If you like Japanese food but you’re sick of sushi, then you’ll probably love Ebisu. Named after one of the Seven Gods of Fortune, who brings luck to fishermen and merchants, the place doesn’t even serve sushi, as if the offering would be too boringly obvious.
The restaurant is modestly attractive. I remember a noodle shop in California that had dust in the corners, but by and large Japanese restaurants are obliged to be neat as a pin. It’s a rule. Ebisu is sleek and simple, wanting to impress us with the food rather than the décor, the uncovered tables and paper napkins keeping prices down. One economical and whimsical touch says it all: a single chrysanthemum on each table, held upright not by pebbles but by silvery Hershey kisses.
They have 13 bottled beers and seven wines by the glass, but don’t overlook their dozen-plus sakes. Only one of them is served hot, usually done to mute the harshness of cheap sakes. Premium varieties are always served cold, to better allow the flavors to come through. Premium indeed: a bottle of Divine Droplets Dai Ginjo will set you back 55 bucks. I love pearl sake, which is unfiltered and cloudy; here they serve the Momokawa brand ($6), a generous amount in a cleverly designed glass carafe that keeps the ice from diluting your drink. Mike, who comes here practically every week, had his regular Taru sake ($4.50), which is served traditional-style, a tall glass in a wooden box.
Many of the tables have electric hot pots, for shabu shabu. The term means “swish, swish,” and that’s just what you do with your choice of meats, vegetables, or seafood. They go into handled baskets rather than on fondue forks, so no worry about losing your goodies to the roiling broth. Selections range from $9.95 for veggies to $16.95 for meats and seafood, with à la carte options.
There are also rice dishes ($7.95-$13.95), from grilled freshwater eel to roasted barbecue pork, and vegetarian dishes with noodles ($7.25-$8.25), such as a Japanese curry and chilled buckwheat noodles with tempura sauce. The eight entrée noodle dishes ($7.95-$12) range from thin ramen egg noodles in miso broth with roasted pork loin to wide udon noodles in fish broth with vegetables, shrimp tempura, and — get this — a poached egg on top.
But Mike and fiancée Elaine like to do a kind of Japanese tapas here, picking from among the many appetizers and robata yaki, charcoal grilled items on skewers.
Although all but drooling as I perused the possibilities, I was nevertheless the model of patience and ordered soup first. The ebi tomyum ($5.50) was very Thai, the chili-red broth tangy with lemongrass and lime to make the mushrooms and shrimp more interesting. The bowl of ebi wonton soup ($5.25) across from me had a pork broth that was deliciously enhanced by many shiitake mushrooms. There are also salads ($3-$5), with dominant ingredients ranging from seaweed to raw fish.
I ended up checking out the seafood yakisoba ($10.95), and its pan-fried yellow noodles were wondrously smoky. But the real feast was the plethora of little dishes we shared: Gyoza ($5), fat pork dumplings pan-seared rather than steamed, unusually flavorful. Two crab croquettes ($7.50) with a chipotle drizzle, brightened with corn kernels.