Oichiichi

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A safe distance from the crowds around Kamakura station, past the daily farmer’s market, Ikuyo Segi serves lovingly prepared set lunches in her cosy Oichiichi restaurant. Iku-chan, as all the regulars call her, started her career in fashion but got tired of the industry’s ever-changing whims and realised that what she really wanted to do was to cook. “My father passed away around that time, and I guess that got me thinking about my future,” she says. Iku-chan serves classics of Japanese home cooking with brown rice, miso soup (made with her own homemade miso), and three to four side dishes. There are always two different main dishes to choose from (fried tuna and cauliflower fritters or oyster gratin, for example) and usually one of these is meat free. Everything is carefully served on beautiful ceramics—some of which Iku-chan has repaired herself using the Japanese art of kintsugi—in an unhurried manner that makes customers feel right at home. For someone running such a small restaurant, Iku-chan is surprisingly not very talkative. “I am actually not very good at communication,” she says. “Maybe that’s another reason I chose to work with food. I don’t need words to see if someone likes my cooking. It shows on their faces!” Through her cooking and her ever-present smile, she creates a warm and unpretentious atmosphere of quiet hospitality at the intimate, ten-seat counter. Most of the fruit and vegetables used at Oichiichi are sourced locally, either from the farmers market or from friends. Meat comes from the small butcher shop just five doors down. “The butcher is such a nice man and the meat is always delicious. He also often introduces me to people who need catering, so how could I get my pork and chicken anywhere else?” Iku-chan laughs. Originally from Mie prefecture, Iku-chan has been cooking for more than 20 years in different restaurants around Tokyo and Kamakura. She opened Oichiichi with her husband Satoru, a Kamakura native, in 2012. “We did most of the interior ourselves, but also got help from a lot of people who would walk by and pop their heads in to see what we were up to,” she says. “One passerby helped us paint some of the walls and another one did all the kitchen tiling for us.” The crooked windows, exposed beams and painted old wooden walls all add to the charm of the restaurant. Besides lunch, Iku-chan also does takeaway bento boxes and private catering, mostly by word of mouth. In the evening, Chun, as Satoru is known by his friends, turns Oichiichi into a favourite local hangout. He takes pride in serving an eclectic selection of sake and shochu, as well as draft beer from the nearby Yorocco brewery. He doesn’t really cook, but Iku-chan always prepares a series of small snacks he can serve the regulars with their cold mugs of beer. “It’s funny, but the lunch customers and evening customers are totally different,” Iku-chan explains. But no doubt, they share a liking … Read More

Locale

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Walking into Locale, a small restaurant near the river in Meguro, customers feel as though they’re entering someone’s home. The chef, Katy Cole, welcomes them with a smile from behind the counter, where other guests—who may have been strangers only moments before—share stories and discuss wine preferences. “It feels like a dinner party every night,” Cole says. The story of how Cole came to open Locale is an unlikely one, full of chance encounters and serendipitous twists of fate. The Los Angeles native spent the first decade of her career cooking in San Francisco. When she first visited Japan on a whim, it was only for a ten-day holiday. Still, she “felt like there was something more,” and six months later she was back again, this time for a longer stay. During that second trip, she began making the connections that would soon lead to her leaving California behind to live in Japan full time. After spending several months doing pop-up cooking events whenever and wherever she could, Cole was hired as the savoury chef to open what would quickly become a popular bakery and cafe in Daikanyama. It was during this time that she learnt that the restaurant that previously occupied Locale’s space would be closing. She immediately put up her hand to take over the lease. “On the second or third day of my first trip to Japan, I came here and sat at this counter and thought, I would love to have a restaurant like this one day,” she says. Over time she became friends with the owner of that restaurant, and even though he questioned whether she would be able to make the space work for her, she knew she was going to try. And not only did she try, she succeeded. “I opened the restaurant four years to the day from when I came here the first time,” Cole says. At Locale, vegetables take centre stage. Every week, the restaurant gets deliveries from small farms across Japan, the contents of which are unknown until they are opened. It is only at this time that the chef begins planning the menu, which changes slightly each day. “We use such special ingredients and the farmers put a lot of care and energy into what they’re growing, and for me to peel it all away or make it into some other shape seems like a little bit of a waste to me,” Cole says. “The quality of the vegetables is so nice, I don’t need to do too much to them. So I guess my philosophy is just that simple is best.” A night at Locale might see a menu that includes colourful roasted vegetables with cashew cream, lentils and avocado with a bright pink sauce made of yogurt and shibazuke pickles, Spanish mackerel with quinoa and roasted root vegetables, and pork shoulder with whipped taro root and greens. “I feel that everything sort of comes together, from the honesty of the people growing the vegetables, to serving … Read More

