"This has been in the works for a long time," said Jesse Ito in an interview. With his father Masaharu "Matt" Ito, the two chefs partnered with Stephen Simons and David Frank, joining their little empire of Philly pubs and taverns which include Royal Tavern, Triangle Tavern, the Cantinas, Khyber Pass Pub, and soon enough, Royal Izakaya — still a pub, but in the Japanese sense.
That's right, the Royal Izakaya. The last Eater heard about it was back in 2012, when Simons and Frank announced its address (782 South 2nd Street). Since then, all had gone quiet. Little did anyone know, it was all part of the plan to have the Itos come onboard:
The best sushi in Philly happens to be in New Jersey, just over the bridge. Fuji was one of the most well-received Japanese restaurants in the region, so it was a huge surprise to everyone (except the Itos) when, at the turn of the New Year, it sold to Chen Zheng, Masaharu's sushi chef of 20 years. Apparently, the move had been in the works "for a couple of years".
After Simons and Frank conceptualized Royal Izakaya (back in 2011), they approached the Itos about joining the Queen Village project. Six years later, it became official: Masaharu and Jesse Ito will open Royal Izakaya in late May-early June. And while the chef talent there is strong, the concept remains true to its form:
"I want to make it clear that this is a bar."
