At first glance, Hibino is virtually indistinguishable from the many Japanese restaurants scattered through brownstone Brooklyn. The spare Cobble Hill space has the standard dim lighting, sushi bar seating and a line of wooden tables. Clichéd favorites like edamame, chicken teriyaki and spicy tuna rolls litter the menu, and there are no attempts to elevate the cuisine with a drizzle of some unpronounceable puree or molecularly modified vegetable foam.
Hibino doesn’t have to—its understated dishes are amazing as is, without any culinary bells and whistles.
We started the meal with shira-ae (lightly cooked green vegetables served with a creamy tofu sauce) and seaweed salad.
The shira-ae was a welcome taste of spring. The generous helping of crunchy halved okra, asparagus tips, Brussels sprout wedges, snow pea slivers and Chinese broccoli stalks came with a buttery tofu-based dipping sauce that was ethereally light and pleasantly mild.
The seaweed salad was an unexpected hit. The medley of chewy, stringy sea vegetables, in various shades of green and purple, was complemented by the ponzu (citrus) dressing, which added an understated tang to the gelatinous seaweed.
The entrées, for the most part, were just as good. A golden spire of crispy fried crab jutted out of the soft-shelled crab tempura roll, a special from Hibino’s rotating obanzai (small plates) menu. The roll was packed with cucumber and avocado slivers and won rave reviews for its freshness. (Full disclosure: I am a longtime vegetarian who relied on the feedback of my seafood-eating dining companions for portions of this review.)
The kanpyo roll (soy-simmered squash strips) was unexpectedly sweet and light, yet satisfying. The blanched spinach and tomato salad with shiso dressing, another obanzai menu special, was perfectly tangy and savory. The dressing complemented the dish without drowning the flavors of the spinach and tomatoes.
The fresh homemade tofu arrived in a petite glass jar, similar to an old-fashioned milk bottle, with a vial of soy-dashi sauce and a doll-size plate of fresh scallions and ginger. The brothy sauce livened up the silky tofu, while the scallions and ginger added a flavorful kick. The overall effect was of a very good soup.
The only disappointment of the meal was the gamaage sesame-crusted and soy-marinated fried tofu, also a special. The thick gobs of sweet, sesame-studded sauce overwhelmed the delicate flavor of the tofu cubes. The dish tasted more like the honey-sesame bars found in bodegas than a Japanese entrée.
But that misstep was quickly forgiven when the soy milk pudding arrived. The delicate treat tasted uncannily like dairy and had a buttery, creamy vanilla flavor. As we dug our spoons deeper into the delectable dessert, we unearthed a more complex, almond flavor. The not-too-sweet dessert was the best part of a thoroughly enjoyable meal.
We left Hibino full and satisfied without feeling weighed down, as is often the case after a large meal. And since our bill was surprisingly lighter than expected, there was no doubt we’d be back again.
Hibino, 333 Henry St., Brooklyn, 718-260-8052, http://hibino-brooklyn.com