These are some mighty fine days for Asian food fans in New York City. Guys like Andy Ricker (Pok Pok), Danny Bowien (Mission Chinese), Dale Talde (Talde) and Ivan Orkin (Ivan Ramen) are just a few of the chef-restaurateurs capitalizing in a city with a collective umami umbilical. Serge Becker and Matt Abramcyk are responsible for some of the city’s toughest doors, including The Box, Beatrice Inn and La Esquina. So when they transformed the shuttered Kenmare — these types of doors tend to swing open and close as the wind blows — into a Japanese-style izakaya called MaisonO, it was a curious move. Would this be a serious player in the city’s highly competitive Asian hipster food scene, or simply a strong marketing play for two guys who have spent a bit of time poking around Eater lately?
The answer starts and ends with Tadashi Ono, the former Matsuri and Hiro chef who Abramcyk recruited to run the kitchen at the restaurant they quietly opened this summer. Ono is one of the city’s most respected Japanese chefs, having co-authored three cookbooks with his writing, and drinking, buddy Harris Salat (more on that later). Ono served as executive chef at famed La Caravelle for 9 years in the ’90s before a stint at a Japanese-French fusion restaurant led him to Matsuri, which opened in a then-underexposed Meatpacking District. Matsuri played a big role in bringing inventive Japanese cooking from hushed-toned Midtown to celebrities and club kids downtown.
On a recent weeknight, MaisonO was crowded with the beautiful and well-scrubbed. Womenswear designer Suno hosted a Fashion Week party there in September and it felt like a few of the models and designers were still hanging out. In SAT terms, Bey and Jay is to Nobu as Solange is to MaisonO. The vibe is cool, effortless, relaxed and distinctly downtown, and I find Ono standing at a grill in the back, dutifully twirling pork belly and Japanese scallion skewers over hot charcoal.
As a Ladytron song plays, I bite into my first piece of gizzard. It’s magic, with a balance of sweetness and saltiness from the yakitori tare, the aromatic glaze that the chef skillfully coats and recoats during the cooking process. I dig into a plate of shishito peppers stuffed with tskune (ground chicken seasoned with sweet soy), along with pork jowl with a small bowl of ponzu. The lamb gyoza is the size of a small fist and the juiciest, most flavorful piece of lamb I’ve had in years.
As a Tribe Called Quest song plays, it strikes me: hidden in the back of a clubby little restaurant space — also home to a modestly priced sushi bar — I’ve found some of the finest grilled meat in the city. Skip the line at Yakitori Toto or Izakaya Ten, which are both fine places but just screw those lines. Tadashi Ono is ready to cook for you, and with plenty of available seating on a weeknight — I was the sole individual parked at the bar that night, which is really where you want to be for yakitori: close to a chef, who will happily ply you with wooden sticks.
A week later I’ve asked Ono and Salat to meet. I’d been reading their new book, Japanese Soul Cooking, for the past week and been overtaken with all the tonkatsu and okonomiyaki porn — former Saveur editor Todd Coleman traveled to Japan to take photos. This is duo’s third cookbook together, a follow-up to books about hot pots and grilling.
The soul in soul cooking is a little difficult to figure out. Instead of describing a specific selection of dishes (say, Northern Thai or Carolina picnic), it’s more of a catchall that labels the cuisine established during a period of modernization in Japan called the Meiji Restoration (roughly the 1860s to 1910) and also during reconstruction after World War II. “The GIs brought pasta, bacon and tomato ketchup,” says Ono on the later period which is sometimes referred to as Yoshoku-style and includes dishes like omurice, curries and fried cutlets called katsu. Salat jumps in about Meiji:
“A tremendous period of change happened in Japan,” he says, animated, “you had this country that was closed to the world for hundreds of years, an island located in the middle of a really rough sea. And suddenly Americans and many Europeans rush in there, bringing their own unique foods.”
The change triggered a profound shift in the culture, transitioning from a culture that did not eat meat for thousands of years to one that saw, with amazement, these big and masculine foreigners with their exotic foodstuffs. The emperor, who was in the process of building a powerful army, personally signed-off on the meat thing — if only as a strategic measure. And on New Year’s Day 1872 he ate beef for the very first time at a publicly staged banquet, changing the cuisine of the country forever. “This sent a shockwave throughout the country,” says Salat.
Soul Food is hardly a textbook, and Ono and Salat used these periods in history as merely a loose starting point for their dissection of a cuisine that is now considered closer to American comfort food than anything. The first chapter dives into ramen, which has become a sort of national obsession in Japan (and New York City at that). Salat, a chef-turned journalist and the go-to guy for all things Japan, runs his own ramen restaurant in Brooklyn and has written a really nice guide to cooking ramen at home (in under 45 pages, too).
But ramen is only the start. There’s a chapter devoted to okonomiyaki, a savory pancake made with grilled seafood, bonito flakes, powdered aonori and a cross-cross of Kewpie mayo and ponzu sauce. Once you try okonomiyaki you might just forget about Korean kimchi pajeon as your favorite Asian flapjack. There are chapters on tempura, donburi (rice topped with weird/good things like omelets), kara-age (deep-fried chicken and seafood) and udon and soba. “A lot of this food is like having a burger, having fried chicken, having mac and cheese,” says Salat. But in New York City in late 2013, ramen is the new fried chicken. Writer and chef smile at the suggestion.