Babes in soy land

for The Brooklyn Paper
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Lucky for me, I dine out often. I’ve come to expect a high level of cuisine and most of the time, that’s what I’m served. The downside of all that excellent eating is fewer “eureka” experiences during meals — those moments after I take a bite of something that catches me off guard and, for a few seconds, I stop hearing the clanking of dishes and hum of conversation. It’s just me communing with the food.

Such a moment happened last weekend at Hibino, a Japanese restaurant that opened in April in Cobble Hill.

The meal began with a pot of soothing “genmaicha” tea (green tea steeped with roasted brown rice) followed by “Obanzai,” Kyoto-style small appetizers, then the eatery’s signature house-made tofu. We tried a few sushi rolls and chased them with a stack of fabulous braised short ribs. Then, there it was: the salmon.

Now, I’ve had salmon pan-seared, broiled, baked, steamed and in brochette in all sorts of eateries. But chefs Masaru Fukuda’s and Hirohisa Hayashi’s (alumni of Sushi Samba in Manhattan) preparation elevates the fish’s lush fattiness and intense flavor with miso (fermented soybean) marinade. The soak drew out the meatiness of the fish. The flesh was luxuriously fatty — more foie gras than fish — with a delicately nutty, barely-sweetened, golden pool of miso sauce to swipe each forkful through. Broiling the steak crisped the edges and seared the rim of fat just below it.

The rest of the meal was enjoyable, if not as transcendent as the salmon. The fried “Shrimp Toji Maki Spring Roll” didn’t wow me, and crusty brown triangles of “yuba” (shredded tofu skin) that came filled with the curd, shrimp and egg were light, but rather greasy and bland.

House-made tofu, prepared twice daily, is a treat as an appetizer as well as dessert. Both versions are served in charming, tiny milk bottles printed with the restaurant’s logo. Hinata, the restaurant’s cheerful manager, instructed us to taste the savory opener without soy sauce enhanced with bonito flakes (dried, smoked “bonito,” a type of tuna) and then with its pungent partner. In its pure form, the custard was silky and delicately milky with a pleasant nutty taste. With a drizzle of the salty, fishy liquid, the cream became assertive, like a strong fish pudding.

The dessert tofu fills the same small jar. The pudding is the pale yellow hue of whipped butter and has the freshness of heavy cream, a fluff of which crowns the bottle. Dull cookies accompany the dessert: they’re cute, but a three-day-old bagel has a moister crumb.

The Obanzai and tofu dishes may differentiate the eatery from the innumerable Japanese places nearby but that doesn’t stop diners from ordering sushi. Large platters of traditional Japanese rolls and “oshi” sushi (rice pressed into rectangular molds) appeared on many tables. I preferred the velvety texture of the fresh, raw tuna topped oshi to another with subtle grilled yellowtail, although their rice bases studded with woodsy pieces of shiitake mushrooms came as an agreeable surprise.

I cast a forlorn look at the bottom of my empty bowl after making quick work of the “Beef Kakuni.” The mahogany colored meat, braised in a deep, nut-rich sauce and sweetened with caramelized vegetables, was sandwiched between a buttery disc of daikon radish, the root’s sharp edges softened by its braise in the sauce. Shavings of sharp white scallion and a few stalks of jade green broccoli rabe brightened the arrangement. The only thing missing: a glass of steely sake. Sake, cocktails and wine will be offered next week when the owners expect their liquor license is granted.

In its short tenure, Hibino has become a destination for sushi enthusiasts and local families alike. It’s that mix of East and West, new and old(er) that makes Hibino so distinctly Brooklyn.

Hibino (333 Henry St., at Pacific Street in Cobble Hill) accepts cash only for now. Entrees: $11–$20. Lunch is served Monday through Friday from noon–2:30 pm. Dinner is available Monday through Saturday. Closed Sunday. Subway: 2,3,4, 5 to Borough Hall; F, G to Bergen Street. For information, call (718) 260-8052 or visit www.hibino-brooklyn.....

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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