On a cool afternoon in mid-April, Israeli chefs Yair Yosefi and Omer Ben-Gal, co-founders of Brut Wine Bar in Tel Aviv, examine a shipment of fresh silver-skinned sawara (Spanish mackerel) from Tottori Prefecture in a tiny kitchen on Cat Street — in the middle of Tokyo’s bustling Harajuku neighborhood.
Despite the unfamiliar surroundings, the two seem perfectly at home. Six months ago the site was a mere skeleton, but Yosefi and his team have transformed it into a charming and welcoming space to host Brut Wine Bar’s series of pop-up dinners and wine tastings from April 15 to 24.
He and Ben-Gal will use the mackerel to prepare their signature dish, fish b’Siniyah, a modern take on the Israeli tradition of cooking with sesame-based tahini sauce. For their Tokyo debut, the chefs had spent months experimenting with Japanese goma (sesame) paste to approximate the flavor and texture of tahini — trying, as Yosefi says, “to understand sesame culture in Japan” — to use local Japanese ingredients to “bring the language of our cuisine” and introduce Mediterranean flavors to Tokyo.
“Many of the seasonal fish and vegetables produced in Japan are also found in the Mediterranean,” he observes. “We can tell a different story with these ingredients at their peak.”
The Brut Wine Bar pop-up is the first in a program of events that will bring international chefs to Tokyo for short to mid-term residencies (ranging from one week to three months) in various spaces around the city.
The project is the brainchild of LIK Hospitality, launched by Israeli-born expats Ori Kushnir and Sivan Lahat. Kushnir, whose background is in mathematics, and Lahat, a computer scientist, run a startup that develops financial models and trading technologies for companies.
The two share a love of food that has taken them around the world to dine at top restaurants, while their work as investment advisers has given them insight into how the industry works. Inspired by the serial pop-up restaurant “The Table By” in Madrid, which featured a rotating line-up of Spanish chefs, Kushnir and Lahat teamed up with hospitality expert Aya Ikeda to create a similar project that would help connect chefs looking to open restaurants in Tokyo with potential investors.
Major problems for chefs from abroad, Kushnir says, include a lack of understanding of the local market, difficulties negotiating real estate contracts and finding the right team. LIK’s pop-ups give chefs the chance to “test their ideas” and learn “what will be accepted by Japanese consumers.”
Their main goal, however, is to spice up Tokyo’s food and drink scene with new ideas and experiences. The Brut events provided an excellent introduction to modern Israeli cuisine as well as the world of Israeli wine. The list featured a slew of bottles from Recanati Winery — including the Recanati Special Reserve 2014, a poised blend of Roussane and Marsanne that went well with a dish of lamb sweetbreads simmered with Japanese citrus and saffron from Oita Prefecture.
One surprising combination mixed stewed chickpeas, hotaru-ika (firefly squid), and croutons fried in lamb fat paired with a glass of Jemma, an intriguing orange wine named after Brut Wine Bar co-founder Jemma Naveh and available only at their restaurant. Guests also got the chance to taste wines from top producers such as Shvo and Plato, which are not yet for sale in Japan.
When asked if Brut Wine Bar plans to open in Tokyo, Yosefi says, “We’ll see.” The reply is equivocal, but there is a glint in his eye.