Editor's note: In "Apps Only," Ben Fishner will be eating his way through New York's appetizer, bar, and lounge menus as your guide to fine dining on a budget.
Hibino is a quiet Kyoto-style Japanese restaurant in Cobble Hill. They make sushi, but we stopped in with the intention of sampling their other offerings, especially the obanzai—homestyle small plates. The restaurant was quiet when we arrived early on a Saturday night and began ordering small plate after small plate.
While we didn't intend to order any sushi, we did start with a Salmon Roll ($5); once we saw the rolls at neighboring tables, we were powerless against it. The rice was perfectly cooked, the fish fresh and almost buttery in texture. Ditto for the Yellow Tail Scallion Roll ($5) we had later on in the meal.
Next up were the obanzai (each $4), listed on a chalkboard in the dining room. First we had Kasujiru Soup ($4), a rich and milky soup made from salmon, miso, and veggies including daikon, cabbage, and carrot. The soup was hearty and a great value. Next up was Tofu Nanban Zuke ($4), marinated fried tofu topped with a salad of carrot, ginger, and onion, and served in a thin broth of dashi. The final obanzai dish was Satoimo Agedashi, fried balls of taro potatoes in a darker soy dashi. The potatoes were lightly crusted and perfectly cooked through, and the broth was so good I sipped the rest of it from the bowl (to the horror of my dining companions).
We also ordered a couple of sides—a bowl of edamame ($3) turned out to be the biggest serving I'd ever been given in a restaurant, salted without being too salty. The plate of pickled vegetables ($3) was a far smaller serving, and did not really impress—some of the vegetables were far too salty; others did not taste pickled at all.
One section of the menu at Hibino that really stands out is the small plates of tofu. Hibino actually makes all of their tofu in house, and by doing so achieves a depth of flavor that many other spots in the city can't quite attain. On a friend's recommendation we tried the Agedashi Tofu ($6), three large chunks of soft tofu that are lightly crisped up in a deep fyer before being doused in more of that delicious soy dashi broth, along with shisito peppers and shiitake mushrooms. This dish was stellar, especially the mushrooms—which took on the flavor of the sweet and savory dashi while still retaining their deep earthy flavor. I could have eaten an entire bowl of these mushrooms. This is not to say that the tofu wasn't memorable, but there were other tofu dishes on the table that may have stolen its thunder.
Also from the tofu menu was Shira-ae ($4), poached seasonal vegetables with a tofu sauce. The vegetables, which on the night we dined were snap peas, Chinese broccoli, and asparagus, were tender and well seasoned, though the tofu sauce came across as very plain and one-note.
Finally, we ordered the Beef Kakuni ($10) appetizer, a chunk of short rib meat topped with thinly shredded raw daikon, a big piece of soft tofu, and scallions. This could have been the best single bite of the whole meal—the sweet short rib tender beyond belief, with the crispy daikon and soft tofu adding a variety of textures. This dish also comes sitting in a bowl of delicious sauce, though rather than dashi, this one tasted as though it were beef based—again, I picked up the bowl and drank down what broth remained (this bowl had a handle just for this purpose, I swear!). Perhaps ordering that side of steamed rice would have been a good idea for more graceful broth utilization. The serving size was small, but like most every dish we ordered, the sheer richness more than made up for the portion.
While I was initially put off by the small serving sizes at Hibino, each dish is made with the best possible ingredients and even the simplest dishes have a richness that is bound to fill you up. We weren't positively stuffed, but we actually came in at $48 before tax and tip—for four of us, just $12 each—and there were very few regrets. The menu lends itself to sharing these small plates, and there were still dishes, when we left, that I will be sure to return for. If you're looking for Japanese food that goes beyond salmon teriyaki and beef negimaki—or if you want sushi but your friends won't eat raw fish—Hibino is the place.