Food is the best cure for homesickness. Whether the instinct is Pavlovian or Proustian, the simple smell of a childhood dish can transport you around the world. Japanese nationals in Charlottesville, 6,000 miles away from their island culture, can take a plane ride to New York City, where the East Village has turned into a Little Tokyo full of specialized shops selling ramen, yakitori, sushi—even okonomiyaki these days. Or they can come to the Downtown Mall, to Miyako, where Kyoto-trained chef Ted Nogami plies his trade from his discreet little corner of York Place.
Takuya Nakayama, a UVA research scientist, tried to explain Miyako’s draw in his own terms. “Nogami-san is kansai-jin, and the foods cooked by him should be like in the West,” he said, losing me immediately and highlighting the fact that our country’s understanding of Japanese cuisine is still pretty much frozen in time in the ’80s.
Nakayama is originally from Japan’s northern island, Hokkaido, but he spent time in Kyoto, where Nogami is from and where Japan’s western style of cooking originated. People from the western part of the island of Honshu, he explained, are called kansai-jin. It’s sort of like calling someone a Californian, except that Kyoto is the ancient imperial capital and center of shinto religion. There are culinary distinctions too, based on ingredients and style. In Tokyo, people prefer soba noodles, but in the West, they prefer udon. “Kyoto is mostly vegetables and fish. It’s very, very traditional. What we call kai sen, many small dishes,” Nogami said.
Nogami may be Japanese, but his story is quintessentially American. He was trained as a hotel chef in Kyoto before opportunity led him to New York City two decades ago. Nogami excels in yoshoku, a style of European-influenced Japanese cuisine that dates from the Meiji Restoration. He spent almost 10 years on the road setting up American-style Japanese restaurants for other people, putting in a few months to establish flavors and processes and then leaving for the next project. To date he is responsible for over 20 Japanese restaurants between Connecticut and Florida, even one in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Nogami admits that his experience has affected his approach and that he tries to find a balance between American tastes and Japanese tastes at his restaurant. But there are certain things he won’t compromise. I got hooked on his udon last fall, recognizing the broth as magic. “The most important thing in Japanese food is the soup stock. Just like you like the udon soup, the flavor and the smell. But other people in restaurants are usually using home dashi with MSG,” Nogami said. Nogami makes his soup stock in three gallon batches every three days, using the right balance of dashi, or dried bonito flakes, and kombu, dried seaweed.
Miyako (another name for the chef’s native Kyoto) has been in Charlottesville for 11 years, opening at a time when there was only Tokyo Rose and Sakura for competition, Iron Chef Masahiro Morimoto was blowing up on the TV, and the UVA Law and Business schools were loaded to the gills with Japanese students. These days the crowd has more choices and the Japanese economy has made for fewer student devotees. But a handful of Japanese families come over and over again for the tempura, the udon, the yakisoba, and the sushi.
Talon Vinci is an original convert. A waiter at Miyako, he found the place when he was finishing his architecture degree at UVA. Vinci grew up in Hawaii with a Japanese mother. “What originally brought me in here was that the sushi tastes like back home. I’m not sure how to describe it, but it’s different,” Vinci said.
Nogami, who speaks English well but with a heavy accent and without a lot of confidence, considered Vinci’s words, got up from the table where we were sitting and went back into the kitchen.
Vinci went on to say that his favorite thing in Nogami’s kitchen is the oyako don, a chicken cutlet with egg over rice dish, that loosely translated means “mother and child.”
“It reminds me exactly of what my mom used to make for me back home and I’ve never found anything like that here. You know what you’re used to and you know how you like it, but you can’t always say how you like it,” Vinci said.
Japanese cuisine is rarely spiced and relies on freshness, subtlety, and the artful balance between texture, taste, and presentation (or umami, a word you’ve probably heard). “We taste material itself, including its texture and smell etc. but typical Americans cannot taste it without flavoring or seasoning,” Nakayama said. “Somehow, I guess, sensitivity is too different. We do not dip sushi so deeply in soy sauce, for example.”
Nogami came back with two pieces of tuna (toro) nigiri that looked identical to me. One was American style and the other Japanese style. I tried the American one first. “After you put it in your mouth, after a moment, the fish is gone and the rice is still here,” Nogami said, pointing to his cheeks. “But technically the Japanese people and the sushi, the rice is not too tight. After you put it in your mouth, the rice should break apart. You chew the fish and the rice and fish should finish at the same time,” Nogami said.
The art of sushi is in the rice. Of course, selecting the right piece of fish and cutting it in the right way is paramount. But the addition of vinegar as the rice cools and the way a chef handles the rice…that’s what separates the best from the rest. Japanese dip nigiri sushi fish side down into soy sauce, just a bit. Americans soak their rice in it, so the sushi chefs pack the rice tight, throwing off the balance of textures and flavors.
Masashi Kawasaki is a UVA biology professor originally from Kanagawa and a Miyako loyalist who explained that the Japanese relationship to the chef is also different. A chef is seen as an expert, an MC, a host. “We order ‘omakase’ whenever that’s available. Omakase means literally ‘leave it to the chef,’” Kawasaki said. “The chef, Mr. Nogami in this case, is supposed to cook whatever he feels like cooking with his best ingredients available that day to surprise and satisfy the customers. Mr. Nogami’s omakase dish is always beautiful and delicious and makes us feel special in a way.”
Kawasaki and his wife Yasuko know what it’s like to be hosts. When they moved to town over 20 years ago, there weren’t any other Japanese families in the area. These days, they are the unofficial den parents of the expatriate community. Yasuko ran a Japanese school for almost two decades, and she still teaches the language from her home.
I’ve always felt like the best way to find a good ethnic restaurant is to look at its customers. And then order what the regulars order. So take a tip from Tokyo native Kotaro Maruyama, who moved here with his wife and two children to put in a shift for a wireless company.
“We love pretty much everything at Miyako. From the kitchen, we always order tempura, which is really nice,” Maruyama said. “For sushi, we love sea urchin and bluefin tuna. They are the best and something you can’t experience at any other Japanese restaurant.”