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Next Generation Japanese

New concepts are flooding our shores and showing there's a lot more to the cuisine than miso and rice.

As sushi continues its conquest of the mainstream, it’s becoming more and more clear that raw fish was only the first wave of a Japanese culinary invasion. Over the past two to three years, one Japanese concept after another has hit our shores with only a passing glance toward sushi—if there’s any recognition at all. They are authentic, specialized and high concept.

“There are so many cool Japanese concepts and menu items that we wanted to introduce to Americans,” says Nicole Bermensolo, who lived in Japan for a year before opening Kyotofu, a chic dessert lounge in Manhattan that specializes in housemade Kyoto-style tofu which is featured in Japanese-style sweets and small plates.

The time certainly seems ripe, as interest in Japanese food and culture skyrockets here. According to Japanese Restaurant News, the number of Japanese restaurants in the United States has doubled in the past decade, to more than 9,000. Blogs like ramenramenramen.net and ramenlovers.blogspot.com explore a growing obsession with high-end ramen. Restaurants modeled on Tokyo’s “cosplay” (costume play) theme restaurants have opened in Los Angeles, appealing to expats as well as American otaku (people who are interested in all things Japanese, especially pop culture). Sake and shochu, another low-proof Japanese spirit that is lauded for its mixability, are breaking into the bar scene. Even a lousy movie like “Speed Racer” nails the current Japan-friendly climate.

As for the food, it’s oh-so-relevant light, healthy, simple and seasonally oriented, according to Nick Balla of San Francisco’s O Izakaya Lounge, which is modeled after the ubiquitous izakaya houses of Japan, where people gather after work to have a few drinks and grab a bite to eat. “It’s a style of dining and socializing that really fits the way Americans live.” With their beer or sake, Japanese diners traditionally enjoy salty sakana, like yakitori (skewered chicken parts), or the smaller portions called otsumami. Think tapas or small plates, Japanese-style.

“There’s definitely a niche for non-ethnic versions of the food you see in Japan and in Little Tokyos in this country,” says Tom Cardenas, vice president of operations for California-based Innovative Dining Group, having just added Robata Bar—which pays homage to the open-flame grilled robatayaki style of Japanese barbecue—to its growing stable of restaurants. The company already includes Katana Robata & Sushi Bar and four Sushi Roku locations, as well as the new Luckyfish featuring conveyor-belt sushi.

All over the country, in fact, savvy entrepreneurs are creating Westernized versions of next-wave Japanese menu concepts, while Japanese chains like Gonpachi and Ajisen Ramen are opening locations here. Noodle shops, grills, Japanese-style pubs, hot-pot specialists—they all have potential for being found in translation.

But a word, first, about the traditional dining-out scene in Japan. Japanese restaurants there are highly specialized: You visit a sushi-ya for sushi, a tonkatsu-ya for tonkatsu (deep-fried breaded pork cutlets), a yakitori-ya for grilled chicken. “The chefs become expert at what they are serving,” says Bermensolo. “It’s one of the reasons you really can’t get a bad meal in Japan.”

Of course, you do see examples of these specialized concepts in New York City or San Francisco, but any operator who wants to attract a broad clientele knows that it’s necessary to expand the menu. (The closest thing in Japan to what we Americans think of as a restaurant with wider menu choices would probably be the izakaya, a pub-like gathering place where drinking is accompanied by snacking.) Menus in English, cocktail programs, Western-style service and other conventional amenities also go without saying.

Apart from that, these broad categories of Japanese concepts are cropping up in many U.S. markets, headed for the mainstream.

Restaurant: Wagamama
Category: Noodle shop
Growth plan: Two restaurants in Boston, more planned for Washington, D.C.

Noodle Shops
The Japanese have a passion for noodles. Traditional Japanese noodles include soba (thin buckwheat noodles) and udon (thick wheat noodles). In the last century, Chinese-style wheat ramen has also become very popular.

Now it looks as if American diners are becoming equally devoted. Homegrown noodle concepts like Momofuku Noodle Bar and SobaKoh, in New York City, and Noodles by Takashi Yagihashi, in Chicago, are introducing this tasty, quick and filling food group through their innovative menus, while Asian chains like Ajisen Ramen and Hakata Ippudo are setting up shop in this country’s major urban areas. And trendsetter Jean-Georges Vongerichten has just joined the fray with Matsugen, a “Tokyo cuisine” soba specialist in Manhattan.

Wagamama is a London-based noodle-house chain with more than 85 locations in the U.K., Europe, Australia and New Zealand, as well as two locations in Boston and more on the way in the nation’s capitol. Modeled after a Japanese-style ramen-ya, the high-concept Boston locations feature communal dining and wireless-waitpad-toting servers. Prepared in an open kitchen—like a Japanese Subway—dishes include a variety of different Japanese and pan-Asian noodle styles, including traditional ramen in broth, chili men (noodles in a spicy sauce), kare noodles (served in a coconut-based soup) and teppan (noodles cooked on a griddle), as well as rice bowls, salads and appetizer/sides. Average check is about $18.

Restaurant: O Izakaya Lounge
Category: Izakaya
Homemade: O has an array of items made in house, including cured fish, pickles and kimchee.

These casual, pub-style restaurants had been catching on on the East and West coasts for a decade when P.F. Chang’s burst on the scene two years ago with Taneko Japanese Tavern. With its dramatic ambience and contemporary menu showcasing everything from tempura to salads to items from the wood-fired oven and grill, Taneko was proof of how adaptable a Japanese concept could be.

