This Cookbook Will Help You Create Your Own Japanese Izakaya Experience

“Rintaro” has the same mission as its namesake restaurant in San Francisco: do it right.

By Jessica Carbone

Published on April 3, 2024

This interview is brought to you by the SAVEUR Cookbook Club, our passionate community of food-loving readers from around the globe celebrating our favorite authors and recipes. Join us as we cook through a new book every month, and share your food pics and vids on social media with the hashtags #SAVEURCookbookClub and #EatTheWorld.

The happiest marriage on earth is between food and drink, and a crafted selection of bar bites can foster many friendships, love affairs, and community gatherings around the world. Yet the Japanese izakaya transforms drinking and dining into a form of high art. Izakayas first emerged during Japan’s Edo period, as small shops to purchase sake and beer. Eventually, the proprietors began to offer drinks by the glass, and later still, to offer small bites such as otsumami, or finger food, to be paired with the drinks. Offered as a spread of many small plates of various colors, textures, and temperatures, these dishes both absorbed and also amplified the pleasures of the drinks, and showcased the exceptional culinary craft of the chefs who prepared them. Thus the izakaya, the sake shop turned showcase for culinary artistry, was born.

At his San Francisco restaurant, Rintaro, chef Sylvan Mishima Brackett brings the izakaya tradition home, adapting the dishes that he encountered during his travels in Japan to fit the rhythms of an American dining establishment. Born to an American father and a Japanese mother, Brackett had just completed six years as a chef at Alice Waters’ restaurant Chez Panisse when he bought a one-way ticket to Japan to “eat and cook as much as possible,” without much else in mind. He tasted his way through the country, visiting the kaiseki restaurants of Aoyama, the fish markets of Saitama, the oden (dashi-based soups with fish cakes, tofu, and vegetables) spots of Yokohama, and of course the many izakayas in Tokyo and beyond. When he returned to the Bay Area, he knew that he wanted to open a restaurant that would translate—rather than replicate—the izakaya experience, to offer “exciting but simple food that tasted both like Japan and California—not fusion food, but the kind of food you’d expect if the Bay Area were a region of Japan.” By not trying to replicate his experience in Japan, Brackett gave himself permission to innovate, and wrote his own tribute to the craft of Japanese cooking in his new cookbook, Rintaro: Japanese Food from an Izakaya in California. 

Aya Mishima Brackett

During our conversation, it was clear to me that Brackett’s restaurant, and the book that captures its beauty, was the result of many years of careful research, tasting, and cooking. It also was an opportunity for Brackett to celebrate the intentionality of Japanese cooking, the precision in ingredients and techniques that made each dish so uniquely delicious, and why home cooks give as much love and attention to their meals as the most seasoned restaurant chefs. Whether I was recreating his mother’s famous gyoza recipe or preparing homemade katsuobushi dashi for the first time, I knew that I would savor my at-home izakaya experience as much as I would if I’d managed to score a table (or better yet, a counter seat) in Rintaro’s gorgeous dining room.

Tell us a bit about your first encounter with the izakaya tradition.

I didn’t grow up knowing about the history of the izakaya at all. My mother is Japanese, and I was born in Kyoto, but I grew up in California. But we’d go back to Japan every 2 or 3 years, sometimes for as long as 2 months at a time. Now when I was a kid traveling with family, we never went to the izakayas, because they were drinking spots. But I started going to Japan during college by myself, and I realized while visiting friends and people’s houses in Japan that they tended to be quite small, and so there was less entertaining at home than there was in the U.S. So where people typically hang out, especially younger people or co-workers at the end of the day, would be at an izakaya. During those years, I was routinely blown away by the experience of going to some super-duper simple places, tiny little izakayas underneath the train tracks—just one guy and a grubby little grill, with a very small selection of canned beers in a cooler—to much fancier places across the city. But the idea that you could sit and be there for two or three or four hours, and just order little by little, was so appealing to me, and I loved meeting people who were right next to me at the bar and having that shared experience. I didn’t see anything like that anywhere in the Bay Area (and only very rarely in Los Angeles). So when I came back as an adult and a chef, I had it in my mind that I wanted to someday open a Japanese restaurant, and create a niche experience.

When we were building the beautiful cedar counter in the restaurant, I was thinking about people who might come in on a rainy Tuesday night and sit together at the counter, ordering a few skewers and having some beers and lingering for four hours. But that is not a very effective way to run a business, so unfortunately we cannot exactly match my dream. But when we have Japanese customers visit, they want to order a beer and maybe sashimi and a few other things and then mull it over and add to the order as they go. That runs pretty counter to the American dining scene, where we have to ask people to order their entire meal in the beginning, to ensure we can move things along and pace it nicely. But it is interesting that we've had to kind of transition some of the key elements of the izakaya in order to make it work in a restaurant for a Californian audience. 

