Hajime Suzuki knows the difference between a good Japanese restaurant and a great one. “You must engage the senses,” explains the owner of Fuku, a beloved west-Tokyo yakitori place, “the view of the chefs at work, the aroma of the chicken fizzling on the grill, and of course the taste of the food.” Yakitori, meaning literally grilled (‘yaki’) chicken (‘tori’), are skewers of chicken cooked over white-hot charcoal. From neck to tail, Fuku’s menu lists various parts of the bird, including the familiar (breast, wings, mincemeat) and the ambitious (heart, giblets, cartilage). Around the turn of the millennium, Suzuki, who was then working in the fashion business, began dreaming of opening a restaurant. “The image in my mind was of a warm place with a diverse, international clientele all enjoying themselves, as relaxed as if they were at home,” he says. In Yoyogi Uehara, a rapidly gentrifying neighbourhood still lacking good dining options, he found a promising location – “just far enough away from the station” – and the ideal landlord, who offered to knock down his existing building and build a new one to Suzuki’s specifications. He designed a space with high ceilings – rare for Tokyo – a counter with 16 seats, and several tables around the edge. The simple white uniforms of the chefs, the plain teahouse-colour walls, and the earthy ceramics were also part of his plan. “Everything we do should be understated so as not to disturb the customers,” he says. “Their enjoyment creates the atmosphere.” At the heart of the restaurant is the charcoal grill, manned by a chef who – battling through waves of heat and smoke – staggers the various orders and ingredients with the tempo of an orchestra conductor. The cleanliness and cut of the meat are critical to achieving an even cook. The charcoal – always from Wakayama, a prefecture in western Japan famous for it – is just as important. Regulars know to order plenty of the vegetable skewers and other non-chicken dishes that make up about half the menu, including succulent shiitake mushrooms, cuts of aubergine, and the ‘danshaku’ potato topped with a slice of melting butter. The green peppers wrapped in bacon and stuffed with cheese should be requested early, before they sell out. When he’s not at the grill himself, Suzuki can often be seen standing quietly at the back, discreetly paying attention to every detail. “If I listen carefully,” he says, “I can hear when the grill needs new charcoal, or when a chicken skewer is fizzling and ready to be served.”
Looking for the best rice to serve at his new restaurant, Hideki Ohnishi knew exactly who to talk to: Mr. Okazaki, a farmer in his hometown whose rice is so good he keeps it only for friends and family. Persuaded by the chef’s sincere attitude, he agreed to make him his only outside customer. “Later we found out his son and I were at school together,” says Ohnishi. “People around there need to know you to trust you.” Ohnishi’s restaurant in Tokyo, Kisaiya Hide, specializes in the cuisine of his hometown, Uwajima, a fishing port on the island of Shikoku in western Japan. The city belongs to a region known for its exacting farmers, and the chef spent years diligently researching from whom to buy his produce. Moving to Tokyo was Ohnishi’s childhood dream – although the boy intended to be a rock star, not a cook. Needing money for the journey, he took a job in the kitchen of the best restaurant in town famous for its ‘tai meshi’, a dish of snapper sashimi mixed with rice, broth, seaweed and scallions that is Uwajima’s signature food. The business closed many years ago and its chef passed away. But Ohnishi continues to serve a faithful version of the famous ‘tai meishi’ at his own restaurant. “It’s my way of giving back to the man who first believed in me,” he says. Another person who believed in him was his wife. She encouraged him to go solo after 15 years working in other chefs’ kitchens. After a long search for the perfect location, they settled on Kagurazaka, a wealthy neighborhood north of the Imperial Palace once famous for its geisha culture. “People around here love food and love talking about food,” says Ohnishi, recalling how his early customers discovered Kisaiya Hide. “The locals would come and eat, and then go to a bar and tell everyone about it.” Onishi recommends the ‘shika’ (venison), marinated for one day and hung for a second before being grilled and served with wasabi and soy sauce; the seasonal fish tempura – normally ‘kasago’ (scorpion fish) – every part of which can be eaten, including the bones; and ‘mizunasu’, a variety of eggplant that can be eaten raw, which comes served in salad-like arrangement with other greens, ginger and garlic, plus a smattering of broth and a dash of hot sesame oil. Considering Uwajima’s reputation for seafood, Ohnishi knew he would be judged on the quality of his sashimi. For that reason he bypasses Tokyo’s renowned fish market and instead buys from Mr. Yamada, a local fishmonger in Uwajima who sends him text messages every morning with photos of the different species being iced, boxed, and sent by overnight courier to the capital. A delivery of octopus is always welcome. “Octopus from the ocean there is unlike any other – sweeter, more fragrant,” he says. Every summer, when Ohnishi, his wife and their two young children go back to Ehime, he visits Mr. Yamada in person … Read More