But there are many other new izakaya—a compound of “i” (to remain) and “sakaya” (sake shop)—that are courting mainstream diners. The Tokyo-based Gonpachi chain has opened its first U.S. outpost in Beverly Hills, specializing in handmade soba noodles and a wide variety of sumiyaki (foods cooked over a robata grill).

At O Izakaya Lounge, in San Francisco’s Hotel Kabuki, executive chef Nicholas Balla has fused a traditional izakaya-style menu to the California sensibility of fresh, local and seasonal ingredients, producing many items in-house—including cured fish and pickles. The menu is designed around cold and hot shared plates, such as spiced chicken wings with togarashi (a much-loved hot-pepper blend) citrus honey, pork belly braised with housemade kimchee and maitake mushrooms, noodle dishes and skewered specialties called yakimono. There is also an extensive list of proprietary cocktails, many based on shochu.

Balla admits that the menu is a little tricky: “The Japanese and big foodies, including other chefs, love it, but people who come in expecting sushi have to be educated.”

Restaurant: Katana
Category: Grills
Concepts: Brothers Tom and Michael Cardenas also own four Sushi-Roku restaurants and one Robata bar

Japanese-food enthusiasts have been watching kushiyaki for some time. Like sushi, kushiyaki (roughly translated as “tasty tidbits on a skewer”) lend themselves to sampling and display cooking. Diners in Japan spend entire evenings ordering various foods cooked on a robata, an open grill.

“Twenty years ago, when my brother and I came to Los Angeles, we thought it would be great to do a Japanese open-grilling concept,” says Tom Cardenas, who grew up in Japan and now serves as vice president of operations for California-based Innovative Dining Group (his brother, Michael, is also a principal), which opened Sushi-Roku, one of the first hip-haute L.A.-area sushi bars, in the 1990s.

The company opened Katana Robata & Sushi Bar in 2002 to begin its introduction of grilled skewered foods. “If we hadn’t had the element called sushi we wouldn’t have made it,” says Cardenas, noting that the prototypical skewered item in Japan is yakitori, made up of various chicken parts including the skin. “We needed to Americanize the selection.” What followed were cross-cultural specialties like American Kobe beef with black pepper sauce and shrimp with kaffir garlic butter, but the excitement of the robata-style menu caught on. The company followed up with the new Robata Bar last year, located next to the Sushi Roku in Santa Monica and serving a no-entrees menu that is 80 percent kushiyaki or skewers (from chicken meatballs with teriyaki and lamb chops to cherry tomatoes wrapped in bacon) and 20 percent raw bar items and snacks, like rock shrimp tempura.

Restaurant: Kyotofu
Category: Dessert specialists
Growth plan: Kyotofu owner Nicole Bermensolo is currently scouting new locations in Manhattan

Dessert specialists
It may come as a surprise, but the Japanese possess a serious sweet tooth, as the success of transplants like Beard Papa’s Fresh ’n Natural Cream Puffs (nearly three dozen locations in the United States since 2004) and Parisienne Bakery (with a number of stores in such New York metro markets as Fort Lee, New Jersey, and Westchester County, New York) attest.

“They have a great tradition of taking beautifully crafted European pastries and putting their own touch on them, so they’re lighter and less sweet,” says Nicole Bermensolo, who opened Kyotofu, a Japanese-style dessert bar and cocktail lounge in Manhattan in 2006, after having lived in Japan for a year. Kyotofu’s seasonal menu showcases the made-fresh-daily tofu that Bermensolo and her partner traveled to Kyoto to study,
in signature desserts like tofu cheesecakes and black sesame sweet tofu, as well as other baked goods like miso chocolates and cupcakes (named best in the city by New York magazine).

Bit by bit, as Manhattanites have started “getting” the concept, Bermensolo has been adding distinctive shochu cocktails, sakes and such savory dishes as artisanal tofu salad and a smoked salmon rice bowl. The newest addition to the lineup is brunch.

“You do have to educate people when you’re introducing something new,” says Bermensolo, who is scouting additional locations in the city, including a hotel. “We do a lot of trial-and-error, a lot of testing and tasting.”

Restaurant: Bushi-Tei
Category: Fusion concepts
The details: The place settings say it all: a ceramic holder with spots for fork, spoon, knife and chopsticks

Fusion concepts
With the wide interest in Japanese food, Japanese ingredients and techniques are finding their way into other cuisines—and vice versa. Restaurants like Omido in New York City and others specialize in innovative sushi—like Omido's Botan roll of steamed lobster with chives, avocado and soy paper in a rice cracker crust. Uchi, in Austin, Texas, showcases chef Tyson Cole’s interpretation of modern Japanese cuisine, such as sake
tataki (seared salmon on hydroponic greens with rosemary-miso vinaigrette).

At Bushi-Tei in San Francisco, French-trained Seiji “Waka” Wakabayashi is doing seasonal California French fusion cuisine with Japanese touches. According to owner Tak Matsuba, imports like seafood from Hokkaido, Wagyu beef and kabocha pumpkin find their way into signatures such as seared fresh foie gras with kabocha pot de crème and hotate (scallop) scaloppine with kabu (turnip) and julienne radish.

Matsuba says even sake is being transformed. “Many French and American chefs have traveled to Japan to work with sake breweries to create sakes that could be served with their style of food. Many of these sakes ... are helping make Japanese flavors more popular in the United States.”

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