Dinner at Shibumi
It was with an exhilarating mixture of dread and anticipation that my travel companion and I entered the door marked with a red lantern on our very first vacation in Tokyo. We had previously only heard of an ‘izakaya’, a type of Japanese drinking establishment (the name derives from ‘i’ as in ‘to stay’ and ‘sakaya’ as in ‘sake shop’) which also serves food items to accompany the drinks. Sort of like Japanese tapas, if you like.
As we were lead to our table by the non-English speaking staff, and shortly thereafter presented with a Japanese-only menu, we embarked on a thrilling journey into the unknown. Pointing at random menu items printed in foreign characters, we had no idea what we were actually ordering. And when these orders finally were brought to our table, we were quite often clueless to what we were eating. What I do know is that our meal that evening was one of the very best I have ever had, with new discoveries, laughter and the communicating through make-do sign language made our dinner truly memorable. Although I have no illusions of a repeat here in Sweden, I have been missing such a place – a place where curiosity and the joy of new gastronomic discoveries are given free rein.
The Japanese noun ‘shibumi’, which is the name of Stockholm chef Sayan Isaksson’s third venue, refers to a particular aesthetic of simple, subtle and unobtrusive beauty. Or “as the great refinement underlying commonplace appearances,” which author Trevanian wrote in his best-selling 1979 novel. This assertion immediately leads me to think of the simple grey door and the clingy staircase that leads down to the basement that is the home to Shibumi, located in the same building where Isaksson’s two other establishments Esperanto and Råkultur have enjoyed success for so many years. The name is clearly also a testimony of the foods served at Shibumi, which all bear intricate refinement in flavour, sometimes disguised a mundane form.
Walking though the dining room, which seats 76, the entire place is buzzing with energy. The activity behind the counter, at which I have asked to be seated ahead of time, is frantic. Spectators seated on stools are leaning over the bar, not to miss any of the action that the skilful, knife-equipped chefs exert on the fresh pieces of fish. Although deferring from a true izakaya’s tradition of only serving beer and sake, I dive into the cocktail menu created by Hampus Thunholm, who is said to have been inspired by unique Japanese flavours such as yuzu and shiso. A large round ice cube rolls around in the elegantly sweet Mandarin Cooler (145 kronor), while Maid in Cuba (135 kronor) is a slightly more refreshing cocktail option.
The first round of dishes include the Shibumi sashimi (130 kronor), the silk tofu (85 kronor), the tsukemono vegetables (115 kronor), the beef sliders (135 kronor) and the side pork and vongole (110 kronor). Much is to be said about the diverse selection of treats above. The sashimi is, with its carefully sliced pieces of five different fish, a real treat in all its simplicity. The mackerel in particular tastes divine. As for the beef sliders – two petite brioches topped with short ribs cooked for 48 hours, house kimchi and kewpie mayo – I, as well as my fellow patrons, seem to be at loss for words. My only wish is that it would come with a supersize option. But the dish that makes the greatest impression is a small cube of white tofu, served in a dark brown bowl with ponzu, watercress and katsuoboshi – flakes of dried, fermented and smoked tuna. The texture is creamy and rich, almost like a piece of solidified double cream. Usually not a favourite of mine due to tofu’s chewy consistency and slight cardboard taste, the Japanese chef behind the bar puts down her knife and explains that the tofu is made fresh on-site every morning. She then goes on to explain that the tofu we usually get in Sweden is either old or of inferior quality.
I am still feeling a slight craving for more, both in appetite, but also out of plain and simple curiosity. Shibumi’s version of fish and chips (125 kronor) – deep-fried chunks of monkfish that are to be dipped in Korean remoulade, gyoza (155 kronor), ginger marinated pork cutlets (195 kronor), cauliflower tempura (75 kronor) and a donburi (130 kronor) sets me up for round two. While the pork is a bit of a letdown, the cauliflower surprises me with its boldness and bite in texture and flavour. The donburi – a bowl of rice served with minced meat, an egg, mirin, sake and tsukemono vegetables – is pure Japanese comfort food. It is already past ten PM, and while the chefs are rinsing of their knives and the other guests finish the last of their match tea mini ice creams, I, chopsticks in hand, work away on every single last mirin-covered grain of rice left in my bowl. Shibumi has me hooked and I’ll be back to further explore every single item on the menu.
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