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Shimbashi Izakaya

Del Mar Plaza, 1555 Camino del Mar, Del Mar




An izakaya is the Japanese equivalent of a tapas bar or gastropub — a place where salarymen flock after work to snack on a variety of small dishes (or some big comforting ones) for a few hours of convivial drinking before hitting the crowded train back to Mama-san in the suburbs. It’s a fun way to eat. Several of these places have now opened in San Diego — a couple in Kearny Mesa, another in Encinitas, the delightful little Izakaya Masa in Mission Hills, and now, the spiffy Shimbashi in Del Mar Plaza. Shimbashi is named for a Tokyo neighborhood with a lot of izakayas surrounding the train station. It hit the ground running, with large ads in several local publications and a website domain name in the plural (shimbashi-restaurants.com); however, Googling it, I found no confirmation of my suspicion that it might be a Tokyo-based chain.

Located opposite to the elevators on the entry-level “Market Floor” of the Del Mar Market garage (look for a sign across the way that says “Japanese Garden”), it’s bright and shiny, with light woods and color highlights in red and black. There are busy sushi bars in the center and along one edge, plus a bunch of wooden tables between them, the latter furnished with backless stools topped with cushions that look thick, though as the evening progresses, they seem to get thinner, eventually deflating into tushie-torturing sternness, if you’re past a certain age, like a gourmet version of zazen. (Some izikayas in Tokyo actually offer set “timed menus,” prix-fixe arrays that take exactly two hours to eat. Are the stools our local equivalent?)

The crowd is mainly youngish, mainly Asian, plenty of them dating or out with friends after work. The menu runs three oversize pages (about 60 choices), plus a separate page of about 20 nightly specials. Judging by the choices, there’s at least some Korean influence.

First came an “amuse” of cucumber-and-potato salad in Kewpie mayo — very pleasing. I didn’t want to get distracted from the tapas by sushi and sashimi, but the specials that evening included the rare temptation of bluefin tuna belly sushi, o-toro. It’s an endangered species, and eating it is sinful. However, that very morning, an article in the paper said that Japan was refusing to sign an international pact to protect bluefin by restricting fishing techniques, size of harvests, and trade in catches. This thought annoyed me into a state of ruthless selfishness: “If half-crocked Japanese businessmen are gobbling it all up after work, why can’t I get one lousy slice to savor?” So I sinned. The pale pink, fatty flesh was soft as custard, smooth as velvet — one of the best of the few versions I’ve tasted. The rice beneath it was excellent, too, moist and well seasoned. These clues indicate that the other sushi here would likely be excellent, even the party sushi. (Yes, there’s a Philly roll, but none of the house specialty rolls includes cream cheese — always a positive sign.)

We started with ankimo, monkfish liver pâté, served with thin-sliced cucumbers and dark-green seaweed with a yuzu soy sauce. I’ve had much better — the memorable monkfish pâté at Nozumi in Carlsbad, for instance, was moister and fattier tasting, its sauce more vibrant, more like a real pâté.

A real weirdo off the evening’s specials list, “Soft Peanut Tofu,” consisted of extremely gooey, thick, custardy tofu, resembling marshmallow fluff but stretchier and non-sweet. No peanut products perceptible — a total mystery. A few days later, when the leftover custard started exuding a pale brown nutty-flavored liquid, I slapped my forehead (“doh!”), finally remembering an article I’d read a few years ago about the various stages of tofu-making. Apparently this stage of tofu is the equivalent of burrata, mozzarella that hasn’t set fully yet and still has liquid cream in the center. The tofu version is a novel experience.

Hama Hama oysters in misoyaki has a few barely warmed oyster meats atop a thick, sweet, busy sauce that seems to include a lot of fine-minced pork. It didn’t quite make sense to my palate. But anybody but a vegan could fall for shio buta, thick grilled pork-belly slices (like unsmoked bacon) topped with cherry tomatoes. And then its converse: pale-colored thick bacon wrapped around cherry tomatoes, lightly grilled. “If you didn’t know that this was tomato inside exuding liquid,” said one of my companions, “you’d think it was the fattiest bacon you ever ate.” After comparing the two dishes under bright lights at home, I’m not sure the second version was bacon, rather than just more belly pork, cooked paler, hence fattier. The one thing clear is that it’s not supermarket bacon.

