Chef Shibuya Shares a Savory Culinary Art Form from His Family Tradition
We are eating nostalgia, both of us. On Jan. 27, Asami Arai, a writer from our sister publication the Hawaii Hochi (and our talented Herald layout artist), sits beside me at a socially-distanced table in our makeshift work bubble amidst Waikïkï’s newest Japanese restaurant, Yoshoku Ginza Bairin. At this private press event ahead of the restaurant’s Feb. 10 open, our very different palates enjoy the latest culinary delights of Japanese chef and global restaurateur Masaya Shibuya. “Oi-shii!” she exclaims, her face infused with a shy, warm smile, as if transported to a personal heaven.
“Yöshoku, for Japanese, is a happy meal,” Asami-san reveals, as we taste the first sample dish off of the 26-item menu, hayashi raisu (“hash”-style beef and vegetables in a demi-glace sauce, poured over rice). This is a deceptively simple meal — beef hohoniku (cheek) cooked until (in Asami-san’s words) “toro toro ni naru made” or melty-soft, combined with onions and mushrooms, within the deeply flavored base of Shibuya’s house demi-glace brought in specially from Japan, then poured over rice. But its power makes the Hochi reporter recall her childhood in the port-town of Köbe. This no-frills comfort food common to Japanese family households and to humble town eateries such as curry and tonkatsu specialty shops, teishoku style restaurants, kissaten (Western-style cafes), izakaya (neighborhood pubs) and family restaurants is called yöshoku, Western-style Japanese cuisine.
“People [when eating yöshoku] have good memories of home,” Asami-san admits to perpetual-gaijin me. I am having flashbacks to my younger self devouring seafood doria and vegetable gratin at the local kissaten in Kikuna, on the way home from my Yokohama language school, the start of a period when I had studied Japanese language and society as a culturally-confused sansei for almost five years, straight after getting my undergraduate degree at the University of Hawai‘i at Mänoa. Other days, I would go into the train station and buy kuroketto (croquette) or mushroom-and-cream-sauce spaghetti from the eki’s grocery store for a lazyman’s pan-fried or microwaved dinner.
This food was nothing like the lean washoku-style meals that my housewife mother, descendant of fishers from Agenosho, Yamaguchi, used to whip up back home in our Wailuku kitchen: sashimi with a side of shoyu (sometimes mixing in mayonnaise!), fried aji aka akule, large fish heads braised in a sweet garlic-soy sauce — entrées that all meshed well with rice, okai and/or tsukemono. Yöshoku, I then learned, was not your mama’s Nikkei-immigrant food; it does not have to go with rice. Or at least I had believed back then, a little over three decades ago. So much refined carbs, cream, cheese! This style of food had been a 20-something Maui girl’s naïve idea of commercialized, modern Japanese cuisine. Junk food, my young self had at the time confidently (but wrongly) condemned. A little trashy.
But now, as Asami-san and I move on to sample Yoshoku Ginza Bairin’s carefully curated entrées — “Melty” Beef Stew, the Original Black Pepper Harmony Pork Steak, Bairin’s Original Hamburger Steak Plate, Bairin’s Original Meat Sauce Spaghetti, Japanese Local Style Spaghetti N(e)apolitan and Asami-san’s favorite, omuraisu (“omu-rice,” aka the restaurant’s Your Favorite Omelette with Rice) — I take note of how my shin-issei immigrant coworker oohs and ahs upon tasting each dish. She clearly savors the exquisite but down-home tastes that Shibuya has created for Japanese-nationals and for us locals who are down for a fresh set of flavors.
And I start to see that when yöshoku had first spread in Japan after the country re-opened to the rest of the world from the 1868 Meiji Restoration onward, it was a way to adapt “Western” ingredients and cooking techniques to traditional Japanese, chopstick-using, rice-accompanying meal-making. In Meiji Japan, restaurant and home cooks started to use red meat and dairy as well as European culinary practices of saucing, breading and deep-frying (that is, for dishes meant to be eaten with forks and knives, not “hashi de taberu” food, Asami-san says).
“This is a wafü (Japanese style) taste,” she exclaims appreciatively to the Yoshoku Ginza Bairin staff when we get to devouring the “melty” beef stew. “Rich, deep, and matches the taste of rice. I want to put it on rice!” She happily explains to me Western-style Japanese food, in comparison to its U.S. (or even local Hawai‘i) versions, is “less salty and strong-tasting. It has deep flavor, dashi no aji (tasting of umami), and is more — “ she pauses to find the exact word. “ — Concentrated?”
