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Ebisu surprises with experimental options

The restaurant offers an interactive dining experience with scrumptious appetizers

With California rolls now offered at the Gate and a noodle bar featured at the Sharpe Refectory, Japanese cuisine has arrived on campus with less-than-fresh fish and dry rice. But for an experience beyond the sashimi platter and miso soup offered at Thayer Street joints, venture to Ebisu, a Japanese restaurant just a 10-minute drive off the Hill.

Before writing off the intimate space as a typical Japanese restaurant or questioning the decision to leave behind the comforts of Shanghai’s fishbowl, take a look at the menu.

The cuisine offered at Ebisu includes a variety of unique choices such as trendy tapas plates and do-it-yourself shabu shabu.

Ebisu’s extensive tapas selection provides the widest range of creative flavors. Prices are reasonable, so diners can experiment with several dishes — it is best to go as a group to try as many plates as possible. Edamame, which can be ordered with a conventional sprinkling of sea salt, is also offered tossed in a garlic chili oil, a spicy and refreshing take on a classic dish. The crispy Brussels sprouts also present an unexpected twist on an everyday vegetable. Slightly crunchy and enhanced by spices and puffed rice, this unusual preparation gives the vegetable a welcome makeover.

Robata yaki, skewers of meat and vegetables cooked on a charcoal grill, are another dependable appetizer choice. All two-skewer orders are under $10. The sweet and savory enoki maki — featuring enoki mushrooms wrapped in zucchini — are an umami sensation that would delight any mushroom lover. Be prepared to exert self-control, or these petite skewers will be gone in just one bite.

While these amped-up flavors were often appreciated, the kitchen occasionally used spices too liberally. The tom yum soup, a popular spicy Thai broth, was left largely uneaten due to the fiery seasoning. Those with meek taste buds should be wary and inquire about the spice level of certain dishes, if unsure.

When it comes to main courses, it is best to bypass common noodle dishes, which are no more interesting than those served up on College Hill. A dish of wok-fried noodles, tofu and vegetables — yasai yakisoba —  was rather goopy and reminiscent of a standard mall food court lo mein.

Instead of a noodle or rice dish, opt for the shabu shabu — a term that translates loosely to “swish swish.” This Japanese hot pot allows diners to create their own meals by “swishing” various meats and vegetables into broth until cooked. There is a vast selection of broths, as well as noodles, fish, meats and vegetables to dip, with hefty portions coming in below $17.

After experiencing the spicy tom yum soup and being warned the seafood broth was quite fishy, the vegetable broth seemed like the safest option. Though it may seem bland at first, citrusy ponzu and nutty sesame sauces — which may be added at the diner’s discretion — bring up this basic broth’s flavor level. Diners may also mix in chopped chilies, scallions and minced garlic to adjust the taste of the dish to their liking.

The meats and vegetables have varied cooking times, allowing diners to savor each element when it is ready and constantly enticing with new flavors. The meal gets tastier with time, as the meatiness of the mushrooms or slight saltiness of the chicken infuse the broth with flavor.

Though this unique experience involves more work than the typical restaurant meal, it offers a fun communal option perfect for breaking the ice on a first date or catching up with old friends.

The menu offers a selection of wines by both the glass and bottle, as well as specialty sake drinks. The crisp chardonnay provides a simple counterpoint to the spicy dishes. But the saketini tropical cloud, a coconut and sake drink, was heavy and muddled, not the desired refreshing sipper the name would suggest. For those under 21 or serving as designated drivers, the restaurant offers free soda refills.

The Ebisu staff readily offers advice and attentively checks on diners, willingly making additions and substitutions to orders. While patient in explaining the technical instructions of the shabu shabu, they were unable to provide the deeper history and traditions behind the dish. The efficient service was a bit speedy for diners seeking a leisurely experience, but the wait staff was happy to allow customers to linger.

Though students may do just as well ordering a typical noodle dish or Japanese staple on Thayer, the experimental options offered at Ebisu provide a novel dining experience deserving of the longer commute.


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