Courtesy Hardie Grant

How would you compare the Japanese drinking-dining culture to those of other cultures around the world?

I’ve only been to Spain once, and went to maybe four tapas places total while I was there. When I first started, that was the only real reference we had, to describe the izakaya as “Japanese tapas.” And yes, it’s similar in some ways in that every dish is pretty simple, made from usually five to six ingredients at most. But there’s something else strategic going on, in that the contrast of flavor and texture and color, fat and lean, cold and hot, happens not all on the plate, but between multiple dishes. And that’s very Japanese.

There’s a general flow to the meal—usually sashimi and cold dishes in the beginning, fried and grilled things towards the middle, and then a rice or udon at the end, a bit of starch to fill you up and soak up the alcohol. There’s also a rule about not wanting to drink sake and eat rice together, because they’re made out of the same thing; the same is true for beer and udon because of their shared wheat base. A table where there’s some sashimi, some dashimaki tamago (a folded omelet), a little yakitori, a panko dish, maybe a really spicy pickled dish, where you’re nibbling between all of those as you’re drinking and talking is really exciting. Some of our regulars eat that way, while others like one thing after another, like a coursed meal. But for me that’s the charm of this kind of cooking, to have all the dishes on the table at the same time.

Get the recipe for Oyakodon (Chicken and Egg Rice Bowl) > (Photo: Aya Mishima Brackett)

Several dishes, including the rice (don) dishes, often build on a homemade dashi. For home cooks who may have never made dashi from scratch, what would you recommend vis-a-vis ingredients?

Not all the recipes in this book need to be made completely from scratch; certainly, I’ve used store-bought wrappers to make the gyoza before. But dashi is different, because the pre-made stuff is just not that good, and it’s so easy to make once you get your hands on the ingredients, which are really just katsuobushi and konbu. The fragrance in our food is really due to dashi, and the katsuobushi is key. There is a freeze-dried powdered dashi, but I cannot in good conscience recommend it, because it’s the death of Japanese cuisine, like using a bouillon cube instead of using chicken stock. If you’re buying a bag of shaved katsuobushi or bonito flakes, look for ones that are as bright as possible, because otherwise it’s already started to oxidize. The brighter the packaged katsuobushi, the better the quality. Or you can buy it as a whole log and shave it to order, which is what we do in the restaurant. When you’re buying konbu, ideally you’re buying Hokkaido konbu, where most of the konbu in the world is produced, and you don’t need very much. If you live where there’s good water, don't worry about tap water, but you can also filter it before you make your dashi. Other than that, it’s pretty simple. There are several online resources, including TheJapanesePantry.com, which carries all of these ingredients that we use throughout the book, and they support so many small, great producers in Japan.

How important is it to have contrast from dish to dish in an izakaya menu?

I think that’s pretty important. I really love fried foods, like croquettes and karaage chicken, but whenever I have something heavy and fried, I serve a big floof of shaved cabbage to go with it. Incidentally, I’ve been telling customers as I drop off the panko dishes that they should alternate between bites of the fried food and the cabbage, to help cut the oil. We love it and we spend all this time making it, but most people don’t eat it because they think it’s a garnish, so it ends up in the compost. In Japanese food, and especially at the izakaya, the contrast between dishes—their colors and textures and temperatures—is very important in a satisfying meal.

Aya Mishima Brackett

How did you decide what aspects of the Japanese izakaya experience would be replicated in your restaurant, and what did you decide to change?

Izakaya cooking can be very casual, even though at Rintaro we’re more at the formal end of things. But that’s also because our staff is stronger, and we have more people coming from and going to Japan to learn, so we’re a lot more technically adept and sophisticated than when we opened 10 years ago. But not everything that I loved in Japan can be replicated here, and I made a firm decision that I wouldn’t aim for a facsimile of my experiences in Japan—because we’re in San Francisco, and we should take advantage of the great vegetables and interesting fish and really well-produced meats in the area. When I first moved to San Francisco, there was an old-school kaiseki-style restaurant in Japantown, and technically it was flawless, but every single thing had been shipped frozen from Japan, from the pickled vegetables to the fish to the meat. I felt like it was a pale copy of Japan, because they weren’t taking advantage of the good things here. And I vowed never to do that. When we would have a dish like simmered sardines with ginger and umeboshi, I knew that we could source from the Japanese plum farm nearby. I knew that the sardines from Monterey would be really good. Of course we have ginger grown nearby, so we could make a really good local version of it. I didn’t want to be importing mountain vegetables to pretend like we were in Japan; what I was most excited about was the chance to make it here. 

