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Turnips with flageolet miso and chili paste

Yogurt and brown “nare” rice salad

Black-sesame wagashi

Rainbow trout “nare zushi” with four-year-old umeboshi

Kabocha squash and rabe with furikake and sake kasu.


San Francisco | March 2016



doesn’t look like much—it’s just a fungus used to inoculate grains, soy beans, and potatoes to produce foods like miso and soy sauce—but to hear some of the Bay Area’s most influential chefs talk about it, you’d think it had more sex appeal. At Aster, Brett Cooper uses the salted version—shio koji—to marinate minced salmon, which he then presses into kombu and serves with pickled fennel and radishes seasoned with seaweed salt. Over at Tartine, Chad Robertson is exploring koji’s potential as a natuCharred and dried beef with beer ponzu

ral sweetener in breads and pastry fillings. And when Kyle Connaughton, the chef and co-owner of Healdsburg’s upcoming Single Thread—and a serious Japanophile—was in Japan last fall, he took Bar Tartine’s Cort-

Karasumi and radish

ney Burns, who was also visiting, on a day trip to a koji producer. The producer, Hanamaruki, makes a liquid shio koji that Connaughton has discovered has many applications in his cooking—he uses it “in place of brines, as a marinade, in sauces, and in broths.” Submerging fish in the koji prior to smoking lends it “a beautiful glossy finish that prevents albumin protein from coagulating at the surface,” Connaughton says. Liquid shio koji, he adds, will likely have “a pretty big boom over the next year in the U.S. as chefs discover it.” The umami-rich backbone of everything from miso to soy sauce, koji is, in other words, magic. And it’s one reason a growing number of San Francisco chefs have fallen deeply for Japan, anointing it as their international lodestar just as previous generations looked to France and Italy.

An array of Bar Tartine’s East-to-West translations.

One global cuisine is capturing the imaginations of the Bay Area’s best chefs, and it’s not French or Italian. By Sara Deseran

While the Bay Area has long had an excess of sushi spots and, more recently, has seen a growing number of bespoke ramen joints, it’s now undergoing a sea change in its relationship to Japan. On both finedining and smart-casual menus you’re as likely to see dashi and umeboshi as you are olive oil and capers. In addition to more traditional Japanese restaurants, including Ippuku and Rintaro, there are California-ized Japanese restaurants like Iyasare, Hopscotch, the Ramen B ar, and Ramen Shop. On top of that, a number of nonJapanese restaurants are mixing Japanese ingredients and techniques into their more eclectic menus.

Five chefs on using Japanese ingredients in Western dishes.


Though chef Jason Fox will be taking his first trip to Japan this spring, his restaurant Commonwealth often serves dishes like sesame- and nori-


coated avocado with charred romaine, popcorn, togarashi, and yuzu kosho milk. At State Bird Provisions, Stuart Brioza has been known to whip up persimmon with kinako and black sesame, as well as a Hodo Soy tofu salad with creamy miso-chili dressing and nori crackers. At Quince, where Michael Tusk earned two Michelin stars for the black magic he works on pasta, it’s not unusual to see a dish like Monterey Bay whelk with kelp, nori, and Meyer lemon on the menu next to fagottini with Jerusalem artichoke. Bay Area chefs, of course, have always taken foreign culinary traditions and given them a California twist. It’s what they do best. But until recently, their eyes were mostly trained on Europe. In the ’70s, Alice Waters did Provence. In the ’80s and ’90s, plenty of others followed suit, sponging their restaurants yellow and developing codependent rela-

The dish: Duende’s mackerel montadito And it’s Japanese how? “The dish appears as Spanish montaditos, but I learned how they prepare the pickled mackerel in Japan: by first curing it with salt and sugar, then poaching it. I make my own poaching liquid, spiced with coriander, allspice, and star anise. I’ve served the mackerel with crème fraîche and pickled sour cherries.”


tionships with tapenade. In the early aughts, we surrendered to regional Italian and flirted with Spain. While those decades of Euro worship are

And it’s Japanese how? “It’s the black garlic. I tasted it for the first time in 2007, at a restaurant called Carre de M in Kyoto. When I returned, I purchased it from an importer in Oakland. At Picco, we recently put it in the pumpkin agnolotti with chanterelles, sage, and brown butter.”


often attributed to the climate we share with the Mediterranean, though, such an affinity doesn’t explain our current infatuation with Japan. Plenty of other factors, however, do. For starters, says Bay Area native Brioza, “we’re looking at California cuisine through a different lens now.”

