3.5.15 | Issue #12
Triple IPAs. MSG. Bacon-wrapped stuff. The runaway train that is Sriracha.
As a culture, we worship at the altar of the Flavor Bomb, and it’s easy to see why: all of those things are crazy fucking delicious.
Subtlety is something we have less of a hold on. Maybe it’s because the line between subtle and dull is thisthin and we ain’t got time for that, not when there’s a more immediate mouth explosion in range. Or maybe it’s that even though “subtle cuisine” evokes learned restraint and refinement, it also gives off a petite whiff of pretension and we get shifty. Since the technical definition fails us (“so delicate or precise as to be difficult to analyze or describe”—THANKS WEBSTER) and most of our attempts at expressing ourselves over a plate of food ends with a goofy thumbs up, it’s a daunting task. Is subtlety something that can even be teased out in a field defined by subjectivity?
“Subtle would be the last word you’d use to describe American anything. We like it big, we like it fast.” Tim Archuleta, chef and co-owner of Ichi Sushi + NI Bar in San Francisco, is part of a resurgent group—let’s call them punk-rock food classicists—bringing nuanced cooking to the masses. “It has taken over how I look at food, and how I judge food, to be honest. If something’s too complicated, I tend to stay away from it,” he says. “I want to be able to taste what I’m eating.” For this half Mexican-half Basque guy from Sacramento, California, that means emulating the kings of subtlety to the West: Japan.
There’s a long and storied history of mega-chefs dipping their toe into the vast culinary pool that is Tokyo, the most passionately food-centric Michelin-starred city on the planet. That includes René Redzepi, who recently hosted a month-long Noma residency at Tokyo’s Mandarin Oriental to a customary frenzy of demand. “It's wonderful being in a place where they cherish the sublime. They want to do everything in the best possible way, with the best possible tools, looking the best they can,” Redzepi told UK publication The Independent, after the run had concluded. “The Japanese have some of the most sophisticated palates that you can come across and they're such kind people to cook for because they're so appreciative of hard work.” Whether we just like cooking for people whose love of food makes even the most enthusiastic of us look passive, or we’re trying to physically absorb every ounce of culinary wisdom, tracking down institutional subtlety in American cuisine leads back, again and again, to Japanese origins. Sake and shōchū, too, now hold their own alongside craft beer. They get it, on a level so intuitive it becomes like a knee-jerk association, something that anyone who’s even remotely familiar with the Japanese canon will agree to.
Classic Japanese food, as Archuleta’s second-in-command Erik Aplin points out, is really just ratios of a few ingredients. Shoyu, sugar, sake, miso. “I can appreciate that, but sometimes I look for a little bit more. I’m American, it’s something I can’t explain,” he admits. He’s more reserved than his boss, something the two of them joke openly about, but he gives off the same intensely focused current. “For our restaurant and for our clientele, there’s a balance between staying subtle with flavors and respecting the ingredients, but also providing a little more entertainment for your mouth. I think you can have that and still maintain the subtleness of the fish.”
The trouble with defining how all this manifests on an American stage shakes out into two camps: flavor (walking the line between depth of flavor and dreaded dullness), and technique (small, calculated tweaks that enhance the true nature of what you’re eating). So, where Japanese subtlety might simply mean tapping into a distilled cultural identity, American subtlety involves staying true to everything we consider good food, from every culture, and being inventive at the same time. Don’t overdo it, but don’t underdo it, either.
Easier said than done. Simple doesn’t always mean subtle (codsperm anyone? “I love it, but it’s strong,” Archuleta says. “There’s no subtlety there. That’s a punch in the face”), and the same is true for the reverse. There's no real guideline, other than gut feeling. Leaving it up to a know-it-when-you-see-it mentality gets a little screwy, at least for American audiences. “Now, we have French flavors and techniques mixed up with Japanese flavors and techniques, and maybe you’re throwing in Chinese ingredients in there too. There’s no more delineation of what style of food you are,” he says. “Everything is so accessible, and chefs have worked in so many different kinds of restaurants, that everyone is combining flavors and techniques.”
