Basara sushi pasticceria
(Interview and experience based on the omakasè menu in the presence of the chef)
I waited a long time before writing about Basara sushi pasticceria because it is a complex topic. In an attempt to give voice to the work of Hirohiko Shimizu I am more than certain not to make mistakes and not to overdo it if I think of Oscar Wilde’s critical essay “The Critic as an Artist”. A particularly explanatory passage reads:
The critic will be an interpreter, if he chooses. He can pass from his synthetic impression of the work of art as a whole, to an analysis or exposition of the work itself, and in this lower sphere, as I hold it to be, there are many delightful things to be said and done. Yet his object will not always be to explain the work of art. He may seek rather to deepen its mystery, to raise round it, and round its maker that mist of wonder which is dear to both gods and worshippers alike. […] Art springs from personality, so it is only to the personality that it can be revealed, and from the two comes right interpretative criticism.
And just as I set this warning, I put myself in front of Hiro San’s magnificent interpretation of Japanese cuisine as in front of a work of art in a museum, trying to tell it for what it is: magnificent.
Hirohiko Shimizu’s personality is overwhelming. Initially it is difficult to think of him as a sushi chef, but behind the counter he transforms: serious, fast and precise. All his professionalism is concentrated in the attentive gaze and in the hands never nervous. Without the uniform is the opposite of the canonical idea of the Japanese. Nice, hand-in-hand, witty. He even has a tattoo on his arm. But despite these strong contradictions, what has always amazed me the most is his sincere humility, totally disarming. On a torrid July afternoon, in a deserted Milan with metaphysical traits, he hosts me in one of his restaurants to give me a precious interview. And he confesses to me:
I’m still a cook, I never call myself a chef. I’m still studying. This world, this field, is not easy. Do you know Jirō? He’s 90 years old and still working. He started making sushi at about 25 years old: he spent 65 years making sushi, I only 30. When I see Jirō, I say, “Wow, I want to do this too.” So, I still have to study a lot, there is always to improve. I don’t want to be like this all the time.
A sincere revelation that prompts me to gather as much information about his journey, of
which I want to know as much as possible. Although he doesn’t want to be called “chef”, I insist on apostrophe in this way: I tell him that for me the titles are important, that he can not be called “cook” because he is a master in all respects. We find ourselves talking about the illustrious Gualtiero Marchesi and we discover that these two artists, so far away, actually have a common vision: to be against the paradigm of imposed rules, to go against the current always and anyway, to create a new dialogue between past and future (i.e. the present) while respecting the raw material. Marchesi in 2008 had in fact sided openly and harshly against the Michelin guide, rejecting its stars. And although Basara restaurants are very refined and elegant, Hiro San goes beyond the rules of form and atmosphere dictated by the guides, always rejecting collaborations with influencers, celebrities and models ready to realize online advertising with fashionable photographs. But not only does the honest spirit unite them, but also the playful spirit. Its lively character is reflected in the dishes by leafing through the menu, you can notice in fact many contaminations — The same Marchesi, redefining and rewriting the history of Italian cuisine had turned to different inspirations. These are delicate recipes, where the finest ingredients are not covered but exalted. But when it comes to classicism, in the sense of kitchen pivotal dishes, there are no poetic licenses.
This is my identity: I’m Japanese, so I have to make real sushi. This is my way. I can play with seconds or starters. On the menu are offered only five hot dishes and I would even like to remove them: I want to prepare only raw fish. I don’t like to call these dishes “fusion”, rather I call them “mixed dishes”. But I never play with nigiri, I can’t.
It emphasizes that sushi is a very specific branch in which to specialize in Japanese cuisine, shedding light on the fact that unfortunately in Italy almost all Japanese locals offer a varied menu, where on the same paper there are ramen, okomomiyaki and sushi. This is not only the case in Japan, but also in New York, Paris or London. In Italy we still have to work, refine the taste of customers and make people understand what it really means to eat authentic Japanese.