The dish: Picco’s pumpkin agnolotti

James Freeman has b een mining Japan’s exacting sensibilities since he first visited the country as a 19-yearold clarinetist—long before Blue Bottle was a twinkle in his eye. “It’s so different from the States,” he says, “but the moment I stepped off the plane, I felt right at home.” Blue Bottle opened its first Japanese location in Tokyo’s Kiyosumi neighborhood in February 2015; it’s opening its third location, in Shinjuku, in March and its fourth, in Roppongi, in July (its second location is in Aoyama). Freeman, who is enamored with Tokyo’s kissatens (traditional coffee shops), says, “It’s not ‘Where’s the next great idea I can steal?’ It’s about absorbing the environment and then doing something that feels like a personal expression of that creation.” Japan’s influence has also had a direct impact on how Freeman carries on his business. Back in 2006, a friend introduced him to the special gooseneck kettles used there for making pourovers. “My first thought was ‘Holy shit, that sounds like so much trouble,’” he recalls. “And then, ‘I’ve got to try this!’ My friend Jay imported the first kettles for us, and that’s when we started experimenting with them.” Recently Freeman returned from Japan with an introduction to Kinto, a Japanese ceramics manufacturer that now makes all of the service ware for Blue Bottle’s American shops. “They adjusted the sizes of the cups to make them exactly the size that we wanted, to the milliliter,” Freeman reports happily. And Japan’s renowned hospitality, Freeman says, while less tangibly, has influenced Blue Bottle’s sense of service: “The kindness and anticipation that you see in a Michelin restaurant or a family mart—that’s hopefully the influence that people will see in our shops more and more.”


He made his name in part by pulling freely from the world pantry, an MO 104

San Francisco | March 2016


Lauren Tamaki


The dish: Bar Tartine’s celery root soup

JA PA NOP H IL E # 2 T H A D VOG L E R OF B A R AGR ICOL E A N D T ROU NOR M A N D ON B OOZ E One of the city’s original craft-bar mavens, Thad Vogler, co-owner of Bar Agricole and Trou Normand, has been traveling to Japan annually since he lived and bartended in Tokyo back in 1996. “My bar sensibility was totally formed by Japan,” he says. “Even then they were cutting ice by hand, using jiggers to make precise measurements, doing spherical ice. They had really specialized bars with amazing service.” Today, Vogler uses delicate Hario Japanese glassware and aprons made from Japanese selvedge denim woven on old shuttle looms. He keeps his inventory small and select—something that you’d see in Tokyo, where many bars focus on single spirits. During his time in American bars, Vogler has served hundreds of spirits; today he offers only 20 to 30 at the rum-centric Bar Agricole. “The freedom to limit your inventory to reflect your passion and interest has been amazing,” he says.

LEFT: Commonwealth’s sesame- and nori-coated avocado with charred romaine, popcorn, togarashi, and yuzu kosho.

And it’s Japanese how? “To boost the soup’s umami flavor, we use a katsuobushi (bonito flake) dashi base and garnish it with shaved black truffles and almonds.”


that he shares with a number of contemporary chefs who look far and wide for both inspiration and ingredients. And, like many of his colleagues, he has an obsessive streak that makes him particularly receptive to Japan’s emphasis on singularity and exactitude. On a recent trip to Tokyo’s Mikawa Zezankyo, he recalls, “I was astounded by an 82-year-old man who’s spent most of his life cooking tempura.” Benu chef Corey Lee was similarly impressed by Tokyo’s famous Sukiyabashi Jiro (of Jiro Dreams of Sushi), where he dined on 20 pieces of Edo-style sushi crafted by Jiro Ono, an elderly sushi master. “It was an example of just how far you can distill a great dining experience to its most important form,” he says. Bar Tartine co-chef Nick Balla, who started cooking Japanese straight out of culinary school, at O Izakaya, says, “It’s the most refined cuisine I’ve seen— from the food to the hospitality.” The latter is as important as the former: Many chefs mention having been humbled by the phenomenal finesse and single-minded purpose in Japan’s restaurants. The focus of Japanese chefs on high-quality fish and a “clean way of eating,” as many California chefs put it, appeals to American counterparts keen on coming up with more healthful, vegetable-centric menus. And local chefs who love to nerd out on labor-intensive artisanal processes can take plenty of inspiration from Japan: Complex, multilayered ramen broths and fermented foods are the norm, and the process of drying fruits and vegetables produces cult items like hoshigaki—laboriously massaged and air-dried persimmons that test both patience and skill. Rather than looking on from an armchair at home, many chefs are making the journey to Tokyo, Kyoto, and beyond (for evidence, see page 104). Social media is lit up with their travels: On Instagram, you’ll see Mark Dommen of One Market snapping pics of the massive frozen tuna at Tokyo’s Tsukiji fish market (#tuna #Tsukiji #roughlife #cheflife #upat3am #solidasarock) and Cort-

