Shimabara, Nagasaki Pref. – Pesceco is on the waterfront of the Shimabara Peninsula, overlooking the calm waters of the Ariake Sea to the mountains of mainland Kyushu in the distance. This ambience inspires and manifests itself in the creative, seafood-based cuisine of Chef Takahiro Inoue.
Without a visible street sign, the restaurant appears anonymous and inscrutable. But you know you’ve arrived when you see the compact, low, free-standing building, whose immaculate blue-gray facade is divided by a single horizontal window.
This architecture is also an eye-catcher in Tokyo. It’s a strong statement of intent here in this remote corner of Nagasaki Prefecture, especially in a low-key regional city with such a deeply ingrained sense of history as Shimabara.
Before Inoue moved into this bespoke restaurant three years ago, Inoue operated in much more modest premises in the middle of the city. For him, the transition was not just a new address: He was an opportunity to take a step forward in his kitchen and realize his full potential as a chef. In doing so, he has contributed to placing his hometown firmly on the gastronomic map of Japan.
Nowadays – or at least until the pandemic – Inoue’s customers come from far and wide to sit at the intimate six-seat marble counter that runs the length of his immaculate open kitchen. You watch as he prepares elaborate multiple courses Omakase (at the choice of the chef) and then relax in the adjoining room with a view of the constantly moving seascape that unfolds in front of the large picture window.
To find cuisine of this sophistication so far away from a large metropolitan area is unusual enough. But the backstory – how Inoue got to that point – is just as remarkable.
Born and raised in Shimabara, he lived there all his life, apart from the few years he spent at cooking school in Osaka and a short time later as a freshly baked sushi chef. But at the age of 23, he decided that the bright lights and fast pace of the big city weren’t for him.
So he returned home. And who could blame him? This peaceful, once proud castle town – today’s landmark is a reinforced concrete reconstruction of the original feudal keep from the mid-20th century – offers a leisurely lifestyle, an enviable microclimate and an environment that is second to none.
Crystal clear spring water wells up under the city, fills pools with colorful koi and flows in shallow waterways along the streets. Up in the hills onsen Thermal spring resorts welcome their guests with billowing clouds of sulphurous steam. Behind the city rises the rugged volcanic peaks of Mount Unzen as a permanent and occasionally destructive backdrop; In front of it, the sea stretches out with its abundance: this is the terroir that drove the development of Inoue.
The other key factor was his family appeal. His father ran a shop that sold fresh seafood, and as a child, Inoue watched him in action. He knew from a young age that he wanted to prepare the wonderful fish he saw in the store every day. This path opened up as soon as he returned from Osaka and started working in his father’s new company izakaya.
After five intense years of learning on his feet and paying his dues, he was ready to go his own way, independent of his father. Together with his wife Keiko, Inoue took over a small restaurant in the city center called Pesceco – pronounced “peshiko”, it is a mixture of the Italian pesce (Fish) and the last syllable of her name – and got to work.
Inoue created his Italian dishes around the seasonal products he sources from his growing network of local farmers and fishermen. For him, this was the time when he worked on his chops as a cook.
“I’m basically self-taught,” says Inoue. “I’ve never learned from another chef. I just built my skills by preparing the dishes I liked. “
It was a strategy that clearly worked. In 2018 he moved to his current location, raising the bar again for himself and his kitchen. In addition to leaving behind the laid-back informality and ce la carte menu of the original Pesceco, he’s also critically adjusted his focus.
Up until that point, Inoue wanted to create a “big city” style that is seldom found in small, regional eateries. In contrast, he explains, his aim is now to present dishes that can only be found in the country, close to the source of his ingredients and permeated by the flavors and stories of his immediate surroundings.
However, two things have not changed. Inoue’s wife stays by his side and provides important help and criticism. And Inoue still cooks completely by himself and prepares everything from scratch.
He starts his day with a drive deep into the lush forests on the lower slopes of the volcano. The destination is a well-known spring where he fills up with enough pure mountain water for his cooking needs.
To underline the importance of its role in his kitchen, this water contains the very first serving of your meal, brewed with hakucha (white tea) Leaves grown by an organic farmer in Higashisonogi, a well-known tea area in the north of the prefecture. Soothing and uplifting at the same time, this pale gold liqueur prepares your palate for the meal to follow.
A typical meal could begin with a small butter tart that is seasoned with etari no shiokara, the fermented innards of the local anchovy; a generous portion Murasaki University Sea urchins on a small dough base; and a cut of aji (Horse mackerel) Sashimi wrapped in a piece of red daikon with a dollop of homemade his grandmother’s Yuzu kosh (Citrus chilli) flavor.
If you’re lucky, more sea urchins may follow, paired with the meat and liver of okoze, the ugly, deadly (but delicious) stonefish. Inoue likes to add extra umami by covering it with foam that is made from konbu Seaweed harvested just offshore.
Many of its specialties are regional dishes, adapted and revised. He scorches Ganba, the local name for fug Puffer fish, over flames made of rice straw, to serve with garlic vegetables and wild game sanshō Pepper. He dips delicately tenobe smen Wheat noodles in a dark, hearty sauce made from crab insides, twisted them tightly like capellini Noodles and then top it up with crab meat seasoned with rich tomalley.
The Italian influences re-emerge as Inoue pulls out bruschetta and piles it up with more citrus-sprinkled crab meat. Then breads and fried fillets of tachi-uo (Mother fish), over which he heaped a veil of slivers of ham straight from his pretty Berkel table slicer.
One of the food’s show stoppers is likely to be kue (Grouper), a Kyushu specialty that Inoue simply steams lightly to loosen the collagen that covers the soft, white flesh. Nor should you be surprised if he offers a whole abalone, which he has been boiling low and slowly in mountain water since early morning. Deep fried in butter, then sliced and served with an ebony black sauce made from the liver, this would be the crescendo of any meal.
Finally, there is rice cooked in a ceramic stew and a light dessert. When you’ve got your fill, it’s worth taking another look at the menu. Inoue likes to call his cuisine “Satohama gastronomy” and uses a portmanteau of the Japanese words for “village” and “coast” to express his connection and appreciation for soil and sea.
As a thank you for their work, he also lists his main suppliers. Seafood from his father’s shop, of course, but also from a fish specialist in nearby Amakusa, Kumamoto Prefecture; Rice, fresh produce, fruit and flowers from trusted organic growers in the fertile foothills of Unzen Mountain; continue with salt, tea, butter and milk products; and under the heading “Nature” his source for this vital water.
It is Inoue’s memory and recognition that it is not so much his skills or ingredients, but the land itself and the surrounding ocean that underpin Pesceco.
The Japan Times Cube’s annual selection of “Destination Restaurants” shows the rich food culture that is on offer outside of the major cities of Japan.
Shinbabamachi 223-1, Shimabara, Nagasaki 855-0033; 0957-73-9014; pesceco.com; open daily, lunch from 12 noon, dinner from 7 p.m. Reservations required; Menu from 17,600, wine accompaniment from 7,700; not available to take away; next station Shimabara; Non-smoker; major cards are accepted; Japanese menu; little english spoken
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