Japanese dining renaissance

May be old news for some, but the progress in the Japanese restaurant culture over the last ten years is truly remarkable. Time was, Japanese eating out was either sushi, or “izakaya” (bistro-type) fare, or the brain-damaged Japanese version of French or Italian or, worst of all, generic Western.

The wellsprings of the culinary revolution in Japan lie squarely in the izakaya tradition. But they’ve branched off in every aspect imaginable: menu, presentation, and decor. And this trend is by no means limited to Tokyo, where “new-style” izakaya-inspired restaurants have proliferated to the point of being slightly scary; during a recent trip to Shizuoka we wandered into Gazen, a fine exemplar of the movement.

Here’s some of the dishes we enjoyed there:

  • Pork toro, herb cresson sauce
  • Mozarella cheese with Japanese dressing and yuba crackers
  • Home-made zaru-dofu
  • Genmai risotto with Saikyo miso

Pork toro (in Japanese, “ton-toro”) is a rich, fatty cut of pork. We’ve seen it in new-style izaka-yas everywhere. The mozarella cheese dish exemplifies another interesting trend: cheese, cheese everywhere. At another restaurant, for instance, we saw “cheese yakko”, using cheese as a replacement for tofu in the old stand-by “hiya-yakko”—unthinkable even ten years ago.

I’ve had a number of wonderful tofu dishes in the new types of restaurants. Common thread is that it is smooth, creamy, and creatively flavored. The zaru-dofu we had at Gazen was a fine example.

Yuba (a sort of dried soybean product) occupies a prominent place in the new restaurant culture. We’ve also seen a lot of duck. In general, there is an emphasis on the provenance of ingredients—be it fish, condiments, or even vegetables. Of course, great jizake accompanies all these meals.

One can only hope that this highly positive trend continues. Of course, being Japan, the probability is that it will degenerate before long into mere superficiality and we’ll have to wait another twenty years for the next breakthrough. Before that happens, though, perhaps some of this new great food can be exported to the US? The “hip” Japanese restaurants in the US, whether it be Nobu in NY or Katana in Los Angeles, actually come in quite low on the creativity/culinary interest scale—they seem to be more about cool decor and just mildly titillating culinary experimentation. There’s hope: I’ve heard that Gonpachi (where Koizumi famously took Bush to eat) is soon coming to LA, almost within walking distance of my house!

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