CA L I FO R N I A D R E A M E R M A S AT O S E K I G U C H I ON CU LT U R A L CON N EC T ION In every city there is a connector, and in Tokyo it’s Masato Sekiguchi, a freakishly tall, outrageously hip man in his 40s who tends toward Native American jewelry, Pharrell-style fedoras, tennis shoes, and long hair. The founder of Think Green Produce, a Tokyo-based restaurant operator and mall and hotel developer, Sekiguchi, who is known as Masa, is also an avid surfer. As such, he’s obsessed with California, and particularly besotted with its northern climes. When Tartine’s Chad Robertson visited Tokyo, he recalls, Sekiguchi showed him “like, 20 different spots” throughout his native city. When Four Barrel co-owners Jeremy Tooker and Tal Mor visited, they, of course, had dinner with him. “They didn’t want to know about Michelin restaurants,” Sekiguchi says through an interpreter. “They just wanted to go to tasteful, delicious restaurants, like what you get in S.F.” Recently, Sekiguchi developed Log Road, a mixed-use complex in Tokyo’s Daikanyama district. Inspired by Larkspur’s Marin Country Mart, it includes a Portland-based doughnut shop and Fred Segal, the Los Angeles–based highend department store. It also houses a bakery and patisserie run by Katy Cole, a former State Bird Provisions cook. Sometime this year Sekiguchi will embark on another cross-cultural experiment: He’s planning to open a San Francisco establishment called Dashi Shop, along with a dashi factory in Oakland. Dashi Shop will be both a restaurant and a place to purchase high-quality dashi, the deeply flavorful base that forms the cornerstone of much of Japan’s cuisine. Last January, Sekiguchi teamed with the guys at Oakland’s Ramen Shop to host an event at Heath Ceramics’ Mission location. His takeaway? “L.A. people put value on feeling and grooves,” Sekiguchi says. “San Franciscans have more thoughts and are philosophical.”



The dish: Perbacco caramel gelato

The dish: Aster’s grilled pork shoulder And it’s Japanese how? “We’ve rubbed the grilled shoulder with salty, fruity umeboshi (salted plum) paste and then added sweet potatoes and bok choy.”


ney Burns posting a photo of baskets of beautiful pickles at Kyoto’s Nishiki Market (“Japan, you invigorate me!”); on Facebook, there’s State Bird’s Nicole Krasinski immortalizing a dashi 106


San Francisco | March 2016


And it’s Japanese how? “It’s enriched by white miso. After my first trip to Japan in 2009, we started using various kinds of miso to deepen the flavors of everything from meat to mushrooms to gelato.”











Takara Sake USA “Our sake lees come from Takara Sake in Berkeley,” says Corey Lee of Benu. “While we’ve used them for fermenting, they’ve also appeared on our menu as sake lees sherbet.” 708 ADDISON ST. (AT 4TH ST.), BERKELEY, 510-540-8250 FOR PRODUCE

Hamada Farms Almost every chef goes to Hamada Farms at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market for Japanese produce. “They grow yuzu and sudachi,” says Staffan Terje of Perbacco, “so we use that when it’s in season, and they also sell ume (sour plums), and persimmons for hoshigaki (dried persimmon).” CUESA.ORG


Aedan Fermented Foods After the 2011 tsunami struck Japan, Mariko Grady relocated to San Francisco and eventually started Aedan to produce natural fermented products. Today, through La Cocina, Grady sells four kinds of miso (including a soy-free version made from chickpeas), as well as shio koji (salted koji), sagohachi (a pickling sauce), and amazake (a Japanese rice-based sweetener). AEDANSF.COM



Nijiya Market

Strong Arm Farm

With multiple locations across the United States, including in San Francisco, New York, and Los Angeles, this is your one-stop shop for everything from sushi fixings to Japanese produce. Want a massive bag of rice? They have it. Frozen salted mackerel? They have that, too. 1737 POST ST.

This Sonoma-based farm harvests seaweeds from the Sonoma-Mendocino coast, including nori, wakame, and kombu. “The nori is really delicate,” says Brett Cooper of Aster. “We toast it and crumble it and then put it with an egg dish.”

