a tiny squeeze of the lime-y sudachi. 

Koji (r)ice cream, strawberry and elderflower dessert at ShibumiEXPAND
Koji (r)ice cream, strawberry and elderflower dessert at Shibumi
Heather Platt

Crispy grilled rice with mushrooms, burdock and gourd wrapped in seaweed, omusubi-style, makes a fun side to round out the meal. Finish with light desserts such as koji “rice cream” with strawberries and elderflower, brightened by a touch of citrus zest. By the end you feel inspired, energized and uplifted. It’s the kind of meal you could eat every night — which is something you can’t say about a lot of restaurants in town. 

815 S. Hill St., downtown; (213)­ 265-­7923, shibumidtla.com. Tue.-Sun., 6 p.m.-mid. 


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