Long Island restaurants offering a true taste of Japan

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Rei Hirasawa started her meal with kinpira gobo, stir-fried slivered burdock root and carrots sprinkled with sesame seeds. Soon it was joined by ika sansai, a salad of marinated squid, the two square stoneware plates nestling side by side on the table at Takumi in Commack, and a nuanced meditation on the simple pleasures of earth and sea.

On this chilly day, Hirasawa had also hoped to find kamburi — what large amberjack are called when caught at their fattest and most succulent, in the winter. And sure enough, next up was a plate of kamburi sashimi. Takumi’s chef-owner, Yukio Okamura, had dabbed each glistening slice with a pinch of grated, pickled wasabi stem.

A showstopper followed: a whole aji (horse mackerel) presented in spectacular fashion. The head and tail were still intact, but the meat of the fish had been neatly filleted and sliced into sashimi that was showered with chopped scallions. The fish’s clean frame was skewered and arranged in a curl on the plate, its head and tail in the air.

After Hirasawa finished the sashimi, the frame was whisked into the kitchen and returned a few minutes later, minus head and tail and fried into a crisp, golden shard. “The bones are so soft, you can eat them,” she explained.

Aji at Takumi in Commack.

Aji at Takumi in Commack. Credit: Yvonne Albinowski

Such classic Japanese dishes are uncommon on Long Island. We may be drowning in a sea of ramen and sushi, but there are actually fewer than a dozen Japanese-owned restaurants on Long Island, and their numbers are dwindling. KuraBarn in Huntington shuttered last October, and Nagashima in Jericho and Taiko in Rockville Centre closed, respectively, in 2019 and 2018.

Hirasawa was born in Japan but grew up in Queens and Nassau County. Her father worked for a Japanese multinational corporation in the United States for 20 years before returning to Japan, and, as the daughter of expats, her childhood included Japanese lessons, Japanese groceries and Japanese restaurant meals at the late, lamented Nagashima as well as Shiro of Japan in Carle Place, Daruma in Great Neck and Yamaguchi in Port Washington. Now living in Suffolk County, she’s had to cross KuraBarn off her list, but is grateful for Takumi.

“It’s so important to me to have a restaurant that does things the right way,” she said. Takumi’s menu is full of little-seen Japanese dishes such as unagi kogushi yaki (skewered barbecued eel), kabocha squash, satsumaimo (Japanese sweet potato), hamachi kama (grilled yellowtail collar), oyako donburi (“mother and child” rice bowl topped with dark-meat chicken and scrambled egg). When seasonal fish such as kamburi and aji show up, Kiyomi Okamura, Yukio’s wife and partner, calls regular customers to spread the word.

Chef Yukio Okamura and owner Kiyomi Okamura at Takumi in...

Chef Yukio Okamura and owner Kiyomi Okamura at Takumi in Commack. Credit: Yvonne Albinowski

“My husband was trained in Japan starting when he was 15,” Kiyomi said proudly. “When you become a chef in America, there are things you don’t learn.” She described the laborious process of correctly draining blood from a bonito fish, trimming monkfish liver for pâté. She explained the Japanese concept of shita goshirae, which translates to “preliminary work,” but encompasses all the things a chef does to ensure the end product is as good as possible. “It is time-consuming, but it must be done,” she added. “That is why we named the restaurant ‘Takumi,’ which means ‘artisan’ or ‘craftsman.’ “

Yukio was already an accomplished chef in Japan when he was recruited by KuraBarn to come to Long Island. After the original owner retired, he worked at Kurofune in Commack before striking out on his own in 2008. He and his wife are well aware of Takumi’s status as a Japanese standard-bearer. A notice on the restaurant’s website explains “Why Takumi Doesn’t Serve Fried Rice. The reason … is simple: it’s not a Japanese dish.” The coup de grâce: “We’re letting you in on the secret — shh! — crunchy spicy tuna is nonexistent in Japan.”

