I’ve been searching for something for a year now.
Picking my way through this humid haystack of a city for something rare and true and honest and delicious and air-conditioned. I’ve been looking for a dope Izakaya joint. A Japanese spot where drinking and eating come together in an unpretentious setting. But yet the cooking has the grace and balance you might find in the sort of Japanese restaurant that costs far more. I’d like to think these sorts of restaurants exist everywhere the salaryman cuts a check (but I also know it's a lot to ask for outside of Japan).
Yet I hold onto the hope that there’s one in Bangkok, somewhere, lurking in the shadows. It’s cloaked in Mild Seven smoke, steeped in fry and grill scent, with a soundtrack of staccato chatter that gets looser and louder as the sochu vanishes.
Last night, I thought I’d found what I’d been looking for. Myself, my wife, and another seeker wandered up to a Japanese joint on Soi 11 called Shunbo Sumibiyaki.
First encouraging sign: They wanted nothing to do with us. Small Japanese restaurants sometimes bristle at the sight of otherness, and while this might upset a tender soul, it’s actually a good thing. The same rule goes for the best Thai street food spots.
A rule to eat by, in Asia: If you feel unwelcome, you probably ought to eat there.
“Aaharn Mot Leew!” said the waitress, implying that every single piece of food in the restaurant has been consumed. It was 8 pm. The room was full of Japanese men eating dinner. The restaurant closes at one. The grill was crowded with cuts of meat. I giggled.
“You can’t be serious.”
“Soong, sam chuamoong glap ti nii…” (come back in two, three hours) said the waitress with a sigh, as I smiled that annoyed smile you smile when you know that’s the only thing that might get you your way in this land.
An hour later, posted up at another, lesser Japanese on the street, my friend placed a call in his smooth Thai and reserved a table. He said he was copping a Japanese accent. I didn’t catch it.
When we entered the waitress looked confused, then realized the only solution was to seat us. So we sat and ate a parade of delicious dishes, and a few ordinary ones. What looked like a humorless tuna salad with a mustard and kewpie mayo dressing made me smile: hiding beneath were incredibly crispy, tiny whitebait. The ultimate crouton (see above photo).
We ate Kurobota pork ribs, that hung neatly from the bone like laundry on a line, and a slab of saba fish, blow-torched tableside. The smell of burning fish skin filled the air, sake was drunk, and a pot of daikon and fish cake bubbled in a bath of dashi.
I’ll return to Shunbo for the cooking, but it’s still missing something. The room is a little too slick, a shade too dark, and the food has a bit of forced refinement. Still, it’s good, and if you live in Bangkok, it’s worth a try.
Me, I’ll keep looking.
Shunbo is located at 33/5 Sukhamvit Soi 11, almost directly opposite Bed Supperclub. But, if you're hanging around Bed Supperclub, you're probably not eating at Shunbo. Oh, and if you know anywhere that fits my vague criteria for Izakaya (cheerful, intimate, unpretentious, delicious) drop me a line.