Small plates, big impact: how China and America are adapting Japanese pub grub

What can we learn from international izakayas about creating new-wave Asian eats?

15 February 2018
OHA Eatery's sea bass with pomelo puree
image credit: Betty Richardson

The everyday Japanese restaurant, you could say the izakaya was a format born out of necessity. In Japan’s space-squeezed cities, these cosy and intimate eateries cater to hungry, work-weary businesspeople looking to unwind over simple food and/or beer, sake or whisky highballs. They are essentially two-in-one bars and restaurants.

In Shanghai, however, modern izakayas have comprised some of the best eating-out openings of the last year. But unlike their traditional counterparts that serve typical Japanese food, restaurateurs have reinvented the format to fit their own ideas, serving inventive, chef-driven takes on the small-plate style.

So why has this format become a phenomenon in China’s foodie capital? Partly because it’s a city increasingly constrained by space, much like London, where the choicest F&B sites go to restaurant groups or chains, leaving newcomers to the game with little choice but to get creative and flexible with what is available to their budgets.

In the same way that the rise of the food hall is allowing smaller operators in the US and UK to experiment in relatively low-cost surroundings, the izakaya in China has proved itself a hot bed of inventive food fusion. As Japan’s near neighbour, the nation has jumped onto the trend for this kind of Japanese dining much earlier than elsewhere – though Waitrose has predicted it to be big in Britain this year.

Here, we’ve highlighted a couple of the buzziest spaces that are reimagining causal Japanese eats.

Oha Eatery

In the kitchen is Blake Thornley, one of Australia’s brightest culinary talents, who first gained acclaim for reaching the finals of the Australian Young Chef competition – until he was disqualified when it transpired he was in fact a New Zealander.

At Oha, Thornley’s mission is to creatively utilise artisanal local produce, pairing it with a mix of traditional and unconventional flavours into affordable small dishes. Contrary to the import or premium ingredient reliant model of conventional restaurants, Oha seeks to show a different side of ‘grown in China’ produce.

One stand-out is the creamy fermented tofu, edible Chinese clover, tongue-tingling Sichuan pepper and pickle salad, which rather undersells itself on the menu as ‘moldy tofu salad’ (¥32/£3.68). The sparkling, zesty flavours of this dish contrast pleasantly with earthy tofu and clover leaves.  

image credit: Betty Richardson

Food waste is another area in which Oha takes no hits to its bottom line. One of the stars of Thornley’s menu is a sea bass dish with a beautifully jammy, bittersweet pomelo puree that is a superbly subtle accompaniment to the fish. Rather than using the juicy insides of the citrus, Thornley’s sauce uses its rind.

“Why not use the whole fruit, eh?” is Thornley’s response when we ask for his inspiration. “It was a technique I picked up during a stage at Mugaritz in San Sebastian [No. 9 on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list]. Basically, you take a pomelo, stab it all over, boil it and chill it in ice water five times over. Then, you make a 25% sugar syrup, simmer the pomelo for 90 minutes, strain it and then chill it. Then you make a 50% sugar syrup, boil it for three hours, then you let it sit in that syrup overnight, after which you can blend it.”

Jeju Izakaya by Belloco

This tiny Japanese-influenced Korean eatery seats just eight customers at a bar directly facing the chefs’ work stations, and serves just two covers per evening. You might expect a lofty price per head to make it financially feasible, but instead, customers pay an average of just ¥361/£41 per head.

The secret behind Jeju Izakaya is a parent company, the Belloco Restaurant group, which operates several casual Korean restaurants in the city. Jeju Izakaya was intended as its test kitchen, with the most successful dishes making their way into the group’s other restaurants. High demand has doubtlessly been a marketing boon for the group – reservations for Jeju are, at time of writing, booked up to three months in advance.

image credit: Betty Richardson

The food here is both comforting, piquant and markedly Korean, but at the same time unafraid to delve into Western cuisine. One moment, guests could be dunking dried pollack fish into an unapologetically fiery chili and fermented anchovy dip; the next, twirling delicate sea urchin-topped spaghetti cacio e pepe (literally cheese and pepper) around their chopsticks, or watching as the chef blowtorches Korean pulled pork sushi right in front of their eyes.

In the corner, a live seafood tank stocked with octopus, crab and shrimp ensures dazzlingly fresh seafood, and no small amount of culinary theatre as the ocean produce is flash-fried in flaming woks.

Jeju Izakaya’s food does not try to wow guests with complexity or haute-cuisine attitude. Elevated low-brow eats like seafood budaejjigae (kimchi-based Korean army stew made with instant noodles) are among its hallmark dishes.


The American way

Japanese izakaya-style snacks are on the rise in the States too, as evidenced by two of New York City’s hottest openings: Tetsu by star sushi chef Masa Takayama in TriBeCa and Juku in Chinatown, both of which started service at the end of last year.

But it’s Kemuri Tatsu-ya in Austin, Texas, that has most impressed our American trend spotter Aaron Arizpe, who highlights the restaurant’s Tokyo Street Corn, a Japanese-Mexican hybrid made with yuzu aioli and crumbly Cotija cheese. The takoyaki, meanwhile, substitute the traditional octopus filling of the battered balls with Texas beef chilli, cheddar, onion and smoked jalapeno.

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