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.
For a stir-fry, we opted for a spicy mix of pork and Korean kim chee with the usual cabbage, bean sprout tails, seaweed, and yet more pork-belly slices, pan-fried fast and hard so the meat was tough. The stir-fry bought off some of the heat of the kim chee, but by no means all. Dragon breath is guaranteed; make sure you have something to quench it, and be prepared for the dragon to keep flying through your body cavities in the night.
An izakaya meal seems to call for a final bowl of soup, especially on a winter night. There are several soupy sections on the menu. From the miso and similar soups at the start, we chose one with simmered pork, deep-fried tofu, and bok choy. The pork broth was light, and this time the sliced pork was regular pork, not belly. I was hoping that the deep-fried tofu would be crisp, like agedashi (deep-fried tofu); instead, it was pleasantly spongy. The broth was mild, likable, rather salty. At the end of the menu are numerous rice and noodle soups (udon, soba, ramen, even a variant of chicken jook), should you want something more substantial.
The menu and all the print ads point like cheerleaders to the house signature dessert, pear pie. We weren’t hungry but ordered a slice. It’s interesting — more a tart than a pie (if you’re thinking of Mom’s crackly-crusted apple pie) — a softly crumby crust topped with custard and spread lightly with poached pear slices. You can get it with or without red bean, strawberry, or green tea ice cream on top. It’s nice, but bringing out the cheerleaders for it seems like overkill.
A menu of 60 regular items and 20 specials is an automatic guilt-trip to a reviewer who can’t afford the time or budget for 10 or 20 visits, unless every choice turns out fantastic — which they didn’t. I guess you could say I made the mistakes so that you won’t have to.
I wish I’d skipped every single fried item to concentrate more on the cold seafood appetizers: wasabi octopus, marinated squid, yellowtail with jalapeño. And/or more sushi, or a sashimi plate, after tasting that superb o-toro. And then more stir-fries and yakitori (especially anything including veggies, which were in short supply on the dishes we chose). And finally, a major soup or noodle dish at the end. All I know about ramen, I learned from the film Tampopo (a brilliant, funny disquisition on the difference between great and not-great ramen, among other thoughts), so I was hesitant to order ramen in a restaurant that offers only one version of it — but I wish I had.
The only other local izakaya I’ve tried so far is the much humbler little Izakaya Masa, with an older, more serious neighborhood/foodie crowd, lower prices, and a menu of about half the size — but with several more venturesome choices (spicy jellyfish salad, octopus pancakes, kebabs, etc.). As you’d expect from Del Mar, Shimbashi is more of a crowd-pleaser and a dating scene. Go have fun there, eat up, and take it easy before you hop that bullet-train home to Poway.
- 2.5 stars
- (Good to Very Good)
1555 Camino Del Mar (Market Square), market level, Del Mar, 858-523-0479, shimbashi-restaurants.com.
HOURS: Monday–Friday 4:00–11:00 p.m., Saturday noon–11:00 p.m., Sunday noon–10:00 p.m. Happy hours 4:00–6:00 p.m. Monday–Friday, noon–6:00 p.m. weekends.
PRICES: $4–$28 per dish. Weekend lunch bento boxes, $16.
CUISINE AND BEVERAGES: Japanese gastropub with dishes ranging from small nibbles to substantial noodles, plus sushi and sashimi. Vast sake assortment, Japanese beers, a few well-chosen mostly French wines, Korean soju, cocktails.
PICK HITS: Grilled black cod; peanut soft tofu; shio buta (pork belly with cherry tomatoes); skewered bacon and tomatoes; sushi of choice.
NEED TO KNOW: Validated parking ($2) in garage; restaurant at garage entry level, opposite Harvest Market valet and elevators (look for sign indicating “Japanese Gardens”). Crowded at prime time; table reservations accepted. Informal. Deep discounts at happy hours. Patio seating in good weather.