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Il Rifugio Hayama: coastal cucina with flair and local flavor

by Robbie Swinnerton

The summer beach season may be over, but we are already planning our return to the Shonan coast. Not for the sand and sea, though, but the promise of a meal at Il Rifugio Hayama, currently our favorite Italian restaurant in all of Kanagawa Prefecture.

The setting is fabulous: A traditional wooden house built over 70 years ago as a summer “cottage” for a member of the imperial retinue — the Emperor’s villa stands close by, overlooking Isshiki Beach — it has been beautifully converted to accommodate tables and chairs.

But it’s the food that makes the journey so worthwhile. Il Rifugio’s young owner-chef, Akira Watanabe, has traveled the length of Italy, but the region closest to his heart and reflected most strongly on his menu is Sardinia. He worked for over a year at a small restaurant there and adopted its name in homage when he opened here last year.

It is indeed the perfect refuge from the city. And we’re not the only ones who think so: Il Rifugio’s three small dining rooms have been booked solid for dinner throughout the summer, and are filled as soon as reservations open (one month ahead).

At midday, though, it is easier to secure one of the two tables on the veranda. There are three lunch menus (¥1,500, ¥2,100 and ¥2,700); all start with a platter of beautifully arranged antipasti, such as nama-shirasu (fresh baby whitebait) drenched in garlic-rich olive oil and accompanied by pane carasau, the wafer-light Sardinian crisp-bread.

Watanabe’s pasta is remarkable not just for the quality of ingredients but the volume. He offers serious serving sizes, so different from the anemic little mounds of pasta we get too often at ristoranti in Tokyo. His main courses, a choice of fish or meat, are equally satisfying.

At dinner, Watanabe offers a considerable a la carte menu that focuses strongly on fresh local seafood, sourced directly from the fishing port of Sajima just down the coast, as well as Hayama-gyu, a signature breed of beef reared in the nearby hills. He prepares it all with skill and flair, and a complexity to match most restaurants in the city. We are mightily impressed.

Il Rifugio Hayama, 2179 Isshiki, Hayama-machi, Miura-gun, Kanagawa-ken; (046) 875-1515; www.ilrifugio-hayama.com. Open 11:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m. and 6:30-9 p.m. (last order); closed Tue., also Mon. evening. Nearest bus stop: Isshiki Kaigan (bus 11 or 12 from Zushi or Shin-Zushi stations).