Daisuke Shimazaki cradles in his hands two giant shrimps, just boiled and ready to serve. “Yesterday they were swimming in the ocean,” he says, his voice hushed, poised to reveal a secret. “Fresh from northern Japan. The best in the world… maybe.” That phrase is heard frequently at Sushi Yuu, Shimazaki’s family-run restaurant. His sea urchin and his fatty tuna are also “the best in the world… maybe” – although his confident tone of voice infers that there is, in fact, no ‘maybe’ about it. Shimazaki’s late father, Shojiro, opened Sushi Yuu in 1972 in a distant suburb, later moving his shop to central Tokyo. His wife – Shimazaki’s mother – still helps from behind the scenes, bottling her annual batch of plum wine, or helping to pickle the ‘gari’ ginger so adored by regulars. The son was initially reluctant to follow in his father’s footsteps. The family’s restaurant was close to the bars and nightclubs of Roppongi – a neon-lit playground for high-rolling businessmen. Young Daisuke wanted a life on the other side of the counter. “But it turned out I was a terrible businessman,” he says. Within a year, he was in the kitchen, watching his father work. “He rarely spoke – it was a case of look and learn. That was the way back then.” Shimazaki knows that a chef is only as good as his ingredients. To get his hands on the best fish, he depends on a network of traders, each of them a specialist – in tuna, squid, or sea urchin. He visits them at the fish market every morning. “If there’s something special coming in, they’ll call to give me a head’s up,” he says. “But I still need to see things with my own eyes.” Shimazaki’s sushi reflects his personality: it is uncomplicated and generous. His preparations are simple, his cuts are large, and his rice has bite. A giant Hokkaido oyster is his recommended starter when they are in season. Always on the menu is his father’s signature ‘himono’ –mackerel, rigorously salted, dried in the open air, and grilled until its buttery juices begin to ooze. In place of dessert, expect a slice of ‘tamagoyaki’ omelette – sweet, and with a hint of citrus. Shimazaki balances his dedication to his craft with other passions outside the kitchen – fast cars, fine whiskeys, and the occasional round of golf. A confident English speaker, he converses with his customers from all over the world as dexterously as he creates their meals. “If people want to stay here talking and drinking until the small hours, they’re very welcome,” he says. And with only one sitting per evening, at Sushi Yuu there is no need to watch the clock.
Silence is rare at Sakana Bar Ippo, a casual fish and sake bar along a quiet side street in Ebisu. On most nights it’s packed by 8pm, the air crowded with a cacophony of chatter, clinking glasses, and bursts of laughter. Before the guests begin trickling in at 6pm, owner Masato Takano starts making a playlist for the evening – a little vintage Rolling Stones, some Beatles tunes, maybe something by the Smiths, then the Stone Roses. Takano, who writes songs and plays the piano and guitar, wanted to be a musician when he was growing up. But he made a calculated decision to pursue a safer career, and spent eight years working as a stock analyst. Now in his forties, he still peppers his conversation with references to risk and probability. “Succeeding as a musician is a narrow possibility, so I went to university and studied economics,” he explains, modestly adding that his specialist subject was investment theory. But childhood dreams die hard, and after spending much of his twenties managing assets, Takano knew he wanted to do more than just make money. By age 30, he’d saved enough to start a small business. To this day, he relishes the moment he told his boss he was quitting finance to open an izakaya. It was the many evenings he spent in the Tsukiji district, unwinding with friends over sake and freshly caught fish, that gave him the idea for Ippo. “I really appreciated those moments after work,” he says. “I started watching the guys working in the restaurants, looking at what they were doing. Sometimes I’d buy fish at the market to take home and experiment with.” Ippo’s menu changes depending on what’s on offer fresh at the market. It can include sashimi, grilled fish, even oysters when they’re in season. There is also a selection of specialties, such as Satsuma-age, a variety of fishcake from Kyushu, Japan’s southernmost main island. In Takano’s recipe this is uniquely light and fluffy, a texture onomatopoeically described on the menu in Japanese as ‘fuwa-fuwa’. Regulars at Ippo order the ‘aji no namero’, a fine mince of raw horse mackerel, ginger, miso, and herbs that pairs brilliantly with sake. The name namero, which literally means ‘to lick’, implies the delicacy is so tasty that customers end up cleaning the plate themselves. Although his Ippo version uses mackerel, Takano based the dish on his grandmother’s recipe for a meal of raw squid. To chop everything together, he uses two cleavers in a rapid, steady tapping motion that adds a staccato rhythm to the aural mayhem. “Music is still very important to me,” Takano says, selecting a Tom Waits track on his computer as another customer shouts an order across the bar. “But this… This is my soundtrack.”
