Turning Japanese

Food, the Japanese way
Category: Food & Beverage

A Dubai restaurateur explores Japan’s food culture

“Who travels for love finds a thousand miles not longer than one.” - Japanese Proverb

When the team at Silver Spoon Investments travelled nearly 5,000 miles from Dubai to Tokyo last month to take a deep dive into Japanese culture and cuisine, it was all about their love for the art of food.

Only months earlier did they open their first restaurant, Atisuto, a casual yet chic authentic Japanese eatery in the new Galleria Mall in Dubai. Atisuto is the brainchild of Salem bin Dasmal, founder of Silver Spoon Investments, a UAE-based restaurant group focused on the creation, development and management of home grown restaurant concepts.

The concept for Atisuto, which means “artist” in Japanese, is based on the back-alley sushi restaurants found in Japan’s big cities, where the bustle of city life and creativity of the cuisine combine, creating a fast-paced, unique atmosphere. With original Japanese art and graffiti sprawling the walls, and a modern funky interior design, Atisuto soon became the place to catch up with friends and relax in the heart of Jumeirah.

Dasmal’s inspiration for Japanese food came from California: “I lived in the US for 12 years of my young adult life and was fortunate to have travelled extensively throughout my career. There is a great deal and long history of Japanese influence in California with Asian food being first introduced in the US in the mid-1800s when Chinese immigrants began settling in California.”

In March, Dasmal took the Group’s operations manager, Orestes Lopez, and Executive Chef Aijiro Shinoda to Japan for a five-day visit. He said: "This trip was all about travelling as a team to observe the current trends in art and food, to discover the latest cooking techniques and to find suppliers that would help Atisuto create direct connections with Japan to offer diners an even more authentic Japanese experience.”

“We did a lot more than we had hoped and planned for,” said Lopez. “We have already bought some great products from suppliers that we met in Japan, including a superb organic soya sauce, and we can’t wait to introduce these new products to our guests.”

During the five-day trip, the team visited Tokyo; Kyoto, which served as Japan's capital and the emperor’s residence from 794 to 1868; as well as Chef Shinoda’s hometown, Yokahoma, Japan’s prominent port city.

In Yokahoma, the team was welcomed into Chef Shinoda’s home. Ajiro isn’t the only one in his family dedicated to Japanese cuisine. His brother owns a successful noodle restaurant in Tokyo called Yabu Soba, offering traditional Japanese cuisine, which has been around since the late 1940s. His brother is now the third generation in the family to take over the reigns of the restaurant and some of the family recipes date back generations, including a 100-year-old delicious vegetable marinade!

Ramen museum
While in town, they visited the Shin-Yokohama Raumen Museum, also known as the world's first food-themed amusement park, where guests can enjoy the flavours of Japan’s national dish. The museum’s nine ramen shops are showcased in a streetscape replication from 1958 in Japan, which was the year that the world's first instant ramen was invented.

According to the museum’s website: “Ramen has its roots as a Chinese noodle dish, which then spread to Japan and integrated with the local food-culture. In 1859, Japan opened its ports to the world, bringing in linguistic interpreters from China and Western countries.

“Foreign settlements were set up in Japan's major port towns, where Chinese restaurants began to line the streets. This gave way to the formation of China Town. There, the Chinese noodle dish that would later become the source of Japanese ramen was served. In time, the Japanese locals began to eat at these Chinese establishments, some of which began to set up their own independent operations, selling noodles from carts (or yatai) on the streets.”

One of the highlights of the trip was the Tsukiji fish market, Tokyo’s famous Central Wholesale Market, that handles over 2,888 tons of fish a day with more than 450 kinds of fish coming in, making it one of the world’s largest markets and one of Japan’s major tourist attractions. The team however, got to see much more than the average tourist ever will, including parts of the market operations that are off limits for regular visitors, such as the famous tuna auction, which they witnessed up close and personal from the auction floor.

“We got to experience the Tsukiji market as a supplier looking to buy some fish rather than as a visitor, and this was a completely different experience,” said Chef Shinoda.

Dasmal said: “After our early morning visit to the Tsukiji market, we ate a sushi breakfast at 5:30am, which was the freshest and most delicate fish I have had; you simply can’t get any closer to the source of the food than here.”

The team also reminisced a special evening at Sukiya-bashi Jiro Roppongi, one of the world’s most-renowned sushi restaurants in the heart of Tokyo. This is the one Michelin star sister restaurant of the three Michelin star Sukiya-bashi Jiro in Ginza. Jiro’s son Takashi heads the branch at Roppongi Hills. “We had to make reservations weeks in advance to dine here, but it was a great experience. We got to meet the team behind this legendary restaurant as well, which was a privilege as fellow industry professionals and restaurant owners,” said Dasmal.

Other inspiring dining experiences on the trip, albeit a lot more casual, included Yakitori, which are skewers made from bite-sized pieces of all parts of a chicken, usually made to order and grilled over charcoal. This popular, inexpensive dish is served at specialty restaurants known as yakitori-ya as well as at local Izakayas, which are a type of informal establishments that originated from sake shops. In addition, Yakitori is a popular choice at festival food stands. The concept of Yakitori has extended into skewered food, in general, and you can now enjoy other meats and fish as skewered delicacies as well.

“The concept of Yakitori is simple, yet special. It’s an integral part of the Japanese lifestyle and food culture and as a result of our trip we have some great ideas on how to incorporate Yakitori into our new Atisuto branches in Dubai, so watch this space,” said Lopez.

Chef Shinoda has come back with lots of inspiration for Atisuto’s menu, including a number of new ingredients for the restaurant’s sushi selection and new stocks for the ramen dishes. He said: “Normally, when I travel home to Japan, the focus is on spending time with the family and visiting friends. This time, I had the opportunity to travel with my colleagues for a few days and see my home country from a totally different perspective, which was very memorable.”

Reflecting on the trip, Dasmal said: “As a restaurant group looking to develop home grown restaurant concepts in the UAE, in-depth research, continuous innovation and a strong team are critical to our success. This trip has given us all of these ingredients and has definitely strengthened the bond of the team; it was the ultimate team-building exercise!”

Dubai in the United Arab Emirates is an international city with the best hotels in the world and dining being among fun activities to do.