I will admit that I ventured in to Shalom Japan with some trepidation. When a new restaurant serving self-described "authentically inauthentic Jewish and Japanese food" opens in South Williamsburg, it sounds like a punchline. But throughout my leisurely dinner in the low-key space, I was consistently, pleasantly surprised by the friendly service and creativity at play in the kitchen.
The Jewish-Japanese theme plays out more obviously in some dishes than in others, with varying mileage. The dish that captures the cross-cultural fusion most seamlessly is also one of the simplest: Sake Kasu Challah with Raisin Butter ($8). While Steve Cuozzo may take to Twitter to lament the sorry state of bread baskets in New York today, this was one bread worth ordering on its own: an individual braided challah loaf, baked with sake kasu (the spent lees leftover from sake once it's fermented) and served with a raisin-studded whipped butter (the raisins have been rehydrated in sake, too). The kasu lends the bread the faintest touch of sake aromatics, and the yeast adds to the challah's tender texture.
Another hit is the Aburaage Pouches ($9)—their heritage seems muddled, but the finished product works nonetheless: thin sheets of tofu, fried to a golden puff (you may have seen pouches of aburaage filled with sushi rice to make the simple snack inarazushi at various delis around town), wrapped here around tangy melted raclette cheese and zucchini, then topped with a pickled green tomato relish. Last I checked, raclette was used more in Swiss cuisine than Jewish, but the oddball combo clicks, coming together like a Hot Pocket with a passport.
Carefully seared Tuna Tataki ($16) with an inky black tahini sauce was back on the Jewish-Japanese track, with the creamy sauce adding a deft rich touch to an otherwise lean dish.
The short menu is unofficially divided into small plates (see above) and larger mains, and the bigger dishes fumbled more than the apps. The most gimmicky dish on the menu, a roulade of Pastrami-Stuffed Chicken ($22), was sloppy on the plate and unbalanced as a whole, though the warm mustard-coated potato salad it arrived atop was so good it should be offered as a side in its own right.
Mentaiko Spaghetti ($19) with shrimp and a medley of Long Island-caught seafood bits, plus its namesake marinated pollock roe, was enjoyable enough but not fully realized—was it a muted take on salty-sweet Japanese pop spaghetti, or a misguided play off of frutti di mare? Either way, the addition of shrimp should answer any lingering questions about whether Shalom Japan keeps kosher.
Still, the restaurant, which is run by a Jewish-Japanese chef couple and employs an amiable, knowledgeable staff eager to explain the nuances of each dish, is a welcome addition to this otherwise sleepy corner of the neighborhood. In Williamsburg, where service is often relegated to the wings while scensterism plays center stage (and I say this as a longtime resident of the neighborhood), Shalom Japan is a pleasant change of pace—a true neighborhood spot fashioned with creativity and care.