(AT WEBSTER ST.), 415-563-1901



Tokyo Fish Market What started out in 1963 as a momand-pop opened by Isamu and Tazuye Fujita has become an institution to which both chefs and lay cooks still go for high-quality fish. 1220 SAN PABLO AVE. (NEAR HARRISON ST.), ALBANY, 510-524-7243


Umami Mart For all your barware needs, including sake glasses, teardrop bar spoons, and jiggers, this Japan-centric Oakland-based shop is the place to be. Also on offer: togarashi (a peppery spice mix), teacups, and the elusive green tea Kit Kat. 815 BROADWAY (NEAR 8TH ST.), OAKLAND, 510-250-9559

In the Bar Tartine Japanese Pantry 1. Dried beef is used for stocks and shaving over dishes. 2. Kombu seaweed appears in dashi dishes, salads, and stock. 3. Iriko (dried minnows) go into dashi, salads, and furikake. 4. Dried tuna loin gets shaved on vegetable dishes. 5. Fresh wasabi accents sashimi, vegetable dishes, and sauces. 6. Karasumi (dried fish roe) is eaten as an accompaniment to sake. 7. Shiitake mushrooms are dried for soups, salads, and sauces. 8. Katsuobushi— dried, fermented, smoked tuna—is added to dashi and shaved over dishes.

Sometimes, even at the age of 56, you just need to shake it up. Which is why, after spending the last 25 years associated with Chez Panisse—and the last four years as its co-chef—Jérôme Waag is moving to Tokyo to open his own restaurant. Despite its location, it will have, Waag says, “a cooking technique and general aesthetic straight out of downstairs Chez Panisse.” Waag fell in love with Japan in 2011, when he and restaurateur Sam White brought OPENrestaurant (a roaming collective art project made up of restaurant professionals and artists) there for a series of events. “It was Sam who wanted to take it to Japan,” Waag says. “I thought he was a little crazy.” Waag, who decided to go at the last minute, ended up spending a month there and has since returned for months at a time. There’s a synergy between Tokyo and the Bay Area—more specifically, within a select clique of chefs. Some of the cooks whom Waag met through OPENrestaurant in Japan have since come to work at Chez Panisse, including Yuri Nomura of Eatrip, a farm-to-table restaurant in Harajuku. Shin Harakawa, owner of Tokyo’s Beard and another vet of Chez Panisse, will be one of Waag’s two partners at the chef ’s new restaurant. “On the one hand, [seasonality and locality] do exist in Japanese cuisine because they’re traditional,” says Waag, referencing kaiseki restaurants, whose premise is a formal and artful adherence to seasonality. “But [on other dining levels], I don’t see many people using organic produce today. It’s expensive. That’s kind of our challenge.” Waag has found that an interest in California culture is common in Tokyo. “People call it the ‘organic lifestyle,’ which is kind of funny,” he says with a laugh. “I feel like I’m riding this wave. When I was there last, people were like, ‘Yeah, we need you, please come.’ And I was like, ‘Really? Sounds good.’” Waag hopes to call his restaurant the Blind Donkey. “In Japanese, the term apparently has to do with being at the beginning and in the dark. We can riff on it.”

“It’s a terrible name,” Thad Vogler admits, “but it’s a basement bar that makes great classic cocktails and has a really extensive wine and spirits list. And in general, the service is amazing.”

“It’s one of the best rum bars in the world,” Vogler says of this tiny spot. “It has an unbelievable selection, and the charming proprietor plays records all night on two turntables behind the bar.”

Mambo Bar


Chardonnay cigarbank.jp

“I like rum,” Vogler says, “so this is the other best rum bar in the world. You’ll see things here that aren’t available anywhere in the U.S.”

“They serve ramen in a yuzu-flavored broth,” Stuart Brioza says. “We ate here three times!”

Afuri 3 Chome-63-1 Sendagaya, Shibuya


“This izakaya is small, pretty, and slightly fancy,” Sylvan Brackett says. “Their fresh tofu is really good. And it’s not too loud, so it’s good for a date.”

Just about every Bay Area chef worth his or her salt has made a food pilgrimage to Tokyo. Here, seven of them revisit the bars and restaurants that captured their imaginations— and stomachs.



“I love this elegant, hidden sweets shop and restaurant in Meguro,” Brackett says. “The sweets are superspecial, and the food in the adjacent restaurant is crazy good and traditional. It’s my favorite Japanese breakfast ever. They’ve opened a new spot in Ginza, but I’d recommend the original location.”

“My friend Yuri Nomura owns this restaurant, which is in an old house on a residential street near Meiji Jingu,” Brackett says. “Yuri cooked at Chez Panisse and gets her ingredients from organic farms. It’s a popular place; Yuri is fairly well-known in the Japanese media.”

Higashi-Yama Tokyo


“It’s a little bit off the beaten track,” Michael Tusk says of this modest restaurant. “It serves as a temple to pork of the highest order. Over 50 varieties are organized by prefecture and flavor profile: lightest to richest and most full-flavored, fatty, and juicy. It’s phenomenal. One of our all-time favorite places in Tokyo.”





