Shalom Japan Shines Brightest in Subtle Touches
Personal history comes alive at Shalom Japan.
A funny thing happens when a restaurant favorably pops up in the New York Times, as Shalom Japan did on the eve of my first visit in mid-October: The phone starts ringing, and it doesn't stop. And suddenly, everyone wants a table. And if you happen to wander in sans reservations, the bar is where you'll sit.
From this perch, there's a clear view into the kitchen, where Sawako Okochi, head wrapped in a scarf, spoons soup into a bowl with monkish composure. In a blue baseball cap, her husband and co-chef, Aaron Israel, mans the pass. The restaurant is small and fills quickly with destination diners and a smattering of locals, the dining room buzzing with a thousand hungry requests.
Tucked into a Puerto Rican block on the edge of Hasidic Williamsburg, Shalom Japan, which opened in August, weds its owners' respective birthrights. And if Japanese and Jewish cuisines are unlikely bedfellows, Israel and Okochi are also blending personal histories shaped in the kitchens at Torrisi and A Voce (Israel) and Annisa and Lani Kai (Okochi), among others.
There's a lot of background to pull from, but the resulting food feels creative and fresh, with a good shake of culinary kitsch. In a hearty okonomiyaki ($11), Japan's traditional cabbage-and-egg pancake gets a Katzy update: Zippy corned lamb's tongue licks of pastrami while the cabbage sings sauerkraut, all beneath a feathery shroud of dancing bonito flakes. At first bite, my husband grins. "This tastes like a deli sandwich!" he says.
A matzo ball ramen ($16) takes another crack at the theme: Its foie gras dumpling is decadent, its chicken broth silky, but the soup pales in comparison to a fragrant udon ($19) that ditches the fusion. Firm bites of pork swim in spicy red broth, the noodles are as chewy as you'd hope for, and sweet discs of root vegetables remain crisp even after they soak through. Here is a soup worth returning for again and again — if only they'd keep it on the menu, which changes often. It's the kind of dish that will sustain the restaurant after the novelty wears off and the press din silences.
It's also an example of what Okochi and Israel can do when they explore the outer reaches of their mandate. It's hard to find the Jewry in sashimi dishes, but that doesn't make them any less excellent: Long Island suzuki ($12), its flesh blushing and firm, is garnished with a grassy nasturtium leaf and bits of pickled horseradish, and raw bonito ($12) with yuzu is so soft and mild, it melts on the tongue.
Then there's a lightly seared duck breast ($25) with apple and sweet vinegar. Its edges are charred and smoky, but inside, the meat is a rare, cool magenta. With turnip and green apple for texture, it's a beautiful, subtle dish that would be lost in Japan, or Jerusalem, for that matter, even on Rosh Hashanah.
Less successful are the Jew egg ($13), its rich, yellow yolk molten inside a crunchy falafel crust, which ultimately craves seasoning, and panko-caraway lamb ribs ($16) that left my English heart wanting mint jelly.
Shalom Japan's place on a ho-hum corner near the BQE makes it a lonely eatery in a Brooklyn where café culture hasn't kept pace with gentrification. It portends to become a neighborhood standby, but service, though ample and efficient, lacks the easy candor of a local joint. The dining room lexicon suffers from a few too many "absolutely!"s, and "my pleasure!"s; interactions are glazed over with spit and polish. Front-of-the-house manager (and partner) Micaela Grossman would do well to encourage her waiters to relax a bit.
Because when they do, there's charm and wit. When we order a braid of challah ($7), a bartender wryly invites us to "Just challah" at him for more cocktails, which are strong and well-mixed, if pricey. Cheap dates may stick to cans of Schaefer ($4), although the wine list, helpfully organized by flavor profile, affords some decent values and many fine sakes.
Sake pops up again in that lovely challah, served with a honeyed raisin butter that seems to ooze from a beehive. But the bread becomes its best self during dessert, when it's reincarnated as buttery cubes of bread pudding ($9) drizzled in a boozy sauce that's enough to coax you into a sugary dream state.
In both dishes, "Japan" is a murky glimmer at best, more evidence that the restaurant's best tack may be in trace resonances: an undertone here, a flicker there. With a gentle touch, a place like this can find staying power in the quieter months, post-holidays, and in the dog days of summer, when its core business will emerge, not from yellow cabs from Manhattan or pages of the big dailies, but people from the block seeking a hot bowl of soup, a fresh bit of fish, or quite simply, a familiar, friendly smile and a stiff drink to match.