The entrepreneur is a selling point, too. Food lovers of a certain vintage might recall that Norris got his start in Adams Morgan at the popular Perry’s restaurant before branching off on his own with one of the most ambitious Japanese projects Washington had ever seen: the 4,000-square-foot Kushi Izakaya & Sushi, which debuted a decade ago in Mount Vernon Square and poured sake in a choice of wood, glass, lacquer or ceramic cups. Executives from Toshiba and Mitsubishi helped crowd the dining room, which claimed 18-foot ceilings, a robota grill and a glassed-in fish room, a cool pantry for the oysters, clams, live scallops and sea urchins that populated his menus. The ambitious restaurant shuttered six years ago. But in its prime, Kushi blazed trails.
Restaurants in Japan tend to specialize in one dish or category. Shibuya isn’t offering A to Z, but more like A to E. “We’re in America!” says Norris. “People want choices.” His latest project takes its name from one of the most iconic parts of Tokyo, the business area encompassing two of the world’s busiest train stations, where Japanese fast food — noodles, skewers, donburi — are everywhere. No surprise, the menu launches with noodles and some decisions to make. Hot or cold? Dip or broth? The noodles, brought in fresh from New Jersey, embrace nutty buckwheat soba, udon and green tea soba.
Picture bars of sweet broiled eel on a tangle of thick white udon in steaming, umami-rich dashi. The kitchen can adjust that dashi by omitting a few ingredients including bonito flakes to make it a vegan complement to plant-based dishes. The simply titled “garden vegetables” pack in glossy shishito peppers, soft-crisp daikon and pickled beech mushrooms lit up with turmeric, a combination that plays well with thin and tensile green tea soba.
The most remarkable noodle dish features a lacquered duck leg that involves a dry brine, sous vide in duck fat and a moment in a cast-iron skillet before the leg hits the grill — “three days to get to the plate,” says Norris, who suggests buckwheat noodles in the bowl of dashi. Blistered shishito peppers and daikon, cooked like the leg in duck fat, ramp up the pleasure. Each bite of duck floods the mouth with the taste of orange and warm spices.
Perhaps you crave a rice bowl. The kitchen delivers. My one meetup involved a juicy chicken cutlet and racy kimchi atop boiled rice. The role of gravy was played by a dusky curry sweetened with onions and carrots.
Shibuya’s grill is stoked with binchotan charcoal, made from oak and prized for its clean and even heat. A little time over a high temperature — the charcoal can get as hot as 1,200 degrees, but Norris aims lower to prevent burning — transforms small blocks of sugar-cured pork and cubes of mirin-kissed beef short ribs into slightly sweet and subtly smoky wands. Enhancements (chile flakes, ponzu sauce) are offered but unnecessary. A small field of vegetables — leeks, white asparagus, Japanese sticky yams — also finds its way to the grill, although my pick of the crop is a halved avocado, glazed with a blend of soy sauce and Japanese chile oil, and served atop a nest of julienne daikon.
The kitchen promotes small plates, too. The skewers are better with a creamy, Japanese-style potato salad sparked with salted cucumbers and onions and dotted with delicate Bayonne ham, and a light meal could be made from the poke, shimmering cubes of ahi tuna tossed with glossy seaweed, pale green edamame and a generous amount of fresh ginger — a seafood salad that’s as beautiful as it is bracing.
Don’t come to Shibuya, co-owned by the chef’s wife, Candice Wise-Norris, expecting nigiri. Norris would rather you try temari sushi, named for the Japanese ornamental handballs. The restaurant sells its colorful handiwork — crimson tuna, fat-streaked salmon, finely scored squid glistening with flying fish roe — not by the piece but the box. Removing the tray from a bag of takeout is like discovering a chocolate sampler. The collection catches the eye and underscores the labor involved in say, applying paper-thin slices of mushroom to a round ball of rice so they overlap just so.
Temari sushi is not just bigger sushi. The rice is seasoned with red rice vinegar, and therefore bolder in flavor. The cost for the framed art, nine balls total, is $40 and worth the splurge. The fish toppings are lovely, but truth be told, I most enjoy wrinkled bean curd hugging a rice ball threaded with dried sea kelp.
The pandemic has released a lot of restaurant talent on the market as some businesses have had to cut their workforce. This explains the strong culinary team at Shibuya, including executive sous-chef D’Angelo Mobley, formerly with Maialino Mare and American Son. Consistency is a hallmark of the kitchen, although novices might appreciate labels on takeout containers, or an idea of what is supposed to go together.
I’ve yet to step inside Shibuya, online photos of which show off a lantern-lit basement; a second floor, soon to open, devoted to Japanese hot pot, shabu shabu; and a top level called Death Punch Bar, where the standing menu is served. Two of my orders were delivered to my doorstep, and the last meal took place outside the restaurant, on a drizzly Sunday afternoon beneath an open-sided tent on 18th Street NW.
Eating alfresco hinted at challenges to come for the industry in general. The lone server was responsible for setting up chairs and tables and keeping track of several parties, who kept rearranging their aluminum seats to avoid the sideways rain. No mention of moving anyone inside was made, and the heaters standing at attention near the entrance, which we asked about, were useless, given that the tent was shorter than the lamps. (Cans of sake help; ease in with the floral “kimoto cup” from the Otokoyama brewery in Hokkaido.)
For the present, I think I’ll continue to partake of Shibuya from the comfort of home or consider layering if I’m eating outside, where noodles, skewers and small plates increasingly call for scarves, vests and long johns.
Shibuya Eatery 2321 18th St. NW. 202-450-2151. shibuyaeatery.com. Open for takeout, delivery and outside dining noon to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and noon to 9 p.m. Sunday. Prices: Small plates and grilled items $4.50 to $18; noodle dishes and donburi $11 to $24. Delivery via DoorDash, Grubhub, Postmates and Uber Eats. Accessibility: Steps lead to the entrance, which is not wheelchair-friendly; the ADA-approved restroom is on the second floor.