At the Denny’s in Shibuya, Tokyo, waitresses in robin’s egg blue aprons serve the morning menu every day from 6 to 11 am. The Japanese Breakfast #4 is a piping hot bowl of miso soup served with steamed rice and grilled salmon with the bones left in. It’s meant to be eaten with grated daikon and soy sauce. You also get a packet of roasted nori squares with which to wrap your natto, or fermented soybeans. The whole shebang costs ¥549, or $5.31, and is delivered on a tray to your smoking or non-smoking booth in 5 minutes. If natto isn’t your thing, the #5 combo comes with an unsalted poached egg; the #6 with hiyayakko, or chilled tofu. It is a far cry from the greasy hair-of-the-dog breakfast platter you get at Denny’s in the good ol’ US of A. But it sure takes the edge off after a late night of Japanese whiskey.
I first learned of this traditional breakfast while taping a conversation between Evan Kleiman and Chef Josef Centeno for our show. Centeno runs five restaurants in Downtown LA, including the newly opened PYT. At one of them, Orsa & Winston, he is serving his take on the Japanese breakfast. “It is a morning ritual and it is little bites and it is very light,” Centeno told Kleiman. “They say breakfast is the most important meal of the day and it’s a chance to have little tastes of regional ingredients, which is what it’s based around.”
It goes without saying that what Centeno’s serving is the souped-up Cadillac version of what Denny’s has on the menu in Tokyo. Orsa & Winston’s breakfast is luxurious and rich and makes use of seasonal California ingredients and Luxe Seafood Company’s top-grade local and imported seafood. You might encounter sorrel and lobster on your tray, Padrón peppers and shiitake mushrooms, or aji and black throat fish from Japan. Take what is on the menu this week: salted chicory; a coddled egg served with semolina, pancetta, maple syrup and tiny rice balls called masago arare; geoduck salad; a mashup of miso and minestrone soup; vegetable salad; and a bowl of chewy, delicious Morihiro “Mori” Onodera’s Satsuki rice with shaved bonito from Tokyo.
Centeno’s favorite Japanese breakfast spot in Tokyo is Yakumo Saryo. “The meal started out with iris leaf tea, which I had never had — just simply steeped iris leaves, so simple and so delicious — and then it was followed by pickles, a rice dish, seafood, vegetables. But the Japanese breakfast really changes from region to region and neighborhood to neighborhood and family to family, like all food does.”
Then in Kyoto, Centeno was so inspired by the hot pot breakfast he ate at the Hoshinoya Hotel, he made the pilgrimmage to Tokyo’s Tsukiji market to buy dried bonito from Akiyama Shouten. “The breakfast was amazing. There was fresh sardine, it was lightly cured in koji and grilled, and there was this big hot pot set up with all of these regional vegetables and leaves and bitter greens. There was this incredible rice dish that was so simple with just some shaved bonito.” Centeno brought his bonito back to Los Angeles and carefully shaves slivers of katsuobushi onto each bowl of rice he serves.
Centeno says the Japanese breakfast has been well received by everyone who has ordered it so far, whether they have tried the real deal in Japan or not: “Come in, have a glass of wine and have our version of the Japanese breakfast.” Wine for breakfast? Don’t mind if I do.
Josef Centeno’s Japanese breakfast is on the lunch and dinner menu at Orsa & Winston. The restaurant is open for lunch from 12 to 2 pm Tuesday through Friday and for dinner from 6 to 11 pm every day except Monday.
Photos by Stan Lee, FCS 2016 James Beard Foundation visual storytelling award winner.