Sushisho

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People who know sushi know Keiji Nakazawa. His name rarely figures on high-profile star-ranking systems, but he is probably the most influential sushi chef working in Japan today – and Sushisho is more than just his restaurant. To his growing band of protégées, it is an academy; to devotees of his cuisine, it is Mecca. Nakazawa’s philosophy falls within the broad church of Edomae sushi, or ‘sushi in the style of Edo’ (the old name for Tokyo), which in its purest form is the combination of sliced raw seafood on top of vinegared rice. For inspiration, Nakazawa reached back in time to the earliest traditions of Edomae sushi, while at the same time evolving the cuisine in directions that are both innovative and stunning to behold. For example, modern sushi norms dictate that the fish must be as fresh as possible, yet before refrigeration technology it was commonly treated to make it last longer. Nakazawa resurrected this tradition by ageing, marinating, simmering or searing his seafood to achieve maximum flavour. He is also fastidious about rice, and uses two different grains depending on the seafood they’re cushioning: simple white rice for simple, delicate fish; and less common red rice for fattier, fuller flavoured species. He varies the seasoning – vinegar, salt or soy – to balance the taste, and famously serves his rice warmer than is customary. The fixed omakase course service at Sushisho can begin with a delicate slice of cooked squid stuffed with rice and dotted in three places with concentrated soy sauce. It may include a pocket of aji (horse mackerel) filled with threads of ginger, shiso and cucumber. It will certainly include slithers of tuna, yellowtail or squid laden with taste from being aged for days or even weeks. And extras such as monkfish liver lying back-to-back with pickled baby watermelon on a bed of red rice would be a crime to miss. Nakazawa set his sights set on becoming a shokunin (artisan) of sushi when he was just 15 years old. His journey began on a delivery bicycle, weaving the crowded streets of Tokyo with boxes of sushi piled high on his shoulder. Later, he travelled the country “like a nomad” honing his skills and learning regional traditions and techniques. The sushi world became his family: he lived with the other apprentices, ate and drank with his teachers, and learned to enjoy interacting with customers. In January 2016, Nakazawa upped sticks and moved to Hawaii for his next adventure, opening a branch of Sushisho in Waikiki. But his spirit lives on at his former restaurant and in the talents of those he schooled in the Sushisho way. “You can’t run a restaurant alone,” Nakazawa says. “More than skill, teamwork and communication are most important.” He is mentor to several of Tokyo’s most highly regarded young sushi chefs. To them, he is always – even in his absence – called oyakata, a term that combines respect with endearment, marking him out as akin to an honorary … Read More