The star of the grilled items is the fall-apart, tender black cod (gindara saikyo yaki) — that is, it’s marinated in saikyo miso, a golden-colored, naturally sweet soybean paste, the very stuff celeb chef Nobu uses to season his world-famous black-cod invention (probably one of the globe’s top hundred dishes right now). Perhaps it’s not quite as glorious as Nobu’s, but what is? For all we know, the only difference is that you pay closer attention (and more money) at a joint named Nobu than at an izakaya. It is just as silky-tender, and that counts the most.

Back to earth with deep-fried dishes, all of them regrettable. Ika gesso, fried “squid legs,” means tough, knobby, chewy tentacles from large, battle-seasoned calamari. They’ve been shooting hoops on off-hours from their gigs as undersea mob enforcers. Battered and heavily salted beer ballast, they’re ready for their close-ups in the next Martin Scorsese movie.

I love classic tempuras for their airiness. Here, they’re a different order of being, heavier and coarser. The batter on all three of our tempuras reminded me of Bisquick, as employed in America’s traditional Bisquick Southern-fried chicken. (You know, I used to love it, but it’s all over now.) The Puri-Puri sweet shrimp tempura also seemed to wander toward the land of Rice Krispie Treats (or maybe Alien), the batter bursting into odd-shaped little crisp bumps and bubbles. The glaze is quite sweet but not icky. A spicy version, Ebi Chili, is misplaced on the menu by being listed among the stir-fries, but it’s also made of fat fried shrimps, coated in slightly sweet thick batter, soaked in coral-colored Japanese hot sauce. This is one of those one-dimensional pungent dishes that may cause true spicy-food aficionados to say, “Yeah, it’s hot. So what?” A third tempura featured one of my favorite vegetables, stuffed eggplant. I must have been imagining Paul Prudhomme in the kitchen. Totally wrong. The eggplant pouches have rather slim shells of the vegetable (including skin) overwhelmed with batter coating and overstuffed with a coarsely chopped pork mixture (like that found in gyoza dumplings). “They’re Del Mar pot stickers,” declared Samurai Jim, “straight from the cosmetic surgeon, stuffed to the max!” I hope the real pot stickers here are better than this, with more ginger, garlic, scallion, etc. in the pork. Doing it again, I’d choose simple yaki nasu grilled eggplant and a plate of regular gyoza.

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Comments

honkman March 18, 2010 @ 4:11 p.m.

You should try Izakaya Sakura on Convoy for a better experience.

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aboxofjosh March 31, 2010 @ 10:39 a.m.

It's disappointing that you know well enough to mention the endangered bluefin tuna population yet you eat it anyway. Same with ankimo, as the bottom trawls used to catch monkfish often tear up the ocean floor and are known to snare sea turtles and marine mammals as well.

Eating even a little bit of bluefin requires the butchering of a whole fish, which creates the demand that fuels the market and pushes the species closer to the brink. This is the situation humans find ourselves in, wanting to put stuff in our mouths so badly that we ignore the consequences. We don't even know what it takes to bring us most of the things we consume, and in the odd circumstance when we have that knowledge we don't feel compelled to act.

The question I think we all need to ask ourselves is whether the desire to eat certain foods justifies things like environmental damage and the extinction of species when there's an enormous variety of wonderful, ethically acceptable alternatives. I think if you are a conscious and considerate human, your answer will be no. All that's left is to behave accordingly.

Please visit http://seafoodwatch.org for more info.

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Naomi Wise April 1, 2010 @ 9:29 p.m.

I'm with you -- I don't routinely eat bluefin. A huge percentage of it is gobbled up in Japan, and at the moment I was so teed off by news reports of Japan's total refusal to cooperate in any sort of regulation -- if the species dies out it'll be their fault -- I decided to have a taste of the best part of it myself while we're both still alive. It is indeed great. (Also I'm sure the rest of the fish wasn't thrown away after my tiny bit of o-toro was cut off it). I do feel bad for eating an endangered species. But -- at the risk of sounding defensive -- it's also my job to know what every food in the world tastes like (from Oaxacan fried grasshoppers to Ecuadorian guinea pig to fried Thai bamboo worms to Trinidadian water-rodents...), including the good stuff.

Had no idea about monkfish. That's awful. In general, I suspect bottom-trawlers should be outlawed -- not eating monkfish, but catching anything by such a draconian method.

What's needed is not just public education, but international intervention with the force of law to protect the sea-life.

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