Shalom Japan, in the long-trendy neighborhood of Williamsburg, Brooklyn may be the only restaurant of its kind in the world: fusion Jewish-Japanese food. Opened in 2013 by two married chefs, Aaron Israel and Sawako Okochi, they themselves say the “restaurant reflects what happens when two people, from two completely different backgrounds, find each other and build a life together centered around the table.”
When they’re feeling a little more tongue-in-cheek, they refer to the Shalom Japan menu as “authentically inauthentic.” After my first visit — and eating about half the menu, I’d wholeheartedly concur.
Shalom Japan’s Famous Sake Kasu Challah
Keep in mind that the Shalom Japan menu changes somewhat frequently — that said, it’s always a delight to read. Highlights from each culture make their way together into nearly every dish, and that’s probably where the novelty of the concept has its biggest effect. Matzoh ball ramen, wagyu pastrami, heritage pork chop tonkotsu, sake kasu challah… the list goes on, but not nearly forever. It’s a short menu — about a dozen items — and if you have even three people it’s not overly ambitious to try a little of everything. When I visited Shalom Japan, a tasting menu wasn’t on the menu. If it’s back when you visit — that’s the move.
The gimmick is what brings you (and the dozens of couples on date night packing the small, indoor-outdoor space) to Shalom Japan, but these are serious chefs with serious food Our meal started with the appearance of a tiny, sesame-seed bun that turned out to be the sake kasu challah. And it’s unlike any challah you’ll ever have. Sake kasu is a byproduct of the sake making process sometimes used to make bread, cakes, and ice cream, so here it gives this wonderfully hot, fresh challah a rich flavor that could certainly serve as dessert, especially with the addition of the creamy golden raisin butter.
My two favorite dishes
The decadence of Shalom Japan had only begun. Next came the lion’s mane karage, or Japanese fried mushrooms with pickled chiles. A twist on traditional Japanese fried chicken, I can’t say if this played into Jewish cooking at all — but I’ll never turn down the chance to throw down something deep fried. It had the feel of fried chicken, but the flavor of mushroom, a testament to Shalom Japan’s defining creativity, with or without the fusion.
Next came the Shalom Japan coup de grace — the matzoh ball ramen, Shalom Japan’s perfect proof of concept. The dish hit me, more or less, like any great matzoh ball soup. The Japanese influence came more through accouterments, like the scallion and nori, and of course the added soy marinated egg, than in a specific fusion of flavors. Made with chicken broth, to me it tasted like a fancy version of my own mother’s matzoh ball soup. The ramen was merely a seamless addition, one I noticed most at the end of the dish, when I found myself slurping the final, stubborn noodles with the bowl raised to my mouth. A move guaranteed to get you banned at Seder, but hardly a glance askew at Shalom Japan.
The Food Truly Speaks For Itself
Finally came Shalom Japan’s one sandwich on the night’s menu, in which chefs Israel and Okochi found another perfect overlap in Jewish/Japanese food: the unmatched wagyu pastrami, set on Japanese milk bread (shokupan) with gulden’s mustard. I will say this and I know it’s controversial, but Shalom Japan has NYC’s best pastrami.
If I didn’t know where I was, I wouldn’t have thought twice about the cultural history behind each perfect bite of pastrami. How the meat came from the famous Japanese cattle, or how the bread had a Japanese origin. I would have simply thought: this is a damn good pastrami sandwich.
Whether that’s a testament to the seamlessness of these two traditions, I’ll leave to you. In the end, Shalom Japan is simply a very good restaurant, where the gimmick almost fades away after you order. What you’re left with? A creative menu and some really excellent bites at a trendy mainstay in Williamsburg.