Aplin—though he doesn’t count things like molecular gastronomy as subtle, since the goal there is to blow preconceptions out of the water—doesn’t necessarily see the proverbial melting pot as a deterrent. “I think you could take something and add 30 ingredients and methods and still end up with something subtle. I don’t have a good example, but it could happen,” he says. “I find myself trying to hold back though. It’s easy to want to throw everything in there."
“I’m not saying we’re totally traditional here,” Archuleta adds. “We do try for a balance of flavors where the fish is the main ingredient, and everything else is raising it up. Before, we had to trick people into eating raw fish. Now we’re very comfortable with that idea, and there’s a market for serving that traditional product, so we do try to push the envelope.”
At Ichi, where the sushi chefs have cranked out an estimated 176,000 pieces of nigiri while Michael Jackson and hip-hop flow from the speakers, balance prevails. The preparation and presentation of the dishes is arguably subtle, but the atmosphere, the clientele, and the waitstaff are decidedly not. “People want that wow, whichever aspect of the experience that may be. Food, service, music. At some point, I think you have to have something to set you apart. You can’t just make really simple food in a simple environment,” Aplin says.
Or can you? A few blocks away at Sylvan Mishima Brackett’s Izakaya Rintaro, the decor—and much of the food—is handsome and uncomplicated. Lofty blackened crossbeams crown the dining space; smooth, blond wood booths are punctuated by nothing but clusters of electric yellow sorrel blossoms. Where Ichi is cheeky and brazen, Rintaro has a rock garden out front, but the two locations manage to epitomize the height of both pedestrian and sophisticated Japanese cuisine in a Californian setting. Brackett was born in Kyoto and raised in the Sierra Nevadas.
“I don’t want to try and pretend like we’re in Japan, because we’re not,” he says, the clanging and muffled chatter of prep filling the airy space. “In Japan, everybody, to one degree or another, is really into food. There are characters in kids cartoons who are like, charcoal from a yakitori place. Or cartoon characters have their favorite dishes. It’s extraordinary. So the sophistication of the average Japanese diner is pretty high. People really have a sense of the subtle differences between relatively simple foods done carefully.
“But Japan has been Japan forever, and it’s really small, and compact. If you imagine California had half the population of the US and it had been around for a few thousand years, what would happen?” he adds. “The depth of Californian cuisine would be incredible.”
Brackett spent six years as assistant to the Bay Area’s grand dame Alice Waters, eventually serving as the creative director of Chez Panisse before leaving for Japan to immerse himself in the food of his childhood. Izakaya Rintaro is the culmination of the parallel sensibilities he’s witnessed. “The flavor and range that you find in the natural world, you can’t make. You can’t make a really great carrot, no matter how great a chef you are. It has to come to you,” he says. “The first part of subtlety is letting the ingredients speak for themselves. Everything should taste like what it is.”
“I THINK SUBTLETY IS ALSO ABOUT KNOWING HOW YOUR FOOD GOES FROM POINT A TO POINT B,” APLIN SAYS. “THAT’S AN IMPORTANT PART OF JAPANESE CUISINE AND COOKING, THE SIMPLICITY OF TAKING IT FROM ONE STEP TO ANOTHER.”
Subtlety may be a term we usually reserve for the nebulous and intangible, but it also implies doing something in such an indirectly clever way that it escapes the notice of the untrained eye. It’s adept and skillful, and not easy. Archuleta and Aplin both openly admit to their struggle in mastering nigiri, something that appears as straight-forward as it gets.
“The part that’s hard for people, and I think this is true for anybody with a skilled trade, is that they don’t get to see the amount of work it takes to do one thing,” Archuleta says. “Even though nigiri is very simple, the amount of training it takes to be able to make a decent piece, and I’m not even saying perfect, cut correctly, the rice is formed correctly, it’s staying up when it sits in front of you, it’s seasoned correctly, that is years and years and years of apprenticeship and work just to make that happen.
“I don’t think people can appreciate that,” he muses. “Some people do, but a lot of people don’t.”
