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Why San Francisco’s Food Scene Is Truly, Madly, Deeply Obsessed with Japan

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


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

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Commonwealth’s sesame- and nori-coated avocado with charred romaine, popcorn, toga rashi, and yuzu kosho.

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Koji 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 natural 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 Cortney 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.

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 fine-dining 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 Bar, and Ramen Shop. On top of that, a number of non-Japanese restaurants are mixing Japanese ingredients and techniques into their more eclectic menus. 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 relationships with tapenade. In the early aughts, we surrendered to regional Italian and flirted with Spain. While those decades of Euro worship are 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.” He made his name in part by pulling freely from the world pantry, an MO 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. 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 Cortney 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 tasting in Kyoto and snapping Brioza, her husband, posing with a matcha Kit Kat, the ultimate souvenir. They join early adopters like Trou Normand and Bar Agricole co-owner Thad Vogler, who has been visiting Tokyo for years, and Michael and Lindsay Tusk, who visited Japan twice last year and will return this fall. Still others benefit from the kind of cross-cultural exchange encouraged by Shotaro Kamio, the chef-owner of Berkeley’s Iyasare: He has guided many chefs around Japan, including Ravi Kapur of Liholiho Yacht Club and Duende’s Paul Canales.

In a neat turn of events, the Japanese—particularly Tokyoites—have fallen equally for the Northern California ethos, something that Tokyo has mostly lacked except in high-end kaiseki restaurants. To meet the demand, Tokyo developers have lured Bay Area food businesses to their city, including A16 (which is opening a second location, in Yokohama, this spring), Blue Bottle Coffee, and Dandelion Chocolate. Tartine Bakery Tokyo is in negotiations. 

And then there are itinerant Japanese chefs like Shin Harakawa, who staged at Chez Panisse before opening his hip, tiny California-style Beard on a quiet street in Tokyo. His time here triggered an unexpected domino effect: Chez Panisse chef Jérôme Waag recently packed his bags to move to Tokyo and open a restaurant with Harakawa. Rintaro chef-owner Sylvan Brackett, also an erstwhile Chez Panisse employee, has likewise created a bit of an exchange program: His friend Yuri Nomura, proprietor of Tokyo’s cult restaurant Eatrip, will be “helping me with Rintaro,” he says, “coming for short stays to do special dinners and events.”

Despite their infatuation with Japan, most San Francisco chefs are staying put. Still, a mass exodus isn’t completely out of the realm of possibility. As Blue Bottle founder James Freeman—a man who has long worn his love for Japan on his sleeve—puts it, “I tell people, one day I’ll go to Tokyo and forget to come back.”

Read more: Bay Area epicures dish on their Japanophilia  

Originally published in the March issue of
San Francisco

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