SUSHI THIS: The appetizer sampler at Shiki brings four small treats.
I recently learned I made an error when I wrote that 147 places sell sushi in Brookline. The real number, apparently, is only 16, not counting supermarkets, convenience stores, street vendors, laundromats, ATMs, and libraries. Okay, I’m making up some of that, but it certainly seems like Brookline kids are growing up with the idea that sushi is what you eat after school, not hamburgers and French fries or pizza. They may not know where Turkmenistan is or what the Hay-Pauncefote Treaty settled, but they know that unagi usually goes on nigiri and whether they’d rather have tekka maki or chirashi, with or without tobiko.
Shiki | 9 Babcock Street, Brookline | Open Sun, 5–10:30 pm; Wed, noon–3 pm and 5:30–10 pm; Thurs, 5:30–10 pm; Fri, 5:30–11 pm; and Sat, noon–3 pm and 5:30–11 pm | AE, DI, MC, VI | Beer and wine | No valet parking | Down eight steps and up one from sidewalk level | 617.738.0200
Shiki is another place that sells sushi, especially at lunch, but its real specialties are small plates, or Japanese tapas. Some of these things are familiar to Brookline children. Some are fancier and evoke tea-ceremony cuisine, while others are home-style. (Warning: “natto beans” have an off-putting smell and are not for beginners, despite their reputation as being medicinal.) The Japanese category that probably most often applies to Shiki is izakaya — pub food, which features bites of all kinds.
From a page of daily specials, we ordered almost everything. The top pick was the chef’s appetizer sampler ($12), which brought us a long plate with four small treats: a canapé of monkfish liver (lighter and saltier than it sounds) with jelly and lemon; broiled fish roe in a tiny lamb-chop shape with a dab of barbecue sauce; a morsel of salmon barbecued somewhat in the style of the black codfish; and a piece of raw, sweet shrimp on a thin disk of cucumber.
Fried oysters ($7.50), four to an order, were breaded and fried in the style of tonkatsu, and served with a sharp soy dip and a little salad. Broiled eggplant ($7.50) was half of a big one with pine nuts on top and a garnish of micro green beans. Broiled hairtail fish ($6) was the tail section of a long cutlass fish (a white-flesh fish with some flavor) with salt and pepper. The only special that wasn’t was stuffed squid ($8.75), looking like a sliced stodgy sausage, and stuffed with salty soy rice.
On the regular menu, don’t miss the soft-shell crab tempura ($10). This kitchen fries so well that the mild flavor of this seafood still shines through the delicate batter. One of the best dishes I tried, which is currently unavailable but will likely be back, is the broiled black cod with a miso glaze ($7). This is the same fish as smoked sable, which is possibly the richest, oiliest white fish in the ocean and a perfect treat in chopstick-size flakes.
Actual sushi, in the form of an order of salmon nigiri ($5), comes with the wasabi already buttered on. The fish is beautifully cut and the rice is exceptionally good. Ohitashi ($5), a popular spinach side dish, is here tricked up with a rich sesame sauce and fine topping of shaved bonito, which looks like nothing but packs a lot of flavor.
Still hungry? One might fill up on onigiri ($4.50), a couple of slices of a warm rice log wrapped in taco-shaped pieces of toasted seaweed paper. You choose one or two from among four flavors: plum, salmon, bonito, and cod roe. The plum is pickled, and is somewhat odd by itself, but is effective as a flavoring for a lot of rice. Likewise the salmon.
One can also go for a seasonal nimono, a choice of market-price protein or tofu poached in a soy broth with seasonal vegetables. We opted for fish, and it was yellowtail (seasonal; recently $12.50), meltingly delicious with lotus root and fresh bamboo-shoot slices and baby bok choy.
Even more substantial is the nabeyaki udon ($9.50), a cast-iron kettle of salty broth full of big square noodles and assorted vegetables and protein. The coolest of the veggies was a thinly sliced mushroom cap, but I also dug Napa cabbage, baby bok choy, scallions, and such. The protein was topped off with a whole cherrystone clam (somewhat tough) and a poached egg. Scallops, two slices of fish sausage, and shrimp rounded out the kettle, and two pieces of shrimp tempura were served on the side. Normally you’d put the shrimp in the soup, too, but the frying at Shiki is so good that we ate them just as they were.
Shiki has unusual Japanese beers and an enormous list of sakes in many styles. A new beer for me is Koshihikari Echigo ($9.95/17 ounces). This is a lager that is mostly rice-based and served ice-cold. It’s very well made, but at the opposite end of the flavor spectrum from Sam Adams: only a whiff of hops and a hint of malt. It’s built for Japanese food.