Spaghetti and meatballs? Familiar. How about spaghetti and miso-butter sauce, or spaghetti and natto (fermented soy beans)? Not so familiar.
Strange as it sounds, Japanese spaghetti is a staple of a Western-style cuisine called yoshoku. Excluding a few salads, it’s the only type of dish served at this new niche restaurant in Vancouver’s West End.
A cheery hole-in-the-wall, the Vancouver spaghetti house is an offshoot of the original Spaghetéi in Aomori, Japan, where chef Katsumi Morimoto (no relation to Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto) has been fulfilling his clients’ curious yet historically significant taste for Western glamour on a plate since 1975.
Simple yet clean, the Vancouver room boasts beautiful calligraphy drawings and a shuttered wall of windows that open up onto the sidewalk. When I walked by a few weeks ago, a short line of people was waiting in the narrow entrance and several stopped outside, peering in.
“Interesting,” one gentleman on the sidewalk observed. I concurred, impulsively stepping inside. It took only a few minutes to obtain a seat. The tables, squeezed close together, encourage a convivial atmosphere and conversation among customers, who seem to be primarily Asian.
A woman at the table to my left said the mentaiko spaghetti with cod roe might be “too Japanese” for my tastes. A couple to my right raved about the signature white sauce (very common in Japan) with shrimp, bacon and spinach.
I ordered carbonara-style spaghetti tossed with plump, firm tiger shrimp, bacon that was nearly raw and thickly streaked with fat, and (intentionally) scrambled eggs in a buttery soy sauce. The pasta was a tad overcooked, but the sauce had a compelling umami flavour that convinced me to investigate further.
When I returned a few days later, a sign on the door explained that the restaurant had closed after a soft opening to respond to customer suggestions and make adjustments to the menu. Unusual, yet admirable. A few days after the scheduled reopening date, it was still closed.
“We couldn’t handle all the customers,” Yuya Fujii said after the restaurant finally reopened last week. The young business owner later explained Spaghetéi was visited in its early days by a local Chinese blogger who goes by the handle Vandiary. The blogger warned Mr. Fujii that his post would attract a lot of customers and he was not kidding.
Unfortunately, Spaghetéi was not prepared for the onslaught of more than 200 people each day. What sounds like a dream for any small business just starting out turned into a nightmare for Mr. Fujii. “We didn’t have enough waitresses, people were waiting an hour for their food, everyone was complaining,” he explained. “And the blog wasn’t even all that complimentary!”
Fortunately, Mr. Fujii has an understanding silent investor who said he would rather serve 10 happy customers a day than 200 unhappy ones. He told Mr. Fujii to close the restaurant and pay his staff for as long as it took to get up to speed.
Earlier this week, Spaghetéi was humming along with extra staff and a slightly modified menu. When I inquired about the original restaurant in Japan, a lovely waitress, Yuriko, introduced me to Mr. Morimoto, who was working in the kitchen and will be here for the next few months to help ease the transition.
The chef speaks no English, so I could not ask about his restaurant and the tradition of yoshoku cuisine. But according to an informative article in the New York Times from 2008, the taste for Western-style fusion foods harkens back to Japan’s Meiji Restoration in the 1850s. After the U.S. Navy arrived, coercing the isolationist country to open up trade with the West, Japanese investigators were dispatched overseas to learn about Western ways. One of their most shocking discoveries was how short their countrymen were in comparison to the giant Westerners.
The dream that a Western diet would help the Japanese grow taller endured into the next century. “Japanese are poorly built because they eat rice,” businessman Den Fujita declared when opening the first Japanese McDonald’s in the 1970s. He said that, after eating hamburgers for 1,000 years, Japanese people would even have blond hair.
And to think, I always believed pasta and hamburgers merely made one grow wider.
The mentaiko pasta at Spaghetéi will not make a brunette blonde or even put hair on anyone’s chest. Although billed as spicy, it was mild. I did, however, enjoy the crunchy texture and fishy flavour of the tiny orange cod roe and slivers of roasted dried seaweed.
Sadly, it was served barely lukewarm, as was the clam (canned), squid (rubbery) and mushroom (chunky cut) spaghetti in a bright ginger soy sauce. For an additional dollar, we ordered the latter with a plop of natto on top. The fermented soy beans – which look like diced nuts coagulated in saliva and have an intense medicinal flavour akin to the original gold-hued Listerine – is definitely an acquired taste.
I was surprised that the spaghetti is served with forks and spoons, rather than chopsticks. But my girlfriend, who lived in Japan and actually does quite like natto, said this is the way spaghetti is served there. “The ladies in Tokyo love twirling their spaghetti on spoons,” she explained. “It’s thought to be very sophisticated.”
The food at Spaghetéi could quite easily be elevated with fresh vegetables and seafood, and a bit more finesse in the kitchen. But would it still be yoshoku? It’s nice to be reminded that Asian-Western fusion cuisine goes both ways, and is more than just a novelty in Japan. But if you go, do Mr. Fujii a favour and don’t rush in all at once right away.