Located on a less gentrified corner of South Williamsburg lies Shalom Japan. The restaurant is a merge of the two contrasting cultural heritages of the owners and chefs, Aaron Israel, who is Jewish, and Sawako Okochi, who is Japanese. They married in May of 2013. The name of the restaurant (“Shalom Japan”) is in fact not newly invented by the owners. It was borrowed from a glatt kosher supper club in SoHo in the 1980s. It served cholent alongside sashimi and the mistress of the house, Miriam Mizakura, Japanese-born Jewish convert, whose infamous catch-phrase was “Not funny? So sorry.”
Okochi moved from Japan to Texas in 1995. In 2000 she relocated to New York City to join the culinary program at the New York Restaurant School. Upon completing her internship at chef David Waltuck’s, Chanterelle, she attained a job with chef Anita Lo at Annisa. She worked under Chef Lo for five years and rose to the title of sous chef. She spent five years as the chef at the Good Fork, a Korean and American fusion restaurant. Throughout her career, she has done numerous, well received and publicized supper clubs, most notably Otakara Supper Club. She was named by Mother Nature Network in their 40 under 40 rising star chefs.
Israel, on the other hand, was raised in Great Neck, New York. He has worked under some of the most acclaimed chefs in New York City in numerous fine dining restaurants such as August, under chef Tony Liu, and A Voce, under chef Andrew Carmellini. He was the opening sous chef at Torrisi Italian Specialties for Rich Torrisi and Mario Carbone, helping them to develop and open the restaurant. As the chef of Mile End, Jewish-inspired deli, he is known to have elevated Jewish comfort food. His work has been recognized by the James Beard foundation and such influential publications as the New York Times, Time Out New York, the Jewish Daily Forward, and the New York Observer.
Shalom Japan is the perfect marriage of both Jewish and Japanese cuisine. All items on the menu are meticulously, and at times brilliantly designed. One dish, Matzah Ball Ramen, includes a clear chicken broth; a single, matzo ball; a tangle of springy ramen noodles; fat chunks of carrot, celery, and parsnip, and a delicate gyoza filled with ground chicken and foie gras; chicken char siu, all topped, traditional Jewish soup croutons. Another is their Lox Bowl, a take on a Japanese Sashimi and Rice Bowl. Here, Mr. Israel’s people have contributed the soft mild cured salmon and capers, and Ms. Okochi’s people the rice, seaweed, daikon and sriracha-laced mayonnaise. Some elements of fusion on the menu are more subtle. Such as the Sake Kasu Challah with Raisin Butter. From the outside, the bread looks like traditional Challah. Inversely, the bread is made with yeast that’s left over after sake is made, likewise, the accompanying butter is suffused with pulverized, sake-soaked raisins.
Their food is fusion in the truest sense; it is almost seamless. Through this fusion restaurant, Okochi and Israel are able to merge two completely contrasting cultures/ethnicities into a unified, almost Frankenstein. the owners define their Frankenstein as, “Shalom Japan is what happens when a pair of chefs from different backgrounds (Japanese and Jewish) meet, fall in love, and start making food instead of babies.”
The fusion not only takes place in the cuisine but also in the environment of the restaurant. The understated dining room has only a few cultural markers. The tables set with both chopsticks and forks; at the entrance, customers are greeted by a traditional bifurcated Japanese curtain silk-screen. Printed on the curtain is the restaurant’s emblem, a Star of David and a rising sun, merging into one. The bathroom is equipped with a state-of-the-art Toto toilet. In addition to a high-tech Japanese toilet, the restaurant’s bathroom contains Star of David kosher soap, a book titled “Hibachi Cookery in the American Manner,” a Maneki-Neko, and an iconic “You Don’t Have to Be Jewish to Love Levy’s” poster, picturing a Japanese boy holding a sandwich on rye.
Upon asking the waiter if Shalom Japan had any significant role in the community, he immediately spoke about the divide between North and South Williamsburg. The north is often believed to be extremely gentrified, an extension of Manhattan, Brooklyn’s new Meatpacking District. While the south is viewed as, gritty, real, the old Brooklyn, primarily a working class neighborhood. The waiter stated that the restaurant, along with other new “trendy” establishments has brought a new demographic to the neighborhood. He further stated that a couple of years ago most would simply get off at the L train station on Bedford Ave, but recently people have been venturing to the South via the J train. Upon driving into the neighborhood the tell-tail signs of gentrification were highly apparent. A couple of blocks away resided a shiny new Starbucks with full glass windows, attached to an equally modern apartment building. Crossing the street were a group of Hispanic teens, behind them walked a white male in his late 20s or early 30s walking his dog. One block away from the restaurant I saw a white woman, most likely right out of college, on her way to do laundry in a Spanish laundromat.
In the subdivisions within Williamsburg, “South Williamsburg” refers to the area which today is occupied mainly by the Yiddish-speaking Hasidim (predominantly Satmar Hasidim) and a considerable Puerto Ricans population.
On Williamsburg’s Southside, also known in Spanish as “Los Sures”, which is the area south of Grand Street, there exists a sizable Puerto Ricans and Dominican population.
Since the 1940s and 50s, Puerto Ricans have been coming to the area, and Dominicans came in the ’70s and ’80s. With such a close proximity to jobs at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, numerous Many Puerto Ricans flocked to the area after World War II. The neighborhood continues to have 27% Hispanic or Latino population, and Broadway near Graham Avenue is known as “Avenue of Puerto Rico”. Havemeyer Street is lined with Hispanic-owned ‘bodegas’ and barber shops
Williamsburg, especially the South, is also inhabited by tens of thousands of Hasidic Jews of various sects. Despite this Shalom Japan is in fact not kosher, a fact the waiter I spoke to slightly chuckled at. In the years prior to Worl War II Hasidic Jews first moved to the neighborhood. With them came other religious and non-religious Jews who sought to escape the difficult living conditions in the Lower East Side. Beginning in the late 1940s and early 1950s, the area received a large influx of Holocaust survivors, many of whom were Hasidic Jews from rural areas of Hungary and Romania. In the late 1990s, Jewish developers renovated old warehouses and factories, turning them into housing. By 1997, there were about 7,000 Hasidic families in Williamsburg. Almost a third of this new population took public assistance.
Prior to gentrification, Williamsburg often saw tension between its Hasidic population and its black and Hispanic groups. In a response to the rising crime in the area, the Hasidim created a volunteer patrol organization called Shomrim( which means guardians in Hebrew) to perform citizens’ arrests and to keep an eye out for crime. Despite being seemingly in place to aid in bettering the community, over the years, the Shomrim have been accused of racism and brutality against blacks and Hispanics.