Back in 2001, restauranteurs Dario Muhafara and Quique Yafuso sat down to brainstorm ideas for a new restaurant in the then lackluster Palermo Hollywood neighborhood. Muhafara wanted to open a sushi bar. Yafuso, already the owner of Haiku in Bajo Belgrano, was concerned that he would be creating competition for himself by opening a second sushi restaurant. “Years later, I still make fun of him for that.” Muhafara giggles, “He worried about a sushi restaurant in Palermo drawing customers away from Belgrano. Today, who knows how many sushi deliveries are between us.”
The two eventually moved on to separate projects. Muhafara teamed up with the Vietnamese embassy to open Green Bamboo. The original round of cooks were the wives of ambassadors who trained Argentine chefs in the nuances of Northern Vietnamese cuisine. He would later go on to open the popular brunch spot Malvón. Yafuso retreated back to Haiku and recently opened El Quinto, a Momofuku inspired bar and restaurant that dresses up street food from across East Asia.
The conversation highlights just how much the food landscape has changed over the last decade here and how not so long ago, relatively small ideas made big waves. The most notable is a collective fascination with pan asian cuisines. Sushi is everywhere. The [mostly] authentic spots that dot San Cristobal and Belgrano and hyper fancy Peruvian nikkei establishments of Palermo down to mono-flavored delivery where no matter what you order everything seems to have the same rubbery taste.
Cristina Sunae of Sunae Asian Cantina and Marta Ramírez of Captain Cook refused to cater to the local palate and popularized authentic Southeast Asian dishes. Fukuro Noodle Bar introduced ramen and bao in 2013 and this year it seems like you can’t escape pork buns.
The recent opening of places like Nueva Casa Japonesa and Kyopo are proof of a new food trend on the rise. Young Asian Argentine chefs eager to open spaces that distance themselves from the romanticized interpretations of Asia to more genuine representations of their respective cultures. “I love Fukuro Noodle Bar and think the interior is very cool,” Nico Totake of Casa Japonesa told me, “but it feels like a very gringo view of Tokyo and not the Japan that I know.”
TORi TORi, a small restaurant on the edge of Recoleta and Once, is another to add to the list. As the name suggests, the restaurant serves traditional yakitori which means ‘grilled bird’ in Japanese and is among the country’s staple dishes. Previous to opening the restaurant owner Sergio Higashiyoshihama worked in a number of sushi restaurants across the city and didn’t see a need to open another. “Sushi is misunderstood,” he tells me, “In Japan, people don’t eat sushi every single day. It’s an expensive dish that we enjoy on special occasions. I really wanted to introduce something different that was more authentic to what Japanese people eat on a daily basis.” The space was once home to his brother’s sushi bar. While I sat eating dinner a couple apprehensively strolled up in search of rolls and triple checked to make sure sushi was no longer on the menu.
When the sushi bar closed, Higashiyoshihama was handed the opportunity to reinvent the space together with his wife, Naomi Hotta, a dancer by trade who was born in Texas and raised in Tokyo. “Sergio wanted something more authentic but I was more motivated by the food I miss eating,” Hotta explains with a smile, “so when we were developing the idea I made sure to include stuff I couldn’t find otherwise.”
Yakitori was a natural choice for two reasons. Not only to differentiate themselves from other Japanese restaurants as the only yakitori restaurant in the city but also to stick with the tradition of specializing in a single food. “In Japan restaurants become experts in one thing. Noodle bars make ramen or soba or udon but you won’t find a place that mixes any of the three. Yakitori restaurants are the same. We wanted to recreate that idea here.”
The space feels like it would fit comfortably into Japan. A red noren, a traditional fabric used to divide rooms, separates the street from the front door and informs guests in Japanese characters that they are entering a restaurant that specializes in yakitori. A small bar and two tables have enough room for about 12 diners. In the back a two tiered charcoal grill sits against the wall and gives diners full view of the grilling action. On a frigid Tuesday evening, the restaurant was filled with an all Japanese clientele shortly after the 7pm opening. I grabbed a seat at the bar next to an older couple dining out with their granddaughter, a young couple and a large class of Japanese language students.
The small menu is divided between a selection of yakitori and onigiri. Yakitori is mostly made of skewered chicken like thighs, meatballs, skin and liver but pork, beef and vegetable sneak on to the menu also. “Traditionally you’d use the entire chicken everything from the legs to the ovaries, but here there is no market for that. You can’t get it from the butcher and I’m not sure people would eat it,” Higashiyoshihama explains.
The meatballs were slightly crunchy on the outside but exploded on the tongue with a light ginger flavor. Liver was gritty with a texture similar to a long cooked gooey morcilla. Lomo was amongst my favorites as the traditional tare sauce, a mixture of soy sauce and sake, carmelized and added a sticky crispiness to the tender slices of beef. Vegetables are lightly grilled to maintain pure flavors, the mushrooms are especially decadent as they soaked up the tare marinate like a sponge.
Sets also include a salad with crunchy lettuce, seaweed and sesame seeds which tastes incredibly fresh. Inaka-jiru, a country soup, is a wild mix of whatever vegetables are freshest in the market simmered in a subtle miso broth. Onigiri, thick triangular shaped rice balls, are stuffed with fillings like bonito fish, panceta or tuna. The rice is sticky and tastes like it has been scooped fresh from the pot. You can accompany your meal with warm sake, Sapporo or sodas imported from Japan and finish the meal off with a sweet flan prepared with green tea and matcha. I predict a trend, this is the third spot that I’ve seen matcha in less than two weeks.
Despite being just under a month old, ‘TORi TORi’ is already carving a place within the Japanese community as well as curious diners. “Everyone told us that if we didn’t put sushi on the menu, we would never last.” A full salon at 8pm on a frigid Tuesday says otherwise.
Ecuador 1175, Recoleta
Monday through Friday 7:00pm to 11:00pm, Saturday noon to 3:00pm and 7:00pm to 11:00pm
Price: $$ (ARS 150-250)