San Francisco | March 2016



“It’s a scene,” Brackett says of this “super-bustling izakaya between Meguro and Setagaya. It’s got a huge sake list and manic sake servers. I particularly like the fried herring nanbanzuke.”



”We got a lot of ideas about service and the performance of people cooking from this tonkatsu place,” says Sam White. “It’s incredible.”

Tonki 1 Chome-1-2 Shimomeguro, Meguro

“It’s a nine-seat, super-tasty sushi spot,” Brackett says. “I heard that the chef mentored Masa of Masa in New York. I liked the simmered squid stuffed with rice. “

Sushi Takumi Okabe

5 Chome-13-14 Shirokanedai, Minato


Luke Shuman

“The playfulness of chef Zaiyu Hasegawa’s creations and the hospitality offered by the staff make this place truly a unique experience,” Tusk says. “The slow-cooked, dashi-marinated beef was one of the best dishes we’ve eaten in recent memory. And the ceramic plates were incredibly beautiful.”



“I really like the feeling and the food here. It’s located in a residential neighborhood near Shinjuku,” Brackett says of this “old-fashionedlooking yet relatively new shop that seats 20 around a sunken bar. The oden is cooked in front of you and is the best I’ve ever had. It’s about $50 per person. Go to the original location.”

“I had 20 pieces of Edo-style sushi,” Corey Lee says. “It was an example of just how far you can distill a great dining experience to its most important form.”

“It took a favor from the State Department to get us reservations here,” Tusk recalls. ”The dishes are traditional and precise, and made with dizzying technique and great ingredients. It’s on the level of a Michelin-starred place like Ishikawa, but unrated by Michelin and cash only!”

“The owner is a Berkeley grad and took over the restaurant from his father,” says Brioza. “He loves California wine. His soba is fantastic.”



“I’ve been to both locations a few times and gave Jiro’s son a copy of the Jiro movie—it’s a long story why I had it and why he hadn’t seen it,” Kyle Connaughton reports.

Sukiyabashi Jiro




Honmura An



“Kagari in Ginza is awesome,” White says. “It’s a chicken ramen place that is delicious and has a crazy long wait.” “It’s a bizarre name because they don’t serve coffee,” Vogler says. “Instead, this is an amazing old-school bar with high leather booths and servers in black tie. It has immaculate cigar service and an endless list of scotch. There’s also a ridiculous wine cellar with lots of prestigious bordeaux and burgundy.”

Coffee Bar K coffeebark.sg

“It’s just one big wood slab with six seats in a small room,” Vogler says of this lo-fi bar. “The owner never has more than five or six bottles of booze in the place. Each of them is usually very special, stuff you don’t see in the U.S. The drinks are so simple and elegant; they’re usually just two or three ingredients that the owner has sourced himself. He’s very gracious, and the place is unbelievably peaceful.”

Gen Yamamoto genyamamoto.jp

“If you want tempura, go here,” Brackett says. “It’s expensive—like, $150 per person. I particularly liked the hanabi ninjin kushiage (fireworks carrot) and the whole fried sweet potato.”

Tempura Kondo

Sakaguchi Bldg. 9F, 5 Chome-5-13 Ginza, Chuo

“You need reservations,” Brioza warns. “They serve amazing multicourse tempura.”


Ginza A Bldg. 1F, 4 Chome-4-1 Ginza, Chuo

Mikawa Zezankyo “It’s some of my favorite sushi in Ginza,” Connaughton says. “The chef is a real master, sort of monk type. I highly recommend it, even above Jiro. If you only have one sushi meal in Ginza, I highly recommend going there.”


MC Bldg. 3F, 5 Chome-9-19 Ginza, Chuo


T H E K E Y: W H E R E S.F. C H E F S D I N E I N T O K YO Stuart Brioza co-chef/owner of State Bird Provisions and the Progress Sylvan Brackett chef-owner of Rintaro Michael Tusk co-owner of Quince and Cotogna Kyle Connaughton owner of Single Thread Corey Lee chef-owner of Benu Sam White co-owner of Ramen Shop Thad Vogler co-owner of Trou Normand and Bar Agricole

Profile for Sara Deseran

Epicures of the Rising Sun (San Francisco magazine)  

One global cuisine is capturing the attention of the Bay Area's best chefs, and it's not French or Italian.

Epicures of the Rising Sun (San Francisco magazine)  

One global cuisine is capturing the attention of the Bay Area's best chefs, and it's not French or Italian.