I love the way that you talk about the Bay Area as a “region of Japan.” What have you learned about the diaspora of Japanese culture and cuisine in your area, and across the globe?
Many people forget that Japan has been historically extremely poor, and at the turn of the 20th century, a lot of Japanese “second sons” were emigrating all over the world. So there’s a diasporic Japanese community in Peru and Brazil, California and Mexico, and other places, and I’m fascinated to see how each cuisine has evolved in its own way. Though I’m half-Japanese, for a long time I had almost no connection to the Japanese American community. But now I have several cooks and servers who are like third-, fourth-, fifth-generation Californian, but full-blood Japanese, because their families have always been here. The family of one of my sous-chefs is very involved in the creation of Japantown in San Francisco, and that’s just amazing to me. I was talking to my friend Nancy Hachisu, the author of Japanese Farm Food, and she said that when she went on her book tour, a lot of the Japanese American grandmothers told her that the food that she made tasted a lot like the food that they grew up eating in California, because Nancy’s recipes spoke to the same tastes as the 70-year-old’s memories from childhood. So the Japanese roots here run very deep.

Aya Mishima Brackett

You’re very attentive to technique in this book—for example, you have multiple spreads on the preparation of yakitori, from the butchering to the skewering to the roasting. Why do you lay out the cooking process for so many dishes in such detail?

What makes it special is doing it right—and in Japan, doing it right is never easy. The culture is so old and the craft is so deep, that seven pages on yakitori is just barely scratching the surface. But it’s that depth which makes something really exciting, delicious, and special. Look at something as basic as slicing scallions: you want to slice them really fine, and to do that, you have to have very sharp knives, and then you want to rinse the scallions after slicing. If you do each of those things, you give the scallions a very particular texture and look, and when you’re piling them onto other dishes, they’ll hold together in a very particular way. There’s a reason for everything.

There's also a level of specialization in Japan, which is quite different from how people train here. For instance, I went to a katsudon restaurant, and they served it in two sizes: with extra rice and pickles and soup, or without. That’s the whole menu. At each Japanese restaurant, somebody’s spent their life making one dish really, really, really well. I just met a chef from Japan who has an unagi restaurant out in the countryside, and I had him do a series of dinners at Rintaro with farmed eels from Maine. Each step of him cutting, skewering, and grilling the eels was so specific, and he had a reason why each thing he did added up to make a perfect grilled unagi don.

I’m not trying to be fussy, but I’m interested in specialization. There are so many great 30-minute Japanese meal cookbooks, and I didn’t feel like I had a lot to contribute to that. But I’ve spent a lot of time learning how to do things and refining processes, and I’ve seen how intentional the process is. And I want to challenge readers to make something that’s worth the effort of making it.

How does one set about making yakitori at home—from the butchering to the skewering to the cooking—to get the end result just right?

Yakitori is not easy—it takes time and focus, and perhaps no beginner reader will make excellent yakitori right from the start, but it’ll be really tasty, and super fun. It also really makes the most of your ingredients: some people think of chicken as just light meat or dark meat, but within a single chicken there are so many different textures and flavors, leanness and fattiness, that yakitori is an amazing way to use almost every little bit. It’s really worthwhile if you’re buying very expensive, high-quality pasture-raised chicken. 

Getting the yakitori grilling process right is hard at home; you really need a heavier, denser charcoal, and you have to expend a little effort. Traditionally, yakitori is made with binchotan, which is charcoal fired at a really, really high heat, made out of oak branches and cut into various links that are two to 10 inches long. When you clink the charcoal together, it sounds like glass—it’s just extremely hard. Ogatan is a bit less expensive, as it’s the bits and pieces that have been compressed into charcoal tubes. You set them about six inches apart in the grill set-up that I describe in the book, and it really concentrates the heat before you start grilling. It’s a very different kind of heat, because as the fats and juices come out and fall onto the charcoal, they vaporize and come back to coat the chicken, and give it a really special taste.

Get the recipe for Hanetsuki Gyoza (Dumplings with “Wings”) > (Photo: Aya Mishima Brackett)

The gyoza in this book started as the recipe your mother Toshiko made throughout your childhood, which you later adapted for the restaurant. How did the gyoza recipe evolve from her hands to yours?

As a kid I helped my mother to make her gyoza; my job was to wet the wrappers after filling them. Then I graduated to folding them, and then after that to making the wrapper dough from scratch. My mother never wanted to bother, but we had a little pasta machine, so I used those to roll out the wrappers. Most Japanese gyoza tend to be quite small and with a more cabbage-to-meat ratio, and hers were bigger and meatier, more like a Chinese-style potsticker, but the seasoning was very Japanese. When I was a caterer, we would make gyoza for events, and one of my first big events was the Chez Panisse staff party, which was completely terrifying. We made them in the Chez Panisse kitchen, all of our ingredients and wrappers right there in the restaurant. Afterwards Alice Waters loved them so much, she told me “You just need to open a gyoza restaurant.” Eventually we started making and freezing gyoza for Samin Nosrat’s pop-up general store in Oakland, where various food people from around the Bay Area could sell their stuff.

As we kept making the gyoza, we also kept refining the recipe, thinking about how to make the skins a little thinner, the filling a little juicier. During this time I worked with one of my cooks, Tomoko Tokumaru, who became my gyoza “section chief” outside the restaurant. Now she works with a small team of Japanese women who are all friends and make the gyoza for us. She’s worked out very small refinements in the recipe, and the recipe in the book is the version that she honed to perfection.

Aya Mishima Brackett

Several years ago you showed SAVEUR a smattering of pieces of cookware and plates that you were collecting, perhaps just when you were opening the restaurant. How did you go about deciding what the visual aesthetic of the restaurant would be in relation to, especially the cookware and the serving wear that you chose?

I’m really drawn to antique or vintage Japanese tools, in part because a lot of the pots and baskets from 75 years ago were made so well that they still function perfectly today. I think it started with a wood-burning rice cooker stove, which I received from one of my early chefs in her old house in Japan. After she moved to the States, it was sitting in her brother’s backyard, so I paid to have it shipped over, and we used that rice cooker for catering gigs—we put it in the back of my Volvo, and drove it up to the venue, and built a fire, and it was very dramatic and cool. I like old things that function really well, and made by people who really know what they’re doing.

You talk about rice as the “real food” of the izakaya, why do you see rice as having this important role?

Japan has been a rice-growing country since the beginning of time, and for the most part Japanese people haven’t had enough to eat. So you have rice, and then you have the things that go with the rice. So that might be a little bit of fish if you’re lucky, a little meat, probably lots of vegetables, but rice is the thing that really fills you up.

But the process for cooking rice is also just as intentional as anything else we make. During one of the dinners we hosted for this book, which took place at Zuni Café, we had problems preparing our rice for the meal. So I sent my sous chef back to the restaurant to get our donabe clay pot, a clay pot made for cooking rice that has a super-thick bottom and a double lid, and really makes flawless rice. Basically you bring the rice and water up to a boil, you turn it off, and then the thick bottom continues cooking via the heat held within it. So we had that going alongside a cheap run-of-the-mill rice maker and a fancy Zojirushi rice maker—and for better or worse, it was the first time I could actually have a taste test between all 3 methods. I was very gratified to find that the donabe rice was by far superior, glossier, with the grains a bit more distinct, and no mushiness whatsoever. Second was the Zojirushi—still good, but not as shiny and the grains not as flavorful—and third was the conventional rice maker, which was just fine. Side by side, I had to report to everybody that we weren't doing it the hard way for no reason—the difference really paid off.

Lastly, I want your take on the ideal izakaya-style meal to make at home. First off, are we having beer or sake?

Definitely both! You start with beer, and then you have some sake, and then when you feel like you’re drinking too much, you can go back to beer. Any good izakaya style would have a bit of a mix.

For food, I’d start with a single variety of sashimi—maybe a bit of tuna sashimi—and then a dressed dish, which should be anchored in whatever is seasonal. Since it’s still wintertime, I’d suggest the crab sunomono or the ika no nuta, squid with a mustardy miso dressing that can be made a little bit in advance. And then you might do either the dashimaki tamago omelet or chawanmushi. Once you get into the heavier foods, you might have a gyoza and one panko dish, maybe the kabocha croquettes—both can be made and frozen and cooked whenever, so it doesn’t have to be assembled at the last minute.

Then, if you’re feeling really ambitious, you could do yakitori, but given that you’re doing everything else, I’d focus on a chicken thigh yakitori, which can get you five to six different skewers from that. And again, it could be prepared the day of, or the day before and skewered. And then as a final dish, I’d likely recommend either some curry rice, mabodofu don (spicy tofu and pork over rice), or just simple bowls of rice or udon. This is a huge amount of work, though many of these items can be made ahead, even the udon. It all comes down to whether you want to join your dinner or cook for your guests. 

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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