From a distance, Shibumi looks a little like the fanciest dive bar in America. The new downtown restaurant is not a dive bar at all — quite the opposite — but the long, shadowy room shares some DNA with a number of Lower East Side establishments from years gone by. The restaurant’s moody darkness, as well as its soundtrack, which chronicles the place where garage rock began to veer into art-house and punk, reminds me of punk bars and underground sake spots and weird little nooks you have to know about to find and appreciate.
But Shibumi is none of these things. It’s not raucous or grimy or cheap. That it feels like a lair you could slither into adds hugely to its appeal, but the dark minimalism of the place speaks to a more meticulous ambition than just making my dive bar–loving soul feel ecstatically at home. That ambition emanates from chef-owner David Schlosser, who stands in a pool of light behind the long, honey-colored bar, which he had built from a 400-year-old cypress tree he “stumbled upon” while traveling in New Orleans. His head is bent as he works meticulously at a cutting board. Often, another cook observes at a respectful distance, hands clasped behind, like a devoted disciple. The music might say “dive bar,” but the calm and focus of the folks behind the bar say “temple.”
Schlosser is a chef who has gone about things the old-school way, training under masters of a number of different types of cuisines. He worked at L'Orangerie under Ludo Lefebvre and then went to Paris, where he held various jobs and internships at highly regarded restaurants including L’Arpege. A transformative trip to Tokyo gave him a new culinary obsession, and back in L.A. he managed to become the first non-Japanese employee at Ginza Sushiko. He then went on to work at Urasawa, got a gig in Japan as the chef for the U.S. ambassador and trained under some of the most renowned kaiseki chefs in Tokyo and Kyoto. While in Japan, he realized that America’s understanding of Japanese cuisine is limited by our obsession with sushi, and there is a whole other world of dining that hasn’t yet made the leap across the Pacific. Shibumi is his effort to right that situation, and it’s also the culmination of 15 years or so of training and preparation.
While original plans for Shibumi focus on more formal kaiseki, a ritualized multicourse meal, Schlosser has settled for now on kappo-style cooking and service, which shares some of kaiseki’s attention to seasonality and various cooking methods but not necessarily the set course menu. The one defining aspect of a kappo restaurant is that the chef cooks in front of the customers, usually at a bar or counter. Hence, the cypress counter and Schlosser in his pool of light.
If there’s a defining element to Schlosser’s cooking, and Shibumi in general, it is simplicity. The chef wants you to taste the ingredients — really taste them — so much so that eating here can be like discovering the elemental truth of foods you thought you knew well. There’s a focus on texture rarely seen in Western cooking, which can be revelatory or disconcerting, depending on the dish and on your personal tolerance for viscosity.
Begin with a snack of cucumbers, which have been salted just long enough to make the cool snap and juiciness of the vegetable slightly more pronounced. In the place where the cucumber’s seeds would usually be found, Schlosser has packed a mixture of shiso, umeboshi plum, seeds and bonito. The dish is a study in contrasts, the pure, clean flavor of the cucumber coming up against three or four kinds of umami in the stuffing, but it also acts as a simple palate primer for the meal ahead.
Cold seafood dishes are designed to highlight the fish above all else, but Schlosser adds elements that reinforce the silkiness and freshness of a Japanese sea bream, for instance, by contrasting it with the barely-there crunch of a ginger bud, its delicate floral flavor shimmering at the edge of your consciousness.
Uni comes draped across a small block of egg tofu that has been doused in a slurry made from fresh nori, and the dish provides three kinds of silkiness and two kinds of creaminess that reverberate against one another in ways that are almost musical. Grilled pork and beef are presented so simply but are of such high quality and have been cooked so well that you’re forced to ponder the elemental wonder of deeply flavored flesh and fat, its animal funk and tang. I did not fork over the $52 for four ounces of Wagyu rib cap, but I did not need to. The $28 California strip, served with bracing but creamy fresh wasabi, offered the best bites of beef I’ve had in months, maybe years.
If all this sounds a little woo-woo metaphysical, it’s because the experience of eating Schlosser’s food can be just that. This is a guy presenting a very singular vision, and if you get on his wavelength, this place can seem like entering an alternate dimension.
I’m not convinced, however, that this dimension will feel comfortable to everyone. Shibumi’s focus on texture and simplicity will be a detraction for some. The Japanese affection for what they call neba-neba (and we call sliminess) is on full display here, in that fresh nori sauce over the egg tofu and elsewhere. An eggplant dish Schlosser was serving early on presented slick, chilled eggplant drenched in a film made from the innards of okra. It was all wobbly viscosity, a marvel in its own way but determinedly outside the comfort zone of usual Western tastes. I found the squish and chew of abalone paired with stretchy, fresh mochi winkingly brilliant and highly pleasurable, especially given the almost caramel-like house-made miso that enveloped the dish. But this is not easy-listening food.
The simplicity factor also may prove too stark for some diners. There’s not much to distract you from the basic flavor of the ingredients, which means that if you don’t really love the earthy smoosh of golden beets and the homey musk of barley, you will not love a dish that does little but showcase both. There’s an austerity at play here that is utterly true to the highest levels of Japanese cooking, and that will not please everybody.
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Even if I personally did not find Shibumi’s food so very pleasing, I would still come here to drink. Schlosser has put together a drinks program that’s among the most exciting in town: It includes a sake and shochu collection for the geekiest of enthusiasts, a cider list broken into old-world and new-world categories (as is the slightly shorter beer list), a 100 percent organic and/or biodynamic wine list and a refreshingly minimalist approach to spirits. Cocktails are engineered to showcase the flavor of the small-batch liquors used rather than the alchemy of mixology. There’s a list of cordials that have been created by minimally altering base ingredients — a sweet vermouth steeped in toasted barley or a marriage of Amontillado sherry and mezcal. The drinks are so much like the food that you can tell that Schlosser is the brains behind both. It’s unusual for a restaurant’s philosophy to extend so thoroughly and effortlessly to every aspect of operation, but Shibumi is that rare exception.
This is no laissez-faire creative genius on display, no cool concept or marketing coup. Shibumi is the result of one chef’s years-long quest come to fruition, a singular focus on bringing something precious carefully across an ocean and laying it in front of us on polished vintage cypress. Perhaps this is what dive bars are like in heaven.
SHIBUMI | Four stars | 815 S. Hill St., downtown | (213) 265-7923 | shibumidtla.com | Tue.-Sun., 6 p.m.-midnight | Plates, $6-$52 | Full bar | Street and lot parking.