Originally from Tokyo, Hirohiko Shimizu learned cooking techniques at the age of sixteen by attending hotel school. His character off the line, however, makes him escape from the kitchens, where he feels locked up and tight. Incredibly, he works in fashion in Japan selling Italian footwear. After ten years, he decides to move to Italy but, again displeased, he leaves fashion and thanks to the help of a friend he begins to work in catering in several restaurants in Milan (including Nobu). At Mizu he meets Danilo Migliarese (who at the time was involved in women’s underwear) with whom a strong understanding is immediately born: the two become partners and set up their own business. Thus starts the search for the place where to open their restaurant and the choice falls on Via Tortona 12. In March 2011 he opens the first restaurant Basara sushi pasticceria. “Basara” is a very old Japanese term, archaic already a thousand years ago and that means more or less “beautiful way of seeing”.
Initially it wasn’t supposed to be a simple Japanese restaurant. The idea was in fact to present the sushi to me small pastry in a large window at the counter. This kind of presentation, very popular in Japan, was not absolutely understood by the Italian clientele who instead wanted only sushi intended as rice with salmon, avocado and Philadelphia. An idea too futuristic that turned out to be a big blow to the Japanese tradition. But despite this Hiro San held on for over two years, managing to tick it off: its first restaurant has thus become a modular restaurant, where you can have breakfast (the pastry is curated by Yoko Yamamoto), lunch, dinner and even have an aperitif. Initially the clientele was made up of journalists from the food industry. Thanks to their word of mouth, many Italians have started to attend Basara, Italians interested in discovering the true taste of tradition. The success of the restaurant is therefore attributable to the excellent dialogue with customers that has come to establish over time but also and above all to the raw material (of the highest quality) and the technique:
My sushi is of a higher quality and you pay for it. You pay an honest price, proportionate to what is presented in the dish. I am very demanding regarding the preparation of the kitchen staff, I tour all the premises to always do control and training. My workday runs from 10 a.m. to midnight. I am a cook, not an entrepreneur who comes to the restaurant only when he wants. I live in the kitchen.
In September 2014, the second restaurant in Corso Italia 16 was inaugurated. If the first restaurant is already very collected and intimate (34 seats), this is even more so (20 seats). The motivation is very precise: the idea is to make this second place the basis for the pastry workshop, as well as the nerve center for catering preparations (for private events, conferences and receptions) and home deliveries for the whole Milan city. A huge commitment but that immediately had a great success.
In 2015 Hiro San was contacted by an Italian restaurateur who wanted to sell his building 100 meters from Piazza San Marco. Thanks to the help of a Venetian partner Basara also opens in August in Venice, a city without a Japanese gastronomic reference and that welcomed the new restaurant with open arms (especially Japanese residents and visiting Laguna). Thanks to the success of Expo 2015 in Milan, Basara is definitely consolidated as a japanese restaurant of worship. And it is so renowned that Hiro San is also called in Sardinia: in June 2017 Basara opens in Costa Smeralda in Promenade du Port in Porto Cervo. In December 2018 opens the fifth venue in Via Washinghton 70. The restaurant is divided into two areas: the first presents the kaiten, a very elegant roller where dishes are turned through magnets, the second is a beautiful zen garden. But Basara’s great adventure does not end there: in September a new opening is in the works in Milan.
All restaurants have the same dishes. The passion for attention to detail is the leitmotiv that unites all the staff. Precious is the contribution of sous chef Ayumi Matsuda, professor and chef of Japanese cuisine. The chef himself confesses to me that he prefers to add to the staff brigade without experience in order to properly train it with his method. Method that concerns not only cutting and hanging (magistralial) but also and above all the choice of the best fish. In this regard Hiro San gives me the honor of showing me his kitchen: he shows me the refrigerators, opens the drawers, explains to me the various qualities of fish, now dwelling on the pink and fresh meat of a sea bass, now on the marinade with rice vinegar of some sardines finely delised.
What else to add except that you have to try to understand the complexity of Hiroiko Shimizu’s grandiose cuisine? I conclude by quoting once again the greatest aesthete who, in my opinion, concentrates in a few words the atmosphere and the moment lived at Basara with Hiro San at the counter:
For emotion for the sake of emotion is the aim of art. […] The aim of art is simply to create a mood.