Authentic Japanese cuisine is an elusive thing in Ireland – but well worth the effort. In the era of COVID, it may seem untimely or even crude to recommend a list of places to enjoy an amazing dining experience, but the restrictions can’t last forever… right? And when it comes to amazing dining experiences, the Japanese are unparalleled.
Enchanting scenery, wonderful people, glorious weather, incomparable efficiency, and alluring art combine to give Japan its unique, captivating charm. But their biggest attribute is arguably food. Food is an essential part of Japanese culture, comparable only to the French. Immigration from Japan to Ireland is less prevalent than other Asian countries, and as such, Japanese cuisine has been slow to infiltrate. However, there are a small number of outlets which provide a glimpse into the magnificence of experiencing authentic Japanese cuisine.
Just as Chinese restaurants sell sweet chili chicken and Indian restaurants churn out tikka masala, Ireland is contaminated with imposters, claiming to offer “real” Japanese food. But it takes more than a recipe to make authentic Japanese cuisine.
Dublin, in particular, is full of pretenders. And while there is nothing ostensibly wrong with most of these shops, cafés and restaurants, there’s nothing wonderful about them either. Mass-produced sushi and chain-restaurants clutter the streets of our capital and may cause the average punter to ask themselves what all the fuss is about. But for Japanese natives, discerning chefs, and those lucky enough to have visited Japan, these generically named places are simply disappointing.
There are certain criteria which must be met for an establishment to be considered authentic. First and foremost, the owner must be Japanese. This by no means guarantees authenticity, but it’s a good start. The ambience will tell you everything you need to know before you even look at the menu. The atmosphere, music, and décor; the attitude of the staff; the name alone can be a giveaway. Tableware is a critical test of authenticity, from quality, design, size and even symmetry. Authentic Japanese cuisine is about more than food, it’s an experience.
Next, the head chef needs to be Japanese, or – at a minimum – trained by a top-level Japanese chef. Becoming a chef in Japan is a vocation; it involves choosing one area to specialise in and then enduring extensive training. To attain the prestigious tile “Itamae” (a fully qualified sushi chef) requires no less than a decade of training – years of which are dedicated to rice preparation alone!
How food is presented is equally important as other factors including; freshness, quality and flavour. An aesthetically pleasing Japanese dish will incorporate minimalism, uniqueness, and a combination of varying colours, patterns and textures. Garnish, such as daikon, pickled ginger, cucumber and carrot, cleanse the palette as well as adding accent and balance to each dish. Authentic Japanese cuisine is not just food, it’s art.
In Ireland, only three establishments tick all these boxes.
Wa Sushi – Galway
13 New Dock St, Galway, H91 P5FR
Phone: +353 (0) 91 895850
Yoshimi Hayakawa came to Ireland in 2001 to study English for two months. But she’s still here nearly 20 years later, living in Galway, where she is owner and chef at Wa Sushi, the only place in Ireland offering authentic sushi. Yoshimi refuses to call herself a master, but there is no doubt that she is the unquestioned pioneer of the sushi business in Ireland.
“I was hoping that a professional sushi chef would open a restaurant for the longest time,” she said. “But nobody did – so I opened it.”
Yoshimi uses fresh Irish produce to create dishes steeped in culture and tradition to help customers experience authentic Japanese cuisine and to feel like they are getting an authentic Japanese culinary experience. Dining in the sleek, intimate setting of Wa Sushi is like being transported to the magical food districts of downtown Tokyo.
Unlike Ireland’s unpredictable, haphazard weather, Japan has four unmistakeable seasons; as such, seasonality is a huge factor in Japanese cooking. Yoshimi explains that “Each season, there are ‘Sekku celebrations’ with particular foods for every Sekku, each with distinct meaning and health benefits.” Wa Sushi integrates this appreciation for seasonality into its ever-evolving menu.
The owner’s response to COVID is the purest distillation of the Japanese resolve and positivity. “We just switched to takeaway during lockdown,” she says calmly. “It became a good time to go back to basics and think about what I enjoy and what is important for me. I have done many things which I have wanted to do for a long time such as making homemade Miso, making a website, and catching up on paper-work. If I have more time, I would like to explore more local fish. I would not have this kind of mindfulness without the COVID crisis.”
Once restrictions were lifted, Yoshimi started private dining ‘Omakase’ (the Japanese tradition of giving the chef free reign to create your meal). “I really enjoyed the private dining,” she says. “I can connect with customers more closely when taking a booking, making menu plans, cooking in front of the guests and getting feedback from them.”
“I kept notes every time. One guest liked our Omakase so much that they came back three more times. I never served the same menu. It became a great experience and an opportunity for me to think about what is important for me about cooking.”