“Yes, concentrated,” responds Asami-san. For this simple dish, as an example, Shibuya has not just used high-quality beef cheek (that he also had integrated into the hayashi rice) to flavor it, but these bits of deliberately small-cut meat furnish a refined texture for the sauce which runs thinner than U.S. gravy while neither being soupy nor gloppy. For the hamburger steak, the ground rounds are not, as they often are, cut with too much bread or panko or other filler; the sauce too emphasizes the taste of the meat itself, a mix of beef and pork (aibikiniku), cooked to a very moist medium.
My Japanese colleague grows especially excited when we get to the meat-sauce spaghetti, which she later anoints as the best among our samplings. “This is made by a pro chef,” she proclaims, noting how each ingredient had been chopped to the same size, making for a sauce that coats each thin capellini strand perfectly, without becoming too thick or too oily. “I can taste every ingredient; the sauce is not too sweet, so I can taste the meat, too,” she analyzes. The sweetness comes from the onions and tomatoes — natural sources, as Japanese palates often reject the overage of “amai” (sweetness from white processed sugar) without added nuance in many Western-style Western dishes.
The restaurant’s deep-flavored sauces, its preparation of these base liquids, differ for each dish, explains Chef Shibuya. In addition to their house demi-glace from Japan, his staff mixes vegetable stock, pork broth, meat and vegetables in distinct ways for each entrée Though unimpressed with the twin “Bairin” restaurants’ general lack of local sourcing (only OK Poultry eggs from Waimānalo, “high-quality eggs produced with Japanese egg-farming technology,” make up a key ingredient drawn from Hawai‘i food producers), I am struck by the chef’s attention to quality ingredients.
For the beef, excellent washügyü from the U.S. continent; for the pork, Berkshire loin bred for Japanese tastes from a special kurobuta (black-haired pig) “black line” pork grown in Canada. The meat in Yoshoku Ginza Bairin’s pork steak is soft and tastes light, unsurprisingly, as it was “raised with no growth hormones or antibacterial formulations” (says a restaurant press release). And Shibuya says they use Tamanishiki rice, which goes well with sauce, or the Tsuyahime grain, which the expert tonkatsu chef places with his deep-fried breaded pork.
Again, I am forced to rethink my impression of yöshoku which I have held in contrast with more prestigious, elegant Japanese food forms such as kaiseki (e.g. small, visibly pleasing, ornately crafted dishes edible in specialty restaurants like Nanzan Giro Giro on Pensacola Ave.). Even if yöshoku in Japan is home, diner, pub or family-restaurant food, it wields its own aesthetic history, as a legitimate culinary art.
“Yöshoku (food) is not well known outside of Japan,” Shibuya confides to us, as his staff hands out a detailed explanation on the relatively short history of this Western-influenced culinary tradition in Japan. “It is made more at home,” he says. Yöshoku began 150 years ago during the country’s modernization which extended from government, economics and military science to the high arts and popular culture. The handout lists “curry, stew, spaghetti, fried prawn[s], beefsteak, tonkatsu (plus chicken, steak, prawn, etc., katsu), assorted sandwiches, gratin, pilaf” as typical yöshoku mains. Out of the cuisine’s century-and-a-half-old history, tonkatsu — invented 120 years ago during the Meiji era as one of its genten or originating sub-genres — is perhaps the most well-known to those outside Japan. Next to curry rice, it is arguably the most historically beloved yöshoku by us Hawai‘i folk who have enjoyed chicken and pork katsu as part of the local post-war/post-plantation, “plate lunch” tradition.
But our own nostalgic comfort-food versions from L&L or Zippy’s resemble American fast food when compared to the tonkatsu offered at the original restaurant of Masaya Shibuya’s family, Ginza Bairin, established by Nobukatsu Shibuya almost a century ago in Taishö Japan. Masaya Shibuya’s grandfather, a former pharmacist, had used his knowledge of science to invent a special sauce blend of 20 spices, allowing the Shibuyas to create and brand the first tonkatsu specialty shop in the Ginza section of Tökyö in 1927 and stake their claim as innovators of this yöshoku subgenre.
Instead of the “standard combination of demi glace and Worchestershire sauce,” the handout says, the Shibuya restaurant gifted urban consumers new to this pro-typically yöshoku dish with “the sweetness and richness of vegetables and fruits (such as apples and onions), but with a mellow taste that helps to highlight, rather than mask, the beauty of the pork.” The company today uses a specially developed frying oil and well-researched panko recipe to finish off the best-tasting katsu you have ever had.
