Sanjo, Niigata Pref. – When chef Kazuhiro Inoue and his wife, Mariko, decided they’d had enough of running their busy neighborhood restaurant in the bustle of metropolitan Tokyo, they looked around for somewhere a bit quieter and closer to nature. They finally found the ideal location, though it meant moving 300 kilometers away to rural Niigata Prefecture.
The pair did more than just swap the concrete jungle for rice paddies and glimpses of snow-capped peaks: Starting afresh on the premises of the Japanese restaurant formerly run by his wife’s parents, Inoue overhauled his menu and rethought his cuisine.
For a chef relatively unknown outside of Tokyo, it was a bold decision to relaunch his restaurant in a regional city, Sanjo, that is much better known for its artisan metalworking than for refined cooking. But the move has paid off more than they might ever have expected. Over the past seven years, Uozen has won accolades, including two Michelin stars, and developed a reputation that extends far beyond its immediate vicinity.
Inoue’s ambition from the start was to use entirely local ingredients. In Niigata he found access to superb seafood from the waters of the Sea of Japan; the central plain, known best for its rice, sake and miso, provides a bountiful selection of fresh produce and fruit, even wine, cheese and spices.
Meanwhile, the steeply forested mountains that rise farther inland provide seasonal harvests of wild plants, mushrooms and berries. More importantly, those uplands are also the source of the game meats — deer, bear and wild boar, as well as wild fowl such as duck or woodcock — that play a central role in Inoue’s multicourse menus of inventive modern cuisine.
He says gibier (the generic French word used in Japan to mean game) was something he never served while in Tokyo. That changed as soon as he arrived in Niigata. Keen to gain his hunting license, he achieved it in record time, less than a year. Now, from mid-November through mid-March, he brings in enough meat from the mountains to last him the whole year.
Uozen is unmistakably the restaurant of a chef who loves to source his own food from the wild. Even before you reach the spacious, light-filled dining room, you will spy trophies from Inoue’s hunting and fishing trips adorning the entrance hallway. But his cooking is far from rustic — it is inventive, sophisticated and prepared with great finesse.
One of his signature appetizers is made from rillettes of shredded boar meat rolled inside small, one-bite wraps of buckwheat flour. To underline their provenance, they are served on the well-cleaned skull of a wild boar caught by Inoue himself.
Another signature finger food is his adaptation of corn dogs (popularly known in Japan as “American dogs”). He makes these from wild duck meat, in place of the standard hot dog sausage, skewering them with twigs.
A standout among Inoue’s spring repertoire takes fine slices of tsukinowaguma (Asian black bear) meat that is quickly cooked shabu-shabu style, then served with grated jinenjo (a type of wild yam) and garnished with popped grains of rice and wild seri greens. Bathed in a hot bouillon of boar and bear meat, it’s a superb dish that owes just as much to Japanese tradition as to Inoue’s training in French cuisine.
Seafood also plays a significant role in any meal at Uozen. Once the hunting season is over and there are no more spring sansai (wild plants) to be foraged, Inoue has time to go out fishing again.
From Sado, the former exile island off the coast of northern Niigata, he serves iwagaki (rock oysters) on the halfshell with a generous scoop of unsweetened ice cream. Or large botan-ebi shrimp, which he encases in a coat of umami-rich bouillabaisse gelee. Carefully garnished with delicate daubings of saffron-garlic rouille sauce, this has justifiably become one of his signature starters.
But when it comes to the business end of the meal, Inoue prefers to showcase whatever wild game is in season. It might be a small patty of minced inoshishi (boar), perhaps paired with creamed celeriac and complemented perfectly with a dark red wine reduction with wild mushrooms.
Or it could be magamo (mallard), which fly to Niigata to winter in the empty rice fields, plumping up on the leftover grain they glean. Inoue glazes the lean breast meat and serves it with a sauce of black garlic, red wine and rice miso, from the renowned Kojiya Danshiro company in the city of Niigata. On the side, he might arrange a single leaf of kale that he has simply seared over a wood fire to imbue it with smoke, finishing with a dusting of homemade tekka, a traditional condiment made by slowly cooking down root vegetables in miso until it forms a crumbly, savory powder.
“Chasse (hunting) in the mountains; peche (fishing) at sea; and nature (the great outdoors).” Inoue’s credo is to work wherever possible with ingredients that have barely been touched by human hand until they arrive in his kitchen. Prepared with skill and plated with precision, this is cooking that calls out for equally good wine.
The impressive glass-fronted cellar that fills one wall of the dining room is Madame Inoue’s domain. As a trained sommeliere with experience working in Paris as well as Tokyo, she has amassed over 2,000 bottles, most from Europe but also from Japanese wineries. Do not be surprised if she recommends a pinot noir from Niigata rather than Bourgogne as a complement to her husband’s impressive cuisine.
The Japan Times Cube’s annual Destination Restaurants selection showcases the abundant food culture on offer outside of Japan’s major cities.
Higashiosaki 1-10-69-8, Sanjo, Niigata, 955-0032; 0256-38-4179; uozen.jp; lunch 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. (L.O. 12 p.m.), dinner 6-10 p.m. (L.O. 7 p.m.); closed Mon. & Tue.; reservations required; set menus at ¥7,000 and ¥13,000 for lunch and dinner; takeout not available (seasonal set meals available by mail order); nearest station Higashi-Sanjo; nonsmoking; major cards accepted; English spoken
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