If you’re a nervous beginner, a sushi novice or a sophisticated connoisseur, Wa Sushi has something for you. One visit to the elegant, understated outlet will not be enough.
Miyazaki – Cork
1A Evergreen St, Barrack St, Ballyphehane, Cork, T12 E034
Phone: (021) 431 2716
Fast food in Japan is very different from what Ireland has to offer; it’s not junk food, it’s good food, kept simple and served quickly. Chef Takashi Miyazaki’s eponymous restaurant offers a wonderful blend of Japanese fast food and traditional home comforts, providing diners with the opportunity to experience what people eat in Japan every day.
It was a stroke of luck and sheer coincidence that brought the talented chef to Ireland. Takashi met his wife, Stephanie, in Hiroshima where she was an English teacher and he was working as head chef of Molly Malone’s Irish pub no less.
Takashi says he and Stephanie chose Cork because of the fantastic food culture and the remarkable quality of land and sea produce. Daily trips to Cork’s renowned English Market guarantee the freshness and uniqueness needed to create authentic Japanese cuisine. To maintain the elite standards he sets for himself, Takashi regularly forages for local seaweed – a bedrock of Japanese food.
Miyazaki is very much a take-away restaurant, but it is also a chic, boutique restaurant with a handful of seats available to a lucky few diners. Takashi has spent years training local chefs to perfect his menu, crafting gyoza (steamed and fried dumplings), ramen (noodle soup topped with meat, fish, egg and more), and donburi (rice bowls topped with meat, fish and dashi broth) as good as anything his homeland has to offer.
When COVID lockdown first came into effect, Miyazaki became a take-away only, no-contact establishment, operating reduced hours with reduced staff and a reduced menu. No customers were allowed inside the premises, they instead pre-ordered by phone, were allocated staggered collection times, and paid by card only.
Since opening, Miyazaki has been bestowed several accolades including the Irish Restaurant Awards and The McKenna Guide’s Chef of the Year. The façade and interior are just as artistic and praiseworthy as the food. Miyazaki is an essential pitstop for your next visit to Cork (whenever that may be) and is the best way in Ireland to experience every-day, authentic Japanese cuisine.
Ichigo Ichie – Cork
No5 Sheares St, Cork, T12 RY7Y
Phone: (021) 427 9997
While France is the spiritual home of the Michelin Star guide, Japan has become the destination for Michelin Star cuisine. Japan has more Michelin Star restaurants than any other country. In fact, Japan has more 2 Michelin Star restaurants and 3 Michelin Star restaurants than any other country. Tokyo alone has more Michelin Stars than most countries. Three of the top four Michelin Star cities in the world are in Japan – Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka – interrupted only by Paris.
Ichigo Ichie was awarded the prestigious honour within months of opening.
Despite the instant success, Ireland’s only kaiseki restaurant is very much a hidden treasure. A secret. If you didn’t know exactly what you were looking for, you’d stroll aimlessly past. Painted black with no name above the door or even a sign, Ichigo Ichie’s reputation alone keeps the seats filled.
When owner and head chef, the aforementioned Takashi Miyazaki, wanted to expand his empire, he did so by introducing Cork to “kaiseki,” a traditional multi-course Japanese feast. The kaiseki experience emphasises local, seasonal ingredients; the menu at Ichigo Ichie can change from week to week and undergoes an overhaul on a monthly basis, depending on what the fishermen catch, what local producers have on offer, and what the weather dictates.
If you are lucky enough to be one of the five guests perched at the Miyabi counter, you will get a unique experience known as “kappou.” Chef Miyazaki will entertain these fortunate five while giving a bird’s eye view of his deft touch as he prepares your meal.
Fret not if you miss this experience; Japanese restaurants are very rarely an open-plan design, instead, there are individual spaces to enjoy your meal, each with its own aura, ambience, and soul. Ichigo Ichie is no exception. The Sekitei (Stone Garden) Room facilitates an intimate dining experience alien to most, while Nagomi (harmony dining) allows guests to absorb the mesmeric décor. A meal at Ichigo Ichie is akin to meditation – a spiritual journey.
Ichigo Ichie closed in March due to COVID restrictions before reopening in the summer. Now, however, as Ireland descends into Level 5 lockdown, Chef Miyazaki has created a Michelin Star take-away; an innovation he calls “Nabeya;” a hotpot of meat, fish and vegetables, cooked in soup and finished with rice, with three flavours to choose from.
Lockdown cannot last forever. When the restrictions are lifted, get yourself to Galway or Cork and discover the joy of an authentic Japanese culinary experience. Until then, if you live in either city, pick up the best take-away in the country.