When Koichi Kobari abruptly closed his much-loved New York soba restaurant Honmura-an, food bloggers broke the news like they were announcing a death. But the Big Apple’s loss was Tokyo’s gain: Kobari now runs an equally successful restaurant in the heart of Roppongi. Honmura-an New York was the first top-class soba restaurant outside Japan. Opened in 1991 and closed in 2007, it won the favour of SoHo locals, New York foodies, and a smattering of celebrities. It wasn’t the first time the Kobari family changed the history of soba cuisine. In the 1960s, Koichi’s father, Nobuo, was one of the first to turn a common fast food into refined cuisine, milling top-quality buckwheat on the premises and paying keen attention to design and décor. Tokyo’s middle class couldn’t get enough of it. Koichi, at the time a headstrong, independent young man, had no intention of being part the family’s noodle business. He moved to California to study, and later took a job as a management consultant. He was living the American dream. “But all the time, I had this nagging feeling,” he recalls. “Then one day, my father came to visit.” Nobuo had an idea. It was the heady era of the bubble economy. Mitsubishi had just bought the Rockefeller Center. Anything seemed possible. Nobuo wanted to open a restaurant for the planeloads of Japanese businessmen doing deals in New York. And he wanted Koichi to run it. “He was smart,” says his son. “He always wanted me to be part of the family business, but he knew I had to do it my own way.” Kobari ran Honmura-an New York for 16 years, using buckwheat flour from the Japanese countryside and chefs sent on rotation from Tokyo. The decision to close was an emotional one. Koichi’s father had passed away and it was time to return home. In Tokyo, he left his sister to run the main restaurant in Ogikubo, while he took charge of the less-famous Roppongi branch. The same designer he had used in New York soon replaced its traditional fixtures and fittings with a modern interior. His Japanese chef from SoHo came too. Today the soba noodles are still made to the Kobari family recipe, while contemporary side dishes and seasonal specials – grilled pork and apples with spring onion miso sauce, for example, or tender Hokkaido squid with ginger – add a sense of culinary adventure still rare on most soba menus. “It has been six years, but we still have a few parties from New York every night,” says Kobari, visibly moved by his customers’ loyalty. “It’s flattering, it’s overwhelming, it makes me remind myself every day to be thankful. And I think my father would be proud.”
As a young man in Japan, Shinobu Namae always knew he was living in a bubble. “It was very convenient here, very efficient,” says the youthful executive chef of L’Effervescence with characteristic self-awareness. “I appreciated that. But I also knew Japan was a bit sterile.” Namae was determined to travel, and foraged for a career that would satisfy his inquisitive instincts. He intended to become a journalist. Then he was obsessed with Italy – “I wanted to be Italian.” But it was on holiday near San Francisco, while dining at Chez Panisse, that he encountered his true calling. “A simple arugula salad, garlic soup, beef sirloin with basil paste… Even now, I can remember every flavour,” he recalls of the meal at Alice Waters’ iconic Californian restaurant. “I never imagined I could get such satisfaction from a salad.” More than a decade later, on the other side of the Pacific, Namae set out to offer every guest at his own restaurant a distinct memory of time and place. For his ebullient project, he chose a tantalising name: L’Effervescence. The location he secured is refreshingly roomy for Japan’s cramped capital, where space itself is a luxury. During each sitting, the chef makes sure to visit every table and personally greet and thank his patrons for coming. “I’m grateful for every moment,” he says. “For me, work is life, and life is work, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.” On a plate called ‘Beautiful Scene of Summer’, two small local freshwater fish known as ayu (sweetfish) appear to be jumping along a stream of sunshine – a picture painted with mango, radish and a mountain of sansho pepper, and with a powerful spot of ‘guts-flavoured gastric sauce.’ On ‘Transparency,’ airy foie gras, garnished with grapes, celery and walnuts, seems ephemeral enough to almost vanish before the first bite. Nominally French, Namae’s food also reflects his youthful Italian fetish; the influence of his two celebrated tutors, Michel Bras and Heston Blumenthal; and, from his home country, strong seasonal rhythms. His microscopic attention to detail comes from his father, a stern, introverted man who designed microchips sitting behind a blueprint-covered desk. It was his mother who taught him to take pleasure in food. “Honestly she isn’t a great cook,” he says. “But she loves to explore new restaurants. She appreciates every mouthful and every moment.” Softly spoken yet candid, Namae confesses to having a rebellious streak. After graduating from university with a degree in politics and social psychology, his decision to cook for a living went against the wishes of his father. Now in his early forties, he is one of several rising-star chefs unafraid to challenge the boundaries of his native culture. “I grew up just as Japan’s bubble economy was bursting. Since then things haven’t always gone well for us Japanese,” he says. “So we needed to learn to do things differently, and to enjoy ourselves along the way. We needed this culinary revolution.” In late 2013, Chef Namae attended … Read More