Release | Yulia Ezhikova
EAST MEETS WEST: The rise of modern izakayas in Niseko
Izakaya is probably one of the most popular traditional venues in Japan, yet it doesn't seem to have an exact equivalent in English language. Conceptually nestled somewhere in between a traditional pub and a Spanish tapas bar, izakayas are as much about drinking as they are about dining and are well loved by locals as the perfect place for a get together with a group of friends or co-workers.
Traditional izakayas tend to run on a smaller side, often located in old wooden houses with limited bar sitting and just a few extra tables for the guests. Items on the menu vary considerably and can be most generally described as dishes that are suitable for sharing and go well with alcohol. Expect any of the traditional japanese snacks on offer - from crispy fried karaage chicken to yakitori, edamame, gyoza dumplings, smoked and roasted fish, sashimi, as well as various hot pot dishes. The food is usually accompanied by a selection of traditional local drinks - from beers to whisky highballs, sake and shochu.
While definitely worth a visit to explore the cultural phenomena itself, traditional izakayas leave room for more to be desired in terms of overall dining experience and this is where the new izakaya movement stems from. Replacing crammed, loud and often smoky interiors with well designed contemporary spaces, chaotic and endless menus with more focused and produce oriented selection of dishes, and generic drinks with elegant imported wines and cocktails, modern izakayas keep the spirit alive, while refining the concept further for a more internationally appealing and family friendly dining experience.
We've picked two newly launched contemporary izakayas in Hirafu - "Gorilla" and "Ginger" to illustrate this concept further. Both located in some of the most popular hotels in town, these restaurants serve an array of popular japanese dishes cooked with quality locally sourced ingredients in casual atmosphere that is great for an apres-ski meal with friends or family.
The speciality dish at Gorilla is Japanese hot pot in its varieties with a choice of either "nabe" or "shabu shabu" style meals to try. Similar to fondue or raclette in alpine cuisine, japanese hot pot is the epitome of cold weather comfort food and is not to be missed during your winter holidays in Japan.
While both nabe and shabu shabu are based on the same idea of a boiling pot of broth served on a portable stove in order for you to cook a combination of various ingredients in it at your own pace, there are also a few key differences between them, so we went ahead and ordered both to compare.
The seafood nabe set arrived first served in a ceramic pot for better heat retention and accompanied with an assortment of spicy garnishes and dipping sauces. Inside the pot we found a selection of delicious local produce including organic tofu, vegetables, mushrooms and udon noodles along with a generous serving of seafood, containing prawns, cod, scallops, crab and the famous Hokkaido salmon.
A special feature of Gorilla nabe is its lightly flavoured soy sauce based dashi broth with kombu seaweed that is used for cooking all of these ingredients together. This type of broth not only allows for a completely vegan nabe option should you chose to go for a vegetable hot pot set, but also provides an opportunity to enjoy the simple flavours of ingredients unobstructed by elaborate seasoning. Although if you'd like to spice it up - feel free to experiment with a ponzu, sesame seed and creamy sauces served alongside, as well as garnishes consisting of grated mild chilli pepper and daikon, fresh ginger and thinly sliced scallions.
It takes about 10 minutes to cook all of the ingredients once the stove fire is on and you can judge the readiness of the dish by a thick stream of steam coming out of a ceramic pot lid eventually. Taking advantage of Gorilla being a westernized izakaya, we went for a bottle of iconic Australian Chardonnay from Kangarilla Hills winery in Mclaren Vale to compliment our meal.
Pairing traditional Japanese food with a bottle of wine may seem strange at first, but each and every ingredient in the pot - from chinese cabbage to leek, shiitake and enoki mushrooms, scallops and cod, glass and udon noodles and becoming gradually richer and richer broth seemed to match the profile of the wine perfectly. Fruity and creamy at the same time, this modern style of Chardonnay provided a great balance of citrus and white peach driven acidity along with a rounded aroma and balance achieved by partial fermentation of grapes in French oak barrels.
Wagyu beef shabu shabu set arrived shortly with clear broth served in a metal bowl over a portable stove and this time all of the ingredients were served on the side. Two wooden lacquered boxes accompanying this dish contained a beautiful display of local mushrooms, vegetables and noodles in one of the boxes and a selection of paper thin slices of beef in the other.
While veggies and noodles can be placed in broth at the beginning and cooked all together in a similar way to nabe we tried before, the meat should only be dipped into the boiling broth briefly to prevent overcooking. Shabu shabu is served with the same array of dips and sauces as nabe and we found that ponzu made of soy sauce, sake, kombu and juice of a bitter orange complimented the flavour of freshly cooked local wagyu beef the best.
Another bottle of iconic Australian wine was served with this richer meat based dish - this time a Peter Lehmann Shiraz from Barossa Valley. It's signature luscious plum and dark chocolate aroma along with soft velvet tannins and overall deep full bodied profile matched the flavor of the famous Hokkaido beef beautifully.
Generally speaking, cuisine of this izakaya style restaurant can be defined as modern japanese with pan asian influence, but it's much more focused around local produce Hokkaido is famous for rather than a particular flavor or cooking method. Ingredients like Rankoshi rice, Tokachi beef, Kutchan tofu, Hamayaki scallops and a selection of fresh vegetables from local Hokkaido farms dominate the carefully curated menu at Ginger.
It's ski-in ski-out location on the ground floor of Aya hotel next to the Ace Family lift make this restaurant an incredibly popular lunch venue for skiers. Lunch set menu, speedy service and an overall bustling atmosphere make it feel more like an upscale cafeteria during a midday rush hour, but paired with quality food options and an opportunity to get back to the slopes fast it's a rather welcome combination.
All of the lunch options are built around a choice of a main dish that is accompanied by miso soup, rice, green salad and japanese pickled vegetables. Over a dozen dishes provide a great selection to cater to almost anyone with mixed vegetable tempura, sake steamed clams, zangi fried chicken and sashimi being just some of the options on offer. We picked a set with Hokkaido salmon steak and Hokkaido beef filet Gyukatsu to try during our visit and were impressed with both.
Ginger also offers a selection of fine australian wines to choose from and we went with a glass of Penfolds Bin 8 Cabernet Shiraz blend to accompany our meal. This well structured medium bodied wine with ripe red fruit and sweet coconutty oak notes went especially well with juicy and tender beef filet from the lunch set.
Both food menu and atmosphere change drastically come dinner time turning Ginger into a more refined dining venue. A selection of appetizers is mouthwatering with dishes like Hokkaido cod with miso saballion and roasted leeks, Kutchan tofu with crab lily buds and dashi or marinated mushrooms with lotus root and ponzu making a bold statement in honor of locally sourced ingredients. The mains are equally enticing with options ranging from pork chops with heirloom carrots to Hamayaki scallops with seaweed butter or clams and pork in spiced broth with lemon.
But probably the most interesting section on Ginger's dinner menu is that of "robata" - a japanese barbecue cooking style where food on skewers gets slow grilled over hot charcoal. Choose between tofu, chicken, salmon and beef skewer options and order an assortment of each to share with your loved ones in true izakaya style dinner to write home about.
Text / Yulia Ezhikova
Photo / Yulia Ezhikova, from the restaurants