The Okamuras learned early on that the Japanese and American conceptions of sushi are wildly divergent. In Japan, it is served at dedicated sushi bars, not at all restaurants. And it is an altogether more restrained affair. “When I first came to the U.S.,” Kiyomi said, “I saw those crazy rolls with mango and mayonnaise and panko and I wondered, ‘What is that?’ Our sushi rolls are about freshness of fish and balance of fish and rice.”

It’s hard to remember a time when sushi wasn’t available at supermarkets and steakhouses and most Chinese restaurants. But back in the last quarter of the 20th century, it was a rarity on Long Island. And before most Long Islanders developed a taste for sushi, our oldest Japanese restaurants — Shiro of Japan in Carle Place (est. 1972), Inatome in Valley Stream (1975) and Taiko in Rockville Centre (1979) — had a built-in audience among the Japanese expats who worked at Japanese companies (such as TDK, Canon, Olympus and Nikon) in western Nassau.

“Working in New York was an elite position for Japanese businessmen,” said Ron Zilkha, a semiretired travel agent who moved from Japan to Long Island in the 1980s. “And Port Washington became a hub — there was a network of realtors who specialized in renting homes to Japanese families who were here for a few years.”

It was that expat community that led Akira Yamaguchi and his wife, Yasuko, to open their eponymous restaurant (formerly Ichiban) in Port Washington in 1988. “It was a good location,” Yasuko recalled. “Right across the street from the train station and with plenty of parking in back. So we took it.”

Akira and Yasuko Yamaguchi.

Akira and Yasuko Yamaguchi. Credit: Yvonne Albinowski

Akiko Blanchard was an early customer. Born in Japan, she had married an American and moved to Port Washington in 1977. “Ichiban had a chef from the Philippines,” she said. “The food just didn’t have the right flavor. When Yamaguchi opened, the food had the tastes I grew up with.”

Blanchard recalled seeing the Japanese businessmen crowded at the sushi counter ordering omakase (chef’s choice) while she, on a budget, stuck to homey classics like nabeyaki udon, fat wheat noodles in a clear broth loaded with chicken, vegetables, poached egg and fish cake.

While she cooked Japanese food at home for her family, Yamaguchi’s presence nearby meant that she no longer had to go to the trouble of deep-frying tempura. She was — and remains — particularly grateful for the restaurant’s chawanmushi, a delicate savory custard steamed in a special porcelain cup. “Mine always has a surface that looks like a moon crater,” she said. “At Yamaguchi it is always perfect.”

Chawanmushi at Yamaguchi in Port Washington.

Chawanmushi at Yamaguchi in Port Washington. Credit: Yvonne Albinowski

Yasuko said that over the 34 years she and her husband have been in business, the number of Japanese-born customers has steeply declined. “In the old days, the men came every day for lunch and then, on weekends, for dinner with their families.” (Zilkha noted that TDK has moved to Uniondale, Canon and Nikon to Melville, Olympus to Pennsylvania.)

In 2013, the original Yamaguchi on Main Street was destroyed in a fire, reopening two and a half years later a few doors east. But, aside from the address, Yasuko said, Yamaguchi has not changed. “Our menu is like it has always been,” Yasuko said. And it’s complicated. The four-page laminated light-blue menu lists the usual suspects — miso soup, salad with ginger dressing, sushi and sashimi platters, beef and chicken teriyaki, negima yaki (beef rolled around scallions) — but there are fascinating outliers such as tako su, sliced snow-white octopus served in a chilled, vinegared broth.

Tako su at Yamaguchi in Port Washington.

Tako su at Yamaguchi in Port Washington. Credit: Yvonne Albinowski

Then there are the white menu inserts. The sushi list comprises more than 20 types of fish, not including daily specials. Maki (rolls) are notably restrained (a dragon roll with eel, avocado and cucumber is about as crazy as they get), but what you won’t see at many other places are maki filled with kampyo (calabash), or plum and shiso leaves, or natto, the slimy, wildly funky fermented soybeans often eaten over rice.

