Chicago’s successful Japonais restaurant has come to New York at 111
East 18th Street, opening on July 19th to the usual large crowds that often
accompany a high-profile opening such as this. But Japonais comes into town
with three years of wowing critics in a tough town – Best New Restaurant
from Chicago Magazine, three stars from the Sun-Times and the Tribune – and
partners and chefs who are both experienced and committed to creating a successful,
long-lasting enterprise. Partners in Japonais include well-known Manhattan-based
architect Jeffrey Beers, Chicago restaurateur Miae Lim, and New York restaurateur
Rick Wahlstedt. Japonais has two Chef/partners, one who handles the sushi (Jun
Ichikawa) and one who handles hot appetizers and entrees (Gene Kato). The group
is also planning a Japonais Las Vegas opening later this year.
The 10,000 square foot space has a wide variety of seating, highlighted by the Red Room which is the main dining area that seats 120, and whose design is highlighted by a walnut “fin” ceiling and an exotic wood and glass-blown tree sculpture. The first floor also includes an 11-seat sushi bar, a 40-seat downstairs lounge, and seating for another 35 in a soon-to-open outdoor veranda. Upstairs, a warm and cozy lounge that will accommodate about 60 seats is available for those who desire sushi or cold appetizers, or just a few drinks after hours. Beer’s ability to create eye-catching yet entirely comfortable surroundings is clearly one of the biggest draws to Japonais, yet the food that has drawn wide praise for both Kato and Ichikawa in Chicago is likely to be the catalyst for people coming back. We sat down with Gene Kato to discuss the New York opening.
Q: How did your cooking technique develop over the years?
A: When I was getting into cooking I was very much into French style cooking because its very similar to Japanese from the technical sense, a lot of old cuisine, there are a lot of techniques to do everything, I was very much into that, but as I grew older, I saw myself going back to my Japanese heritage, doing more and more of the tradition, balanced with the customers. When it comes down to it, I want to give the customers what they want, so I try to balance all those components.
Q: How did you handle finding new vendors for the New York restaurant as
opposed to the Chicago one?
A: Actually some of my Japanese companies are based in New York so it was a smooth transition. But all the produce and meats I had to source out. I get many of them from the same wholesalers but I had to find new middlemen.
Q: How do you keep the restaurant going after the initial opening wears
A: I think the most important thing is consistency. A great example is Nobu, I really respect Nobu because he made it easier for Japanese chefs to introduce Japanese cuisine. But no matter where you go in all the Nobu locations...London, here, etc, its very consistent. It may not be the very highest sushi restaurant but its very consistent. For Chicago, we try to keep it energized, I make sure that the dishes that are popular are always solid. I introduce new things depending on the season; last year we had the Kobe Osso Bucco, flown exclusively to me in Chicago from Oregon, so we did a Japanese braised Osso Bucco.
Q: What dishes do you think make Japonais New York unique?
A: I think the smoked wagyu, we do a dry-aged wagyu rib eye and we smoke it. It’s a high-fat content in that beef, and hot-smoking it just soaks it up but it doesn’t make it dry, it keeps it moist. It picks up the essence of the smoke. Another dish would be the miso marinated barramundi. Our Fois Gras torchon is a very Asian-feel fois gras. When I think of fois gras at the French restaurants that I’ve had, its seared, or grilled, which, its so high in fat, once they heat it, in your mouth its very oily, very greasy, doesn’t feel clean. So I do a torchon, kinda like Ankimo (the Japanese monkfish liver), but instead of steaming it I cook it in an Asian duck stock, then we do the traditional torchon where we hang it and dry it – it’s a four-day process.
Q: How many hours per day are
you working now?
A: 7 days a week, I’m here from 8am until close. Whatever it takes - I’m very fortunate to have found my passion and as soon as I found it, it’s been non-stop. Hopefully in the end it’ll balance out a little bit but I want to take full advantage of my youth and my energy. I’m very excited to be here in New York, there are phenomenal chefs here, I’m excited to see how people respond to our style of food here.
Q: Did you get out to some of the New York restaurants to see what the competition
was up to?
A: We did a lot of that before we opened to see different perspectives, we went to Morimoto, Nobu, Megu, Buddakan, and a few others, just to see what people are ordering, to see how the New York people are reacting to that style of restaurant. I think there are some restaurants that are trying to do too much, and perhaps they have gotten away from what their restaurants are about. Some of them are trying to be cutting edge with crazy designs – nobody goes to a restaurant to see presentation, I understand its important, but if it tastes phenomenal, it doesn’t matter about the presentation, people will come back, because people will crave it.