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.