If you’re travelling the world, packing your passport is a common reflex. For Yuuki Tanaka, bringing a bottle of soy sauce and seaweed supplies is just as necessary – they were his luggage essentials as he explored 16 countries before opening his Tokyo restaurant, Ise Sueyoshi, in 2015.
So why was carrying soy sauce and kelp as important as having his toothbrush and passport in his backpack?
“Because these two ingredients are very important to cook Japanese food, and I wanted to cook Japanese food where I visit,” he says.
During that time, he made use of his soy sauce bottle in North America (where his trip began), then spent time in Latin America before making his way through Europe – often working in restaurants for free.
His itinerary, fatefully, overlapped with the travel plans of Mary, his future wife. “I met her at Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia,” he says. They used the same rental car to get to the largest salt flat in the world: the crackly white landscape a remnant of ancient lakes that dried up years ago. But that landmark was their only destination in common: her trip sent her in the opposite direction, so their travels ended there. Luckily, they happened to reunite later in Japan, and soon married.
Nowadays, she runs Ise Sueyoshi with him – often patiently waiting in the restaurant’s alleyway to personally welcome guests and direct them to the venue’s hard-to-find location in Nishi-Azabu. (It’s hidden on the third floor, she’ll tell you, after you consult Google Maps for the third time.)
Family plays a big role at Ise Sueyoshi. The restaurant is partly named after the chef’s dad, Sueyoshi, who is also in hospitality: “my father runs a Japanese restaurant named Sueyoshi in Yokkaichi, Mie prefecture.” Tanaka’s gateway into the industry was via his dad: he started helping him from the age of four. His own restaurant spotlights the ingredients of the Mie region (such as the coastal town of Ise), where the family is from. It’s five and a half hours away from Tokyo (which probably leaves a healthy, relationship-saving distance between the competitive father-and-son chefs).
Some chefs talk up the provenance of their ingredients, but Tanaka’s team has photographed, edited and produced custom-made books for Ise Sueyoshi (Special Ingredients From Mie) that diners can actually leaf through.
Flip to one page and you’ll see Ayamanosan, who farms high-quality rice in the mountainous Iga area (where ninjas famously originate from, although the rural town is currently facing a ninja shortage in 2018). The rice is served as a final course with bamboo – but if you fail to finish it, the chef will shape the leftover grains into onigiri for you to take home. The book also features the farmers who grow Niihime, a new citrus fruit that’s remarkably sour (“It’s BITTER!!” one farmer warns) and mentions how Mie has the largest tally of female abalone divers in Japan.
Ise Sueyoshi is also remarkable because it’s the only Tokyo restaurant that offers vegetarian, vegan and halal versions of kaiseki (traditional Japanese multi-course meals that showcase next-level fine dining).
“I want everyone from all over the world to enjoy and know about kaiseki cuisine,” says Tanaka. “When I was travelling, nobody knew about kaiseki. I felt I have to improve to keep kaiseki.”
His well-stamped passport – which saw him dining everywhere from Guatemala to Hungary – inspired him to take a less traditional approach to the Japanese cuisine. So he’ll pickle soy cheese in miso, then roll it in dried persimmon to create vegetable sushi that’s presented with teriyaki carrot and bracken in deep-fried tofu.
“I want everyone from all over the world to enjoy and know about kaiseki cuisine. When I was travelling, nobody knew about kaiseki. I felt I have to improve to keep kaiseki.”
For vegetable ‘sashimi’, he’ll merge konnyaku (yam cake) with Aosa seaweed to produce seaweed jelly that ends up on the plate with vegetables and yuba (tofu skin) from Mie. Halal dishes include triangular yam dumplings with flathead fish in dashi soup and fried Akoya shellfish with Japanese ginger and corn.
In a country where fish stock sneaks its way into everything, it’s rare to see vegetarian fine dining at this level (outside of the traditional shojin ryori style of Buddhist temples). And with the halal dishes, Tanaka underwent special training at the Japan Islamic Trust and ensures that even mirin (sweet rice wine) doesn’t touch the menu.
Given its unique approach – and the fact this Michelin-trained chef only has five seats in his main dining room – it’s worth booking ahead if you plan to visit Ise Sueyoshi. And when you arrive, Mary Tanaka will be there, waiting to welcome you from the bottom of the staircase.
3F Mizuno Building, Nishi-Azabu, Minato, Tokyo
Mon - Sat 5.30pm - 11pm