Food & Drink | KYOTO RESTAURANTS

Il Garage: Japanese ingredients get an Italian twist in Kyoto

by J.J. O'Donoghue

Contributing Writer

What’s in a name? Poetry, prose and place. And for Masato and Midori Shirakawa, the husband-and-wife team who opened the elegantly understated Il Garage just over a year ago in central Kyoto, it’s a bit of all three.

Midori, 41, a professionally trained pastry chef, grew up in the building that houses Il Garage. The second-floor restaurant was formerly a mahjong parlor. The ground floor was, and still is, a car garage. And the reason for the Italian name? Well, the couple spent five years living and working in Italy — and everything sounds better in Italian.

“At first we were trying to think of a fancy name (for the restaurant),” chef Masato, 42, says. “But then we thought perhaps simple is best. Also, I thought (the name) would (help) our customers to find the restaurant.”

The couple worked with local design firm Raku to transform the former mahjong parlor into a beautiful, minimalist space. The Hans Wegner chairs add Nordic flair; a postcard-size mixed-media piece made from stones that belonged to Midori’s grandfather adds a homey touch.

“(My grandfather) used to run a small restaurant and he loved to travel around Europe with my grandmother,” Midori says, addressing the family’s love of Italy. “They bought this art piece when they went to Italy together and hung it at their restaurant after they came back.”

Both Masato and Midori trained in Italy, moving there within a month of getting married. Initially the plan was to study and work in Veneto, northeast Italy, for a year before returning to Kyoto. But Masato had other ideas, and one year turned into five.

Although Masato already had plenty of experience as a chef, initially, finding work was daunting. After a few months of language school they took to knocking on doors to find employment.

“I called, emailed and visited about 100 restaurants in total,” Masato recalls. “Most of them just said ‘no’ straight up. They didn’t want a sushi chef.”

But after knocking on enough doors, eventually one opened. Locanda San Lorenzo, a Michelin-starred hotel and restaurant in the Venice countryside, had lost its Japanese chef and was looking for a replacement.

Although there were hurdles to overcome — such as the language barrier — Masato says he fell in love with Locanda’s cooking from the get-go.

“Everything there was very delicate and creative,” he says. “Of course, the base was traditional Italian food but the chefs used their techniques to give the dishes a vibrancy and delicateness.”

After honing his skills for two years, Masato then moved to Sorrento, near Naples, on the other side of the country.

“Locanda San Lorenzo was located in the woods and it mainly served meat dishes. I also wanted to learn how to cook fish,” Masato says, explaining the move south, where the couple stayed for another two years.

“What I learned in Italy was not just Italian cooking methods and recipes, but also about how to treat the ingredients,” Masato says, explaining the “Italian manifesto” that colors his approach to cooking. “Even if I have to use Japanese ingredients, I try to imagine how an Italian chef will treat (them).”

Given Masato’s culinary background, meat and fish dishes dominate Il Garage’s prix fixe menu. The wine list is also drawn exclusively from Italy.

“Right now, it’s gibier season so we have duck meat from Tohoku and deer meat from Tanba in Kyoto,” Masato says.

However, the pair admit the anxiety, stress and expectations that came with opening a new restaurant did take a toll.

Making a half-joking reference to Prime Minister Abe’s workplace initiatives, “next year it’s going to be about work-style reform,” Masato says.

Doyucho 147, Sakaimachi, Nakagyo-ku, Kyoto 604-8118; 075-285-0936; ilgaragekyoto.com; 12-1 p.m. (L.O.) and 6-8 p.m. (L.O.); closed Wed.; lunch ¥6,000, dinner ¥10,000; nearest station Karasuyama Oike; nonsmoking; major cards accepted; Japanese, Italian and some English spoken