These details distinguish the third-generation Tökyö chef’s approach to yöshoku from similar, mostly failed, efforts in Hawai‘i culinary history to advance that home-cooking tradition. Yoshoku Ginza Bairin is not, as the restaurant’s press documents claim, the first Western-style Japanese restaurant serving up this type of meal in Hawai‘i – we have enjoyed multiple curry-ya, modern izakaya with plenty of Western-style Japanese entrées and places like the now-defunct Café Lani of Ala Moana Shopping Center, which was the latest of a string of culinary attempts aimed at Nipponese tourists to pave a way forward for island yöshoku.
But Shibuya definitely ups the stakes with his delicate cooking style and signature attention to preparation and quality ingredients that local fans have known about since 2007. The chef that year brought his family’s then-80-year-old culinary heritage to Honolulu, first in the form of lasting Waikïkï beach-area mainstay Tonkatsu Ginza Bairin (located right next to Yoshoku Ginza Bairin, at 255 Beach Walk in the Regency on Beachwalk Waikiki by Outrigger).
Part of a then-new wave of authentic Japanese tonkatsu restaurants arriving in the islands between the millennium’s first and second decades, that included now-defunct competitors Imperial Café in Imperial Plaza and Kimukatsu on Lewers St. (which started, as local foodies might recall, in the old-Shirokiya beer garden on the 3rd floor of Ala Moana Shopping Center), Tonkatsu Ginza Bairin has survived due to its central-yet-backstreets Waikïkï location as well as the sheer quality of its dishes, with only Ala Moana’s Rokkaku Hamakatsu and Kapahulu’s Tonkatsu Tamafuji serving as long-lasting rivals. The restaurant eventually expanded to Hong Kong, Shanghai, Singapore and Taiwan, with Beach Walk being the only U.S. location.
Along with other press-corps members invited to this special menu preview, Asami-san takes photos of these sample dishes. She like other media representatives seems oddly excited by the restaurant’s repurika (plastic versions of menu items, typically displayed in a window outside restaurants next to their entrance) made by Iwasaki, the top Japanese company that manufactures these artificial shokuhin samples. [I’ve said it before 30 years ago and will say it again: Why get so excited about plastic food? Again: perpetual gaijin.] As we partake in the real dishes, the group lobs questions at the chef: What other dishes will be served? Shibuya rattles off a list of my izakaya and pabbu (local bar) faves: fried oyster (kaki-furai) plate; curry rice; salmon steak; white stew; shrimp pilaf; and my 20something addiction, seafood doria. Thatʻs it; I am coming back for sure!
At the event’s end, the new restaurant’s kanban ryöri or signature dish finally comes out; Asami-san is enrapt by Shibuya’s version of her childhood favorite, omu-rice. Because rather than use his fancy demi-glace, the chef has gone “old school” — favoring ketchup as the main sauce. This simple mix of chicken pieces, vegetables and the sugary tomato blend, folded into a rice mixture covered by a flat cape of egg, catches me off guard. I am used to Hawai‘i fried rice in all its salty, savory, chunky, oily and often crunchy goodness, not this sweet, simple fare. “Natsuka-shii!” my dining companion gasps over what she calls “ketchup rice,” praising Shibuya’s bold, nostalgic choice. This is how it is often made at home.
Looking at the mostly local reporters in the audience, Chef Shibuya seems to smile at our not getting Japanese diners’ yearning for their own particular small-kid-time flavors. He entreats us Yankees with a bribe: “If enough people come to our restaurant, I will put other things on this dish, such as our hayashi sauce.” Because while we U.S. diner sophisticates might get the savory flavor of umami, our (well, my) tongue cannot decode the pleasures of ketchup rice. Adventurous diners might see if the manager can get his cooking staff to rustle up a hayashi sauce omu-rice off-menu. If they do, it will be well worth the ask.
For reservations, call Tonkatsu Ginza Bairin at (808) 926-8082 and say you want to make reservations for the next-door Yoshoku Ginza Bairin, or check out @yoshoku_ginza_bairin. See the Ginza Bairin site for directions (pj-partners.com/bairin/access.html). Yoshoku Ginza Bairin business hours are 11 a.m. – 3 p.m. and 5-9 p.m.
Thanks go to Asami Arai for her reporting and translation assistance for this story.