David Schlosser has a mesmerizing stage presence. When the chef stands before the 15-seat counter of Shibumi, his five-month old restaurant in downtown Los Angeles, he displays the poise and control of a Shakespearian actor mid-performance, though his soliloquies pour out as movements, rather than words. Slicing fish into precise lobes, arranging an intriguing mix of abalone and mochi, pouring splashes of sake into small cups to serve alongside cured shrimp and lobster — at all times, he remains rivetingly intent on the dishes he's preparing. He bends his shaved head and solid frame toward the ingredients he's handling; he keeps his expression neutral, almost slack. Cooks, bartenders, and servers often surround Schlosser, but his uncanny focus makes it seem as if, as he moves through his workspace, a spotlight follows only him.
Schlosser's disciplined calm seems extra impressive at the moment, given that Shibumi is shaping up to be the most provocative — and lauded — new restaurant in Los Angeles this year. It opened in June on a gritty block of Hill Street, desolate but for gridlocked traffic inching along during rush hour and dominated by a parking garage's gaping entrance. Shibumi has no obvious sign outside; you'll know it by its sole source of sunlight, a translucent window whose undulating shape resembles an intricate arrangement of lotus petals.
But sublime food in understated locations is a way of life in LA. Food lovers pounced. A crescendo of ever more positive reviews for Schlosser's approach to Japanese cuisine led to a bombshell moment late last month: Jonathan Gold released his list of the city's 101 Best Restaurants and ranked Shibumi number two, behind only perennial fine-dining favorite Providence. I was very glad to have made my reservations before then.
In fact, I dined at Shibumi the night J-Gold's list dropped, and if Schlosser looked flustered from the day's onslaught of attention at the beginning of service — he was visibly displeased in particular with a chilled corn soup one of his cooks brought him to try — he soon found his meditative composure and began assembling the astonishing plates that are drawing so much praise.
Shibumi, whose name is a Japanese word that can translate as "quiet refinement," serves neither sushi nor ramen, nor any other touchstone Japanese dish popular in the United States. Schlosser models his place after kappo-style restaurants, establishments that are positioned in Japanese dining culture between tavern-like izakayas and ritualized, multi-course kaiseki meals. If the word kappo is unfamiliar, its basic tenets might ring a bell. The cooking leans upscale, with an emphasis on seasonal, pristine ingredients. A variety of small plates, the thinking goes, brings complete satiation. Chefs prepare food in front of customers seated along polished counters. Striking pottery accentuates the beauty of the food.
Shibumi guides keen palates into lesser known but richly gratifying aspects of Japanese cuisine
In other words, kappo-style restaurants parallel many of the trends that have emerged in American dining over the last decade. A kappo restaurant that maintains an unwavering emphasis on Japanese flavors, as Shibumi does, is rare stateside — though the genre is ready, I'd wager, for a wider audience. Los Angeles is a prime incubator. It has an established wealth of Japanese restaurants. The city has the country's attention as it basks in a culinary golden era. Traveling the country as Eater's national critic for nearly three years now, I've kept my radar constantly tuned for a restaurant that might guide keen palates into lesser known but richly gratifying aspects of Japanese cuisine. I've found it in Shibumi.
Schlosser has been preparing for this star turn for years. A native of Santa Monica, he graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in 1996 and afterward cooked at high-fliers like LA's L'Orangerie, with Ludo Lefebvre. A brief trip to Japan in 2001 triggered what became an all-consuming devotion to the country's cooking. He recognized that, if he wanted to truly dedicate himself to Japanese cuisine, it would take more than a vacation tour of restaurants to grasp its true depths.
So he went all in. The following year, his close friend Nick Kim (who currently runs smash hit Shuko in New York) helped Schlosser secure a job at Masayoshi Takayama's Los Angeles sushi temple Ginza Sushi-ko. When Takayama left Ginza to open Masa in New York, he invited Schlosser to come with him; Schlosser stayed behind to learn from and work for Takayama's protégé Hiroyuki Urasawa, whose culinary style wove in more cooked dishes. Five years later, Schlosser moved to Tokyo to be the chef for the U.S ambassador to Japan; later he cooked at Kitcho, a renowned Michelin three-star kaiseki restaurant, where there were 18 chefs in the kitchen serving 15 guests for dinner.