Sushisho Masa

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When Masakatsu Oka decided he wanted to become a sushi chef, he knew there was something he needed to fix. Lacking neither passion nor commitment, it was in a sense his body that looked set to let him down. “It’s because, truth be told, I’m left-handed,” confesses Oka, a trait that even today is considered undignified by some Japanese. Not wanting this perceived weakness to ruin his culinary ambitions, Oka could be found nightly practising cutting cabbage into thin strips with his right hand until, in his words, “I no longer feared the knife.” It clearly worked. He moves the blade with swift, deft strokes, lightly scoring a slice of squid with dozens of fine, diagonal cuts. He angles his knife to the right, and repeats the action in the other direction to make a crisscross pattern so that when the flesh touches one’s tongue, it feels like it’s melting. But Oka credits his skills less to his late-night cabbage training and more to his mentor, Keiji Nakazawa of Sushisho (p.XX). “Nakazawa-san is the person I respect most,” Oka says. “If I hadn’t met him, this restaurant wouldn’t exist.” Sushisho Masa, the name of Oka’s restaurant, is testament to that. The practice is known as noren-wake, or ‘dividing the noren’ – the noren being the curtain above the door that bears a restaurant’s name. By permitting him to use the Sushisho name, the mentor gives a public blessing to his acolyte’s new venture, indicating that the young man is equipped to safeguard his legacy. An honour of that level must be earned, and Oka is no stranger to hard work. He says that losing his mother at an early age taught him to be independent. And that the punishing schedule of his early years learning the sushi trade – starting work at 7.30am, and ending around midnight – was a lesson in endurance. “Find out how far you can push yourself and then push even further,” he says, sounding more marathon runner than chef. Indeed, as he works behind Sushisho Masa’s cosy seven-seat counter, Oka controls every movement and every breath. As the cuts of his knife create a staccato rhythm, his words meet the beat, becoming almost meditative as he describes each dish: aji (horse mackerel) is served with a dab of acidic hacchomiso, a deeply flavoured dark miso from Western Japan; rectangles of katsuo (bonito) come sandwiching paper-thin slices of garlic marinated in soy sauce to mellow the taste; and his decadent signature dish of three succulent slices of o-toro lightly layered with wasabi to create what he calls the ‘Masa-feuille’. Oka’s eyes twinkle as he presents rare ingredients such as grilled anago liver, or octopus eggs simmered in dashi – all likely to surprise even the most dedicated lover of sushi. “I always keep my eyes open for new ideas. That’s what I try to teach my guys,” he says, gesturing towards his staff of three young apprentices. “I want them to become the kind of people … Read More

Mamma Luisa’s Table

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A few steps from one of Shibuya’s main thoroughfares is not exactly where one might expect to find a farmhouse-style restaurant, and yet that’s exactly what Mamma Luisa’s Table is. Opened by chef Pietro Androsoni in 2014, the restaurant was inspired by his childhood growing up on his grandparents’ farm in Florence. “My grandmother made all the food for all the family. Every weekend there were like 15 to 20 people in my house,” Androsoni says. “So I grew up in this environment, with the ingredients from the farm, the animals, the poultry. And I think this is why I am fascinated by this work.” Androsoni started his career at a Michelin-starred restaurant in his native city, before he did a stint at an Italian restaurant in Cleveland, Ohio. Disillusioned by what he says was not the America of his dreams and yet still harbouring a travel bug, when he got a call from his former boss asking him to help open a new location in Tokyo, he decided to take a chance. “I said, I’ll come to Japan, but I don’t want to stay longer than six months. And I came here and fell in love with the city,” he says. “Food-wise, I think it’s the best city in the world. You can experience all the cuisines, the styles—there is so much culture about food in this city.” Mamma Luisa’s Table is named after Androsoni’s own mother, and the restaurant has a relaxed, home-style feeling. Black and white photos of the chef’s family hang on the walls, and at the centre of the dining room is a large, eight-seat table. Warm lighting, distressed wood furniture, mismatched rugs and an open kitchen complete the inviting atmosphere. “The thing I love the most about having my own restaurant is the relationships I can cultivate with customers,” Androsoni says. “I feel I am at home, and the guests are also a part of my home.” Androsoni’s food is creative yet comforting, incorporating ingredients from Japan and around the Mediterranean. The menu changes slightly from day to day depending on the vegetables he finds at the markets. “I use really seasonal ingredients, because that’s one thing we’re losing these days,” he says. “People have gotten used to using asparagus 365 days a year. But for me, we have seasons and I want to respect them. Also because I grew up in a farmhouse, and I think this background is something I bring with me. I used to love to go into the backyard and get the zucchini, and then go inside, wash it and cook the pasta. In 30 minutes you go from the ground to the plate.” Cooking according to the seasons also results in more variety, which keeps Androsoni stimulated. Even first-time visitors to Mamma Luisa’s Table will quickly recognise his passion for his work. “Food is so versatile. Once you understand the ingredients, you can create anything. Food for me is life,” he says. “Food is also my way of … Read More

Fuku

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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.”