On another insert you’ll find appetizers, many of them drawn from the izakaya (bar snack) tradition and including kamo namban soba, or soba noodles with sliced roast duck breast, ebi shinjo (fried shrimp patties) and nasu hasami age (fried eggplant stuffed here with crabmeat).

Traditional Japanese restaurants serve tsukemono, pickled vegetables, which are nibbled throughout the meal as palate cleansers. “We call them hashi yasume — ‘rest your chopsticks,’ ” Yasuko explained. Certainly, the word “pickles” hardly does justice to their jewel-toned splendor. Takuan, the color of the setting sun, are coins of sweet- tart daikon; shocking magenta shibazuke are made from Japanese eggplants; cucumbers are transformed into emerald-green kyurizuke, nondescript tan burdock root turns a vivid pumpkin in yamagobo.

The Yamaguchis couldn’t continue to serve these specialties if they hadn’t cultivated a wide audience for them. The couple moved to Port Washington shortly after opening the restaurant, drawn not only by the short commute but by the beauty of its shoreline and the strength of its civic organizations. In this tightly knit town, Yasuko is a local hero, supporting the public library and catering its ESOL (English as a Second Language) “graduation” celebration; helping to feed families in need through the Port Washington Community Chest. She’s an avid cat rescuer and has served on the board of the North Shore Animal League since 2011.

Jane Mason, a longtime customer who has become a close friend, has developed a passion for Japanese cuisine and culture under Yasuko’s tutelage. After more than 30 years, she rarely orders from the menu — Yasuko just brings her food — and her favorites include sunomono (brined, pressed cucumbers) with lightly vinegared sashimi and hamachi kama.

Jamie and Yoom Kim of Roslyn and Beck and Sue...

Jamie and Yoom Kim of Roslyn and Beck and Sue Choy of Syosset at Yamaguchi in Port Washington. Credit: Yvonne Albinowski

Yasuko has plenty of customers who hold the line at California rolls and chicken teriyaki, and she is no less gracious to them than those who venture into natto territory. Japanese-owned restaurants share a devotion to the concept of omotenashi, another tough-to-translate concept that always puts the guest’s happiness first. Fumble your chopsticks, douse your sushi in soy sauce, drink your sake on the rocks — there’s nothing a diner can do to that will diminish Japanese hospitality because the guest’s comfort is paramount.

But, before you order that umpteenth spicy tuna roll, poke around the menu a bit for something less familiar. You’ll find that the rewards for exploring traditional Japanese dishes are numerous and delicious, gratifying both diner and host.

Restaurant information

TAKUMI: 149 Veterans Memorial Hwy., Commack; 631-543-0101, takuminy.com

YAMAGUCHI: 49 Main St., Port Washington; 516-883-3500, restaurantyamaguchi.com

Great traditional Japanese food on Long Island

In addition to Takumi and Yamaguchi, there are a number of other old-school Japanese restaurants that feature traditional dishes, prepared with care and served with pride.

DARUMA OF TOKYO: 95 Middle Neck Rd., Great Neck; 516-466-4180

INATOME: 6 5th St., Valley Stream; 516-872-0419, inatomerestaurant.org

KOHAKU: 2089 New York Ave., Huntington Station; 631-423-9888, kohakujapanese.com

KOISO: 540 Westbury Ave., Carle Place; 516-333-3434

NAGAHAMA: 169 E. Park Ave., Long Beach; 516-432-6446, nagahamasushi.com

SHIRO OF JAPAN: 401 Old Country Rd., Carle Place; 516-997-4770, shiroofapan.com

SHOGI: 584 Old Country Rd., Westbury; 516-338-8768

STIRLING SAKE: 477 Main St., Greenport; 631-477-6782, stirlingsake.com

SUSHI 1: 210 Mill Rd., Westhampton Beach; 631-288-5096, sushi1.com

TAKA SUSHI: 821 Carman Ave., Westbury; 516-876-0033

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