These years of training explain Schlosser's grounded, magnetic poise now that he's standing at his own gleaming counter (hewed from a 400-year-old cypress). He brings the sum of his experiences to bear on the menu: Many of his dishes derive straight from Japanese tradition; with others, he takes calculated liberties, never veering into global fusion territory but tinkering with flavors and textures to achieve unorthodox but deeply rewarding results.
As you settle in — at the counter, ideally, or at one of the tables in the long, narrow dining room — choose a couple of snacks to familiarize yourself with Schlosser's ethos. Begin with slices of cured cucumber, which have emerged as an early signature: He cores the cukes and fills their center with a crunchy mix of umeboshi (salty pickled plum), minty-grassy shiso leaf, shiso and sesame seeds, and bonito. It's an eccentric, narcotic umami salvo that snaps the palate to attention. As a riff on a bar snack, try the fresh walnuts glazed in red chile miso, which seep their subtle heat gradually and satisfyingly.
And then take a good, hard look at the drinks list. Schlosser gives it as much consideration as the food, and it's a wonder of a document. Of course there are sakes that range from floral and crisp to creamy and sweet, and some funky wines from France's Jura region that play nicely with the sharp, earthy flavors that show up in much of the food.
But there are also a dozen ciders — complex, fizzy brews that taste exactly right when you're in the thick of the meal. Japanese whiskies tempt from their showcasing perch along the shelves of the backlit bar; sip one at the end of the night. Begin the evening with one of the strange, beguiling cocktails: perhaps shochu macerated with cherry bark and cherry blossom, the flavor evoking a faraway spring, or a cordial of genever and amaro for a blitz of head-spinning botanicals.
At my second meal, when I asked one of the managers for a drink recommendation, he suggested the negroni. One sip and I knew why: I've had that combination of gin, vermouth, and Campari countless times, but never one that achieved such a stunningly velvety texture.
Schlosser knows where he's pushing our edges and he knows when to throttle back
Schlosser is a skilled translator; he knows where he's pushing our edges and he knows when to throttle back. His take on shiokara — essentially, seafood fermented in its own guts — blends gentle shrimp and lobster mixed with sake and innards and he ferments it for only five or six days, versus the weeks or months that traditional shiokara can often steep. It is rich, savory stuff, squiggly in texture but pleasantly briny. Schlosser serves it with sips of sake in case the diner needs alcohol to assuage its potency. He can also employ his share of wit: a plate of chrysanthemum greens comes decorated with a hemp leaf and a dousing of homemade hemp miso, a sly foreshadowing to the legalization of marijuana in California earlier this month.
Round out the meal with some easygoing pleasures. Pork loin and deckle marinated in koji (the inoculated rice fungus essential to Japanese staples like soy sauce, sake, and miso) and grilled is straight-up meaty goodness. The cooks take obvious joy in grating fresh wasabi (so much milder and intricate in flavor than the powdered version) on a paddle-shaped sharkskin grater and then smearing it onto a lush hunk of beef strip. Koji reappears as ice cream with the fleeting fruits of the season, perhaps jammy green plums or briefly fermented apple.
There can be danger in smothering a young, small restaurant with praise. The original location of Alma sat two blocks away from Shibumi; it faltered under the pressure of being named the best new restaurant in America by Bon Appetit in 2013. (It closed last year but reincarnated this year at the Standard Hollywood). Schlosser has years of experience at his back. I trust he'll weather the crushing acclaim. He's completing a back room to Shibumi where he plans to serve more elaborate omakase meals. I can't wait to experience one of his multi-course meals, but I also believe the most important aspect of his restaurant is already in operation. Just as Los Angeles taught the country to love nigiri and sashimi, Schlosser may well lead us into the era where the new sushi bar is the kappo counter.
815 South Hill Street, Los Angeles, (213) 265-7923 / shibumidtla.com