No borders – culinary, cultural and otherwise – at Meraki Syokudou

Ten years ago, Hiroaki Suzuki was an automotive engineer in his twenties working in his hometown of Utsunomiya when a night out at a local yakitori restaurant prompted him to abruptly change the course of his life.

As Suzuki ate, a restaurant sitting near him finished his meal and thanked the chef for not using the standard phrase gochisou-sama deshita (literally translated as “it was a party”) but with the most direct arigato.

“There was so much heartfelt sincerity in this guest’s appreciation for the chef’s hard work in creating this delicious meal,” Suzuki recalls of that chance encounter. “At that point, I realized that kind of direct interface was missing in my own career – and it was something I wanted for myself.”

Suzuki then achieved exactly what he dreamed of. He now presides over the kitchen of Meraki Syokudou, an extremely cozy restaurant whose name is a combination of an informal Japanese restaurant and a Greek word for doing something with soul and enthusiasm.

Crafting imaginative Japanese-European fusion dishes using locally sourced ingredients, Suzuki pairs its creations with globally sourced natural wines – vintages that use ambient yeasts, no pesticides or chemicals, and little to no alcohol. additives – and with craft beer from a nearby Oku-Nikko brewery.

Once an engineer, Hiroaki Suzuki has spent the past decade learning everything there is to know about the culinary world. | COURTESY OF MERAKI SYOKUDOU

I met Meraki Shokudo by chance during a recent trip to Utsunomiya. I started the evening sipping a full-bodied blond beer to the sound of Edith Piaf in the background, while Suzuki prepared a dish of gobo (burdock root) coated in a peppery glaze of red wine vinegar and cane sugar. More innovative creations followed: a roasted pear artfully accented with a mound of creamy burrata and dusted with black pepper and sea salt flakes; and a bed of plump, handcrafted Soba noodles (buckwheat) — a specialty of Tochigi — topped with a generous pile of freshly shaved Italian truffles, button mushrooms, olive oil and Échiré butter.

Craving something deeper to follow my golden ale, I asked for an Argentinian Malbec. Although he didn’t offer it, Suzuki’s choice was superb: a rich, spicy red from a biodynamic vineyard in Languedoc, France, with notes of honeyed figs, dark chocolate and cherries.

The ingenuity of Suzuki’s menu would seem to point to his graduation from a prestigious cooking school, or a stint under a decorated chef. His journey from engineer in his twenties to chef-owner of his own restaurant, however, involves being completely self-taught.

After leaving the field of engineering, Suzuki (affectionately nicknamed Su by his friends) began to hone his cooking skills by working in a cafe in Utsunomiya. “Before, I had no idea how to cook, but since I like to eat good quality food, I learned on my own through endless repetitions of trial and error,” recalls -he.

A lover of the eclectic, Suzuki has long made a habit of soaking up sensory inspiration in Tokyo’s vintage boutiques and chic cafes. Over the years he incorporated these experiences into his culinary journey and, after a brief stint at another restaurant owned by his older brother, he then ventured into the world of cocktails as a bartender.

“At first, I had no interest in wine, which I basically considered difficult to understand and extravagant,” he recalls. “But I was intrigued when a bartender friend I really respected started a sommelier course. It was then that my initial feeling of intimidation towards wine slowly began to lessen.

Fresh ingredients and a flair for creativity underpin chef-owner Hiroaki Suzuki's culinary philosophy.  |  KIMBERLY-HUGHES
Fresh ingredients and a flair for creativity underpin chef-owner Hiroaki Suzuki’s culinary philosophy. | KIMBERLY-HUGHES

Confident that he had reached a sufficient level in his own culinary skills and keen to have his own space to express himself creatively, Suzuki opened Meraki Syokudou in June 2019. He chose the Greek term Meraki of a book on untranslatable words in other languages.

“Meraki’s emphasis on infusing love and passion into his work felt like a perfect representation of my life philosophy,” he says.

While most food-and-alcohol-pairing establishments may consider their cuisine to play the starring role, Suzuki’s concept is actually the opposite.

