Far-out fusion—like the kind found at new Williamsburg restaurant Shalom Japan—seems either a product of link-baiting or insanity. Much as you might imagine, Shalom Japan marries Japanese and Jewish cuisines, a Venn diagram of Middle Eastern and Far Eastern suns that seem hemispheres apart. It’s outrageous and audacious. It seems so random. But is it insane? Only insomuch as any marriage is insane.
The day I’m writing this, by the way, is my fifth wedding anniversary. It’s not going that well—the marriage, that is. The anniversary is just fine. (I got my wife a wooden coffee stirrer from the deli; she forgot completely.) Not to mention that two weeks ago, we had our second kid. Neither the baby nor his 20-month-old brother sleep, so neither do we. Instead, we snap at each other. There is some rubbing, but it’s in the wrong way.
Over the last few weeks, I’ve been out of the house exactly three times—once to therapy and twice to Shalom Japan. The meals were more salutary than the therapy and more uplifting too. (Sorry, Sharon!) In fact, the restaurant, which is on a forgotten corner of South Fourth Street in Williamsburg, may just be a beacon of love.
Beyond the BQE and the Ortiz Funeral Home (whose faulty neon sign for years delightfully read “Fun Home”), you’ll find Shalom Japan. It is small and unassuming but glows like the best restaurants glow: warm and welcoming. When I visited on a recent Sabbath evening, a family of Hasids—a bent-over man, his tiny young wife and a gaggle of identically dressed children—scurried past on the cracked basketball court of Rodney Park North, eyes to the ground.
Had they seen the restaurant, and decided to enter, which they wouldn’t have because it isn’t kosher (and because Hasids don’t eat out on the Sabbath), they would have come through a dark-blue noren, the traditional bifurcated Japanese curtain that parts, not coincidentally, like the Red Sea. Inside, the space is intimate, and the 12-seat bar is often full. A large painting of an empty subway station hangs on a brick wall, and the eight tables are wooden and bare but for the plates, bowls and cups, which have a delicate floral pattern that would fit in either the sideboard of a bubbie or an obaasan (two grandmas, one cup). Above the kitchen hangs more dark-blue drapery, on which is printed the restaurant’s logo: an overlapping Jewish star and Eastern sun. Subtle it isn’t.
The woman often laboring at the pass is Sawako Okochi, the 36-year-old Hiroshima-born chef who has done stints at Anita Lo’s Anissa in the West Village and the Good Fork in Red Hook. She is the rising sun of the logo and a rising chef in her own right. Her partner, and the six-pointed star, is named Aaron Israel. Mr. Israel, a former chef at Mile End and Torrisi Italian Specialties, is a man steeped in the arcana of carnivorous Jewry. He’s like the Hillel the Elder of smoked meats. The two chefs are not only partners in the restaurant, but, since May, husband and wife.
While every unhappy marriage is unhappy in its own way, I’m told one arrives at a happy marriage through a discrete set of avenues. Perhaps husband and wife are twinsies—although such cases are rare and only work if each partner is a saint. More commonly, the betrothed must be different beings with a union that ennobles each individual, illuminating their differences, soothing their deficiencies and highlighting their strengths.
In the best cases, the partnership goes beyond compatibility, approaching an alchemy in which a new, third thing—a luminous, better thing—is created. The idea sounds like typical wedding-toast cant, and it’s not a concept in which I have a lot of faith—especially not now. But Shalom Japan has helped to restore my faith in partnerships, for the restaurant is exactly that third, luminous and lovely thing that forms when people overlap.
The interspecies snorgling of Jews and Japanese is something one finds viscerally intriguing—or laughable, apparently. (A lot of the commentary on the restaurant so far has been laced with laughter.) But that’s only because being intrigued by anything is somehow passé, it seems. Then again, it’s not an entirely new concept. There was once a very popular theory that the Japanese descended from one of the lost tribes of Israel called the Nestorians. Also: Marty Friedman, lead guitarist for Megadeth, lives in Japan. So there’s that.
Even culinarily, it has been done before. Shalom Japan is named after a restaurant of similar concept—and same name—that was located at 22 Wooster Street in the 1980s. It featured the nightclub stylings of Miriam Mizakura, a Japanese-born Jewish convert who, according to a Gael Greene review from 1980 titled “The Seaweed Factor,” would serve soggy teriyaki and tell jokes, such as: “My cousin was the only boy in Japan to get a transistor radio from Brooklyn for his bar mitzvah. Not funny? So sorry.”
Currently, and less hilariously, Dassara, a ramen shop further south in Brooklyn, dabbles in Japanese-Jewish fusion with smoked salmon ramen. But nothing in recent memory approaches the ambition of Shalom Japan or has met as much success.
At Shalom Japan, the triumphs are many and the misses few. Everything on the menu that works—which isn’t everything on the menu—occupies that radiant third space, the overlap of the Star of David and the rising sun. (It should be noted that, according to Micaela Grossman, another co-owner and general manager, the restaurant’s “name refers not to the menu but to Sawa and Aaron.” But this is not an assertion to which I give credence.) Each success is a marriage between Japanese and Jewish cuisine, a negotiation between the minimalist approach of kaiseki, the scraping away of extraneous matter to expose the essence of an ingredient, and the Jewish approach to food, characterized by a scrappy hustling of byproducts, rootlessness and schmaltz.
The best example is Shalom Japan’s matzo ball ramen ($16). Will I ever again drink matzo ball soup or slurp ramen without thinking of it? No, I won’t. But it’s not just because the matzo ball is perfectly formed, because the broth is a golden liquid chicken essence (which gains even more silky richness when the chicken-and-foie gyoza is punctured) or because the poached chicken chashu is better than any pork belly. The most warming part of the soup is that such an accommodation would have been reached in the first place.
Or consider the lox bowl ($21), where Mr. Israel’s people have contributed the soft mild cured salmon and capers, which are pleasingly fried, and Ms. Okochi’s people the rice, seaweed, daikon and sriracha-laced mayonnaise to form what they call the crack sauce. As for the sake kasu challah ($7), made with yeast that’s left over after sake is made, it is baked to order with a golden raisin butter and is the best challah this Jew has ever eaten in Brooklyn.
Even when the restaurant stumbles, it stumbles because it doesn’t live up to the promise of its own concept. The Jew egg ($13), a take on a Scotch egg, with falafel playing the role of sausage, is a good idea (kinda) but fails in execution. Texturally limp and flavorfully incoherent, the falafel has nothing to do with the egg and even less to do with Japan. Not undelicious but also not fully realized is the pastrami-stuffed chicken, served with potato salad, which is a great mash-up—but of what? Likewise, the mochi blintzes ($9) are delicious but ultimately just mochi that look like blintzes. They’re yummy but facile.
Still, at its best, Shalom Japan is more than the sum of its parts. The Great Eastern Sun enlightens the Star of David; the Magen David focuses the sun’s rays. You might not be at the same frustrating point of a marriage as I am—I hope, in fact, you aren’t—but for me, Shalom Japan is an inspiring and much-needed reminder that two is better than one.