Shimabara, Nagasaki Pref. – Perched on the waterfront of the Shimabara Peninsula, looking out across the placid waters of the Ariake Sea to the mountains of the Kyushu mainland in the distance, Pesceco occupies a location that is little short of idyllic. It is this setting that inspires and manifests in the creative, seafood-based cuisine of chef Takahiro Inoue.
With no visible street sign, the restaurant looks anonymous, inscrutable. But you’ll know you’ve arrived once you see the compact, low-slung, freestanding building, its impeccable blue-gray facade bisected by a single horizontal window.
Even in Tokyo, this is architecture that would catch the eye. Here in this far-flung corner of Nagasaki Prefecture, it is a powerful statement of intent, especially in a low-key regional city with such an ingrained sense of history as Shimabara.
Before moving into this custom-built restaurant three years ago, Inoue had been operating out of far more modest premises in the middle of town. For him, the transition was not just a new address: It represented an opportunity to take a step forward with his cooking and explore his full potential as a chef. In doing so, he has helped put his hometown firmly on Japan’s gastronomic map.
These days — or at least until the pandemic — Inoue’s customers come from far and wide to sit at the intimate six-seat marble counter that runs the length of his spotless open kitchen. They watch as he prepares elaborate multicourse omakase (chef’s choice) meals, and then relax afterward in the adjoining room, gazing out at the ever-moving seascape that unfolds outside that wide picture window.
To find cooking of this sophistication so far from a major metropolitan area is unusual enough. But the backstory — how Inoue reached this point — is every bit as remarkable.
Born and raised in Shimabara, he has lived there his entire life, save for the few years he spent in Osaka at culinary school and a very brief spell afterward as a fledgeling sushi chef. But at age 23, he decided the bright lights and fast pace of the big city were not for him.
So he returned home. And who could blame him? This peaceful, once-proud castle town — the present-day landmark is a mid-20th century ferroconcrete reconstruction of the original feudal keep — boasts an unhurried lifestyle, an enviable microclimate and a setting that is second to none.
Crystal clear spring water wells up under the city, filling pools populated with colorful koi and running down shallow waterways adjoining the streets. Up in the hills, onsen hot-spring resorts welcome guests with billowing clouds of sulfur-tinged steam. Rising behind the city, as a constant and occasionally destructive backdrop, the craggy volcanic peak of Mount Unzen; stretching out in front, the sea with its bounty: This is the terroir that has fueled Inoue’s evolution.
The other key factor was the gravitational pull from his family. His father ran a business selling fresh seafood, and as a child Inoue would watch him in action. Ever since he was young, he knew he wanted to prepare the splendid fish that he saw in the store each day. That path opened up as soon as he returned from Osaka, working in his father’s new venture, a simple izakaya.
After five intense years learning on his feet and paying his dues, he was ready to forge his own way, independent of his father. Together with his wife, Keiko, Inoue took over a small downtown restaurant, named it Pesceco — pronounced “peshiko,” it’s a mashup of the Italian pesce (fish) and the last syllable of her name — and set to work.
Inoue created his Italian-based dishes around the seasonal produce he sourced from his growing network of local farmers and fishermen. For him, this was the time he honed his chops as a chef.
“I’m basically self-taught,” Inoue says. “I never trained under another chef. I just built up my skills by cooking the dishes I liked.”
It was a strategy that clearly worked. By 2018, he had moved to his current location, once again raising the bar for himself and his cuisine. Besides leaving behind the original Pesceco’s laid-back informality and a la carte menu, he also made a critical adjustment in his focus.
Up to that point, Inoue wanted to create a “big city” style of dining rarely found in small, regional locations. In contrast, he explains, his aim now is to present the kind of dishes that can only be found in the countryside, close to the source of his ingredients and imbued with the flavors and stories of his immediate environment.
Two things have not changed, though. Inoue’s wife remains by his side, providing essential assistance and critiques. And Inoue still cooks entirely solo, preparing everything from scratch.
He starts his day by driving deep into the lush forests on the lower slopes of the volcano. The destination is a noted spring, where he loads up with enough pristine mountain water for his cooking needs.
To underline the importance of its role in his kitchen, this water comprises the very first serving of your meal, brewed with hakucha (white tea) leaves grown by an organic farmer in Higashisonogi, a noted tea area in the north of the prefecture. Simultaneously soothing and elevating, this pale golden liquor primes your palate for the food that is to follow.
A typical meal might open with a tiny tartlet of butter seasoned with etari no shiokara, the fermented innards of the local anchovy; a generous scoop of murasaki uni sea urchin on a small pastry base; and a cut of aji (horse mackerel) sashimi wrapped in a sliver of red daikon with a dab of his grandmother’s homemade yuzu koshō (citrus-chili) relish.
If you are lucky, more sea urchin may follow, paired with the flesh and liver of okoze, the ugly, deadly (but delicious) stonefish. Inoue likes to add extra umami by covering it with foam prepared from konbu kelp harvested directly offshore.
Many of his specialties are regional dishes, adapted and reworked. He sears ganba, the local name for fugu blowfish, over flames of rice straw, to serve with garlic greens and flowering wild sanshō pepper. He dunks delicate tenobe sōmen wheat noodles into a dark, savory sauce of crab innards, twists them tight like capellini pasta, then loads them up with crab meat seasoned with rich tomalley.
The Italian influences come to the fore again as Inoue pulls out bruschetta and piles it up with more citrus-drizzled crab meat. Then he breads and deep-fries fillets of tachi-uo (cutlass fish), over which he heaps a veil of prosciutto slivers straight from his handsome tabletop Berkel slicer.
One of the meal’s showstoppers is likely to be kue (grouper), a Kyushu specialty, which Inoue simply steams lightly to loosen the collagen that covers the soft, white meat. Nor should you be surprised when he proffers a whole abalone that he’s cooked low and slow in mountain water since early morning. Deep-fried in butter, then sliced and served with ebony-black sauce made from its liver, this would form the crescendo of any meal.
To close, there will be rice cooked in a ceramic hotpot, plus a light dessert. As you sit back, replete, it is worth casting an eye over the menu once again. Inoue likes to call his cuisine “satohama gastronomy,” using a portmanteau of the Japanese words for “village” and “shoreline” to express his sense of connection with and appreciation for both soil and sea.
He also lists his main suppliers, in gratitude for their work. Seafood from his father’s store, naturally, but also from a specialist fish merchant in nearby Amakusa, Kumamoto Prefecture; rice, fresh produce, fruit and flowers from trusted organic growers in the fertile foothills of Mount Unzen; continuing with salt, tea, butter and dairy; and, under the heading of “nature,” his source for that vital water.
It is Inoue’s reminder and acknowledgement that it is not so much his skills or ingredients, but the land itself and the surrounding ocean that underpin Pesceco.
The Japan Times Cube’s annual “Destination Restaurants” selection showcases the abundant food culture on offer outside of Japan’s major cities.
Shinbabamachi 223-1, Shimabara, Nagasaki 855-0033; 0957-73-9014; pesceco.com; open daily, lunch from 12 p.m., dinner from 7 p.m.; reservations required; set menu from ¥17,600, wine pairing from ¥7,700; takeout not available; nearest station Shimabara; nonsmoking; major cards accepted; Japanese menu; little English spoken
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