“I want the purpose of my dishes to be to help my guests enjoy craft beer and natural wine,” he explains. “There is a creative interplay at work as food and alcohol work together to elevate the experience of a meal.”

As he explains his gastronomic philosophies around aishou (pairing), it incorporates references to Italian (abbinamenti) and French (marriage) terminologies, having picked up a collection of foreign culinary words from the international clients he met throughout his career.

In opening Meraki Syokudou, Suzuki was very motivated by the opportunity to encourage guests to share his experience of approaching wine as something familiar and everyday, rather than fancy and out of reach. He was also enamored with the idea of ​​introducing people to local ingredients from Tochigi Prefecture, which he says produces some of the best quality food in Japan.

“We have top quality pork and wagyu beef here, as well as premium vegetables. And although few people know it, Tochigi is second nationally after Hokkaido in terms of premium dairy products like milk, butter, and cheese,” Suzuki proudly states. “Also, while Tochigi may not have an ocean, we have plenty of clear, cool rivers, and the quality of our rainbow trout and yes (the sweet fish) is outstanding.”

“Japanese wine is also on its way to becoming world famous, and along with the most famous places like Hokkaido, Yamanashi and Nagano, high quality wines are also produced here in Tochigi,” he adds, highlighting natural wines produced by Coco Farm Winery in Ashikaga.

Hailing from nearby Oku-Nikko, Meraki Syokudou's craft beers are specially chosen to accompany the menu.  |  KIMBERLY-HUGHES
Hailing from nearby Oku-Nikko, Meraki Syokudou’s craft beers are specially chosen to accompany the menu. | KIMBERLY-HUGHES

Three years after its opening, Meraki Syokudou is a lively, yet intimate space, hitting that sweet spot somewhere between the hole in the wall and the chic restaurant; a bistro-like enclave where locals and tourists are welcomed with family.

“I always enjoy unique encounters with the people of Meraki,” says Kyoko Amagai, patent paralegal and local regular. “I am amazed by the restaurant’s menu, which changes with the abundance of seasonal produce, and I have also discovered the pleasure of natural wine here. I always tell Su-san how I feel every day, and based on that he selects a suitable wine for me. Each feels like a trip somewhere.

Suzuki says he became drawn to natural wine because of its drinkability, which enthusiasts attribute to its low sulfite content, as well as its unique earthy flavors and low environmental impact.

“There is something very powerful to me about producing wine through a small-scale, environmentally friendly agricultural process, rather than a larger industrial and commercial operation,” he notes.

“Natural wine is like the punk rock of the wine world,” he adds with a laugh. “It has an authenticity that comes through even in the creatively designed labels.”

Meraki’s bathroom walls are decorated with the most unique versions of these, which Suzuki has carefully extracted from their bottles. It makes a trip to the bathroom feel a bit like an international vacation by proxy — a particularly poignant twist amid the ongoing pandemic.

While Suzuki regularly draws inspiration from the online accounts of chefs located both in Japan and around the world, he has never ventured overseas himself. However, once post-pandemic travel becomes possible, he is eager to soak up as much international influence as possible.

“I plan to visit many countries in order to experience their food, their people, their culture, their history, their environment – ​​whatever I can,” Suzuki reflects. “I’m planning to get my sommelier license, so my first trip might be to the countryside of southern France, but I also want to go to Italy, the United States and Greece.”

“Or maybe I’ll start with Georgia,” he adds. “They’ve been making wine there for 8,000 years.”

Nibancho, Utsunomiya, Tochigi Prefecture; 070-4008-2940; Open Monday through Friday. 5pm-midnight, Sat. 2pm-midnight (closed on Sun., public holidays and the third Monday of the month). Small plates from ¥400, main courses from ¥1,000. Craft beer from ¥600 (per ½ pint), natural wine from ¥700 (per glass); minimum consumption (excluding drivers and people with allergies). Located a 15-minute walk from JR Utsunomiya Station; smoking area available; Cash only; basic english spoken

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is urging residents and visitors to exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

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