In many ways, Kyoto represents the heart of Japanese cuisine. This city, located 500 kilometers southeast of Tokyo in the Tamba highlands, was the country’s capital for a millennium ending in 1868. So when I heard of a restaurant serving Kyoto-style specialties in an obscure corner of Cobble Hill, I was there in a flash. Located opposite Long Island College Hospital on Henry Street, the three-year-old eatery is something of a sleeper—popular among foodies and stroller-pushing families that live in the neighborhood, but little known outside of it. Painted a subdued shade of orange, with soft lighting provided by a series of hanging white globes in perfect alignment, Hibino is so appealing in its austerity that one guest gasped with pleasure as we entered.
The focus of the high-ceilinged room is the sushi bar, with its line of ceremonially garbed itamaes—but conventional sushi is the most forgettable part of a fascinating menu. There are virtually no assortments offered, making a standard sushi and sashimi meal a relatively expensive proposition that requires extra thought to assemble. More interesting is an ancient sushi variation called hako sushi. Developed in nearby Osaka, but still popular in Kyoto, hako sushi predates the nigiri sushi (“finger” sushi) and maki sushi (roll sushi) that form the basis of contemporary sushi meals.
By this method, fish is placed on top of vinegared rice in a box (“hako” means “box”) and compressed by means of a weight on top. At Hibino, four types of hako sushi are offered ($11 to $14), each comprising four rectangular pieces. The one most associated with Kyoto features pickled raw mackerel and shiitake mushrooms, with pungent, cinnamon-y shiso leaves concealed in the rice. The most beautiful sports a tangled thicket of omelet threads atop lacquered anago (sea eel). At Hibino, you could be very happy making an entire meal of hako sushi.
Other fringe sushi includes an eel roll in which the sinuous swimmer has been crusted in panko crumbs and fried, prior to perching atop the maki roll like an emperor in a sedan chair. The chalkboard specials menu—the first thing you should inspect the minute you walk into Hibino—has lately featured a fried maki roll with breaded oysters inside ($11.50), constituting Kyoto’s answer to the New Orleans po’ boy. Similarly appealing is another special roll featuring fried lobster—clearly, Kyoto residents have found ways to make their sushi more filling.
But a better reason to take a peek at the chalkboard are the obanzai—the centerpiece of Hibino’s menu. These are seasonal, homestyle dishes of the region, and they’re spectacular. If you referred to them as Japanese tapas, you’d be making a big mistake, because they tend to be substantial in size. The three-item list changes daily, and I found myself ordering all of them on each visit, totally enthralled. One evening, there were squat steamed cones of daikon surmounted by a pair of miso pastes—one yellow, one deep brown—plashing in a thin dashi broth and decorated with a sprinkle of Japanese scallions. The next week there was fishcake stuffed with squid, served with braised eryngii mushrooms, which are the kind that have bulbous stems and almost no cap. That same evening, there were four lightly breaded and fried jumbo shrimp immersed in spicy mayonnaise—clearly a modern dish, but satisfying nonetheless. At $4 each, obanzai are also a terrific deal.
Another of Hibino’s specialties is bean curd, made fresh on the premises twice a day. The simplest presentation is a quantity of the blindingly white curd facetiously deposited in a tiny glass milk jug with shredded aromatics and a soy-based sauce alongside ($4), reminding us that, in Japan, soybean products often stand in for dairy. There are four further curd presentations on the regular menu, including one that rolls up shrimp in crisp tofu skin, which tastes positively Chinese, and another that coats firm tofu in sweet-potato starch, fries it, and serves the shimmering cubes with blistered shisito peppers, for the perfect combo of bland and sharp flavors.
Despite the restaurant’s penchant for smallish dishes, a few big feeds grace the menu, including a humongous entrée of braised and deboned beef ribs (“kakuni,” $18) served in soup with scallions, napa cabbage, and tofu, as well as the restaurant’s take on teriyaki chicken, presented more or less the same way as the beef ribs. But these are dishes for the unadventuresome—given my druthers, I’d order the obanzai, which, consistent with Osaka tradition, will reflect spring as surely as the first daffodil poking up on Henry Street.