I'm a big fan of fermentation. I brew beer, eat large quantities of cheese, and I'll fight for the last pickle. Sauerkraut and kimchi? Yes, please. But natto? The ultra-traditional Japanese dish is a foul-smelling gelatinous web of fermented soy beans. I was surprised to find it ($4.50) on the menu at Izakaya Hiro, formerly Sushi Hiro, just a couple of weeks ago. The thought of fermented soy beans intrigued me, and rightfully so, as I was sipping on a divine fermented beverage: a red pear vinegar with sparkling water (more about that later). When the bowl of beans arrived at the table, a distinctively unpleasant and pungent odor rose from it. Still, I took a bite, and I just couldn't wrap my head around the flavor. It was terrible. I continued sampling, thinking it would get better, but it didn't. I added soy sauce — still terrible. It's unlikely that I'd order it again, but I appreciate that this authentic Japanese dish is available in Charleston.
Asian restaurants are a dime a dozen, so much that America has become a sushi nation. It's available in college dining halls, sold in plastic trays at grocery stores, and made at home by ambitious cooks. There's laid-back sushi and nightclub sushi, big sushi and small sushi, and a whole lot of wasabi and pickled ginger to go with it all. Often we see large rolls with a variety of unique toppings, such as exotic fruits, juicy cuts of steak, even mac 'n' cheese, but sometimes it's the simple, traditional bites that bring the most pleasure to the palate. That's what Hideya Ishibashi has been doing for years at what's now Izakaya Hiro.
Besides a few Americanized rolls — think California, Philly, and Charleston — Ishibashi's sushi menu is short and classic. The rolls are small and cut into six pieces. Salmon, yellowtail, and tuna run $6.50 each. The salmon skin roll ($6) is exactly as it sounds: salty salmon skin rolled in nori surrounded by moist sushi rice and topped with slices of onion and paper-thin shavings of salmon skin. They're quite good.
The nigiri, two pieces per order, includes conch ($5.50), mackerel ($5), and octopus ($6). Occasionally sea urchin ($7) appears on the list. Also known as uni, it has a light, sweet, and somewhat briny flavor and a seductively melting texture. It's definitely worth trying, but it was available on only two of my three visits. This, however, speaks volumes about the offerings from the sea, which are local when possible and impeccably fresh. In addition to selections from the surf, there are some turf options. I particularly enjoyed the tamago ($4.50), which consists of layers of cooked egg on a bed of rice — simple, yet interesting and full of flavor.
There are some great small bites on the menu, too. Tender beef rolled up with scallions and glazed with teriyaki resembles meaty sushi rolls ($9). The crispy soft shell crab with sweet ponzu sauce ($12) was a table favorite, and the steam buns with miso-barbeque pork and zesty Japanese slaw ($6) was about as sinful as it gets.
Tempura, donburi (rice bowls), and noodles also make an appearance. The kobacha (Japanese pumpkin) tempura was good, though it could've been livened up with a touch of salt. Our donburi selection was the tekka don ($18). Sliced rare tuna sits on a bed of rice and seaweed, topped with scallions, sesame seeds, soy, and ginger. There's a dab of wasabi on the side to heat the dish to your liking.
The ramen, soba, and udon noodle options are all top notch. Noodles are custom-made and shipped in daily from San Francisco. The ramen comes with your choice of soy-flavored vegetable, chicken, or miso-flavored chicken broth. Whatever you choose, it also includes pork, bamboo shoots, scallions, nori, and egg. The soft, thick udon noodles swim in a bowl of sweetly savory broth, accented with diced scallions, seaweed, and crisp tempura flakes ($9). Soy, ginger, and anise all come to play here. It's a bowl of pure satisfaction.
The new Hiro menu includes a kushiyaki section, which literally means grilled and skewered food. Like the nigiri, the skewers come two per order. Head-on prawns ($7.50) and chicken skin ($3) were enticing, and the pork belly ($7) was addictively good. Each skewered item was tender and flavorful, with a unique smokiness provided by the grill.
Ishibashi recently teamed up with REV (Revolutionary Eating Ventures) to transform Sushi Hiro into Izakaya Hiro, which translates to "a drinking place," and a drinking place it has become. They've got a draft beer list that includes Kirin Ichiban ($3.50), Hitachino Nest ($8), and the local Palmetto Ginger Slap ($4), all of which are served in ceramic cups made in Japan. There are a handful of craft beer bottles and four different wines to choose from. The extensive sake list includes SMV (Sake Meter Value) ratings to give you a sense of how dry or sweet each offering is.
In addition, they're producing housemade vinegars at the restaurant. They take fresh fruit, infuse it with vinegar, and add a splash of sparkling water. We tried red pear, peach, plum, and bing-cherry — all of which were delightful and $4. The vinegars are also used to make cocktails such as the Dragon's Tongue ($7), which consists of an alluring combination of sake, pineapple vinegar, aloe, kaboshu, and jalapeño.
The newly formed partnership brings us more than just a snazzy drink list, it also adds some signature REV style to the place. The layout is pretty much the same. Just inside the front door, the wall to the left looks like a giant Jenga board, with hundreds of small square pegs of wood poking out at different lengths. There's a long wooden bench along the wall and eight or so small tables and chairs. Four seats line the main bar and about a dozen ring the sushi bar. One of the biggest additions is the dining area within the kitchen, where diners can see the new Japanese grill in action.
I may not be a fan of the natto, but that kind of dish makes Izakaya Hiro stand out. The noodles, the kushiyaki offerings, and the very simple sushi menu all reflect authenticity. A karaoke room planned for the back will take this even a step further. Masuhiro Yamamoto, a famous Japanese food writer, said, "Ultimate simplicity leads to purity." Although he was talking about sushi, the essence of his meaning is embodied in what Ishibashi and company are doing at Izakaya Hiro. If you embrace the concept of less can be more, this place is for you. Just beware of the natto.