“Plus, it’s not part of our culture to master these kinds of things in that way,” Aplin points out. “I think part of what holds chefs back in Japan is the tradition and the discipline of mastering your craft. Here, there’s more room to improvise and learn in a way that works for you instead of how it’s always been done.”
While they banter about whether the now-infamous Sukiyabashi Jiro would ever make it in a setting like San Francisco, a plate, composed of dabs of their different house sauces and preserves, arrives at the table. There’s a ponzu sauce, kabosu juice, and tare. A tiny mound of green tea salt is alongside the kabosu, since they're often used together. Meyer lemon salt leads into a Meyer lemon preserve, which leads to a Meyer lemon kosho with fermented peppers. The last dab is a fermented red pepper preserve that they’re still workshopping; it delivers a muted heat with something reminiscent of tamarind. Every last one of them lights up every flavor receptor there is, zinging around like an old-school pinball machine. You taste everything, every jagged edge and soft crease of it, and then it’s gone. A piece of pristine fish will get just a single brush, a minute sprinkle, and that’s it. They’re both grinning shyly. These took work.
“We are always trying to educate people, and it can be very challenging,” Archuleta says. It’s painted straight onto the walls at Ichi: in a mural by Erik Marinovich, diners are playfully reminded to eat sushi in one bite, feel free to use their hands, hold the sushi rice-side up. There’s no need for soy sauce, but if you want it, pour for each other, that kind of thing. “We’ve lightened up a lot. I don’t make sushi as much as I used to, but I’ve been known to maybe...reprimand people for wanting wasabi or soy sauce.” His signature boisterous laugh bursts forth. “If someone’s insistent on that, we stop seasoning it for them. There’s no reason to do all these things if you’re going to mask it with a bunch of wasabi and soy sauce. If you do both, you don’t get either one of the experiences.”
Aplin, he says, is much more diplomatic. “He’s much more polite and uh, subtle about his way of educating people.” Aplin grins and shakes his head, embarrassed but flattered.
At Rintaro, Brackett shaves katsuobushi by hand, the delicate curls of smoked bonito destined for the equally delicate dashimaki tamago. “It adds a real depth, a rich wonderful taste,” he says. “But I’ll look at some of the Yelp reviews, and it’s like, ‘The tamago is fine, it’s kind of bland.’”
The house-made tofu, too—soft and unctuous, laced with the rich sweetness of good soy milk—is something he is equally proud and wary of when it comes to customer reactions. Some people get it, he says, and some people have no idea why they bothered. “I don’t think you can ask someone to appreciate subtlety. Either they are interested in it, or they’re not. It’s like telling someone to like jazz or classical music. You have to have experienced it to take pleasure in it,” he says, not ruffled by it. “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with big and bold, I just think it gets exhausting. When you’re eating something really heavily seasoned, you need a break. A rest.”
The menu here is designed to be ordered all at once, so that the bare tabletop is soon laden with small bites. Hopping back and forth between them leads to a more circular dining experience, one that evokes the more progressive dinners found in Japan—a few bites of nigiri here, yakitori there, a stroll to an izakaya, maybe ending with ramen. Eating becomes about more than just flavor.
“I like the physical feeling of the food going down my throat. It’s texture, and temperature, and cultural experience," he says. "Each dish is purposefully not complete. I wouldn’t sit down for a bowl of tofu and call it a day...it’s a different way of thinking about cooking, instead of coming up with a composed plate, which is supposed to be crunchy and salty and fatty and fresh all at the same time.”
Brackett is aware of Japanese food in this country having a reputation for being so refined it’s unapproachable. An izakaya is more tavern than restaurant, and that was an intentional choice. “I wanted food that would appeal easily to Americans. In some ways, it’s like Japanese kid’s food, and everyone loves it because it’s so easy to eat,” he says. “When we do have something like tofu on the menu, I don’t want to force people to eat it. If they want wings instead, that’s great too. It’s not fun to be told to enjoy something you don’t really get.”
The value of subtlety lies in what it isn’t. It is not obvious, nor does it reside near the surface. It forces us to place each bite in context, and in doing so, better understand the nature of our relationship—weird, kaleidoscopic, and patchy as it is—with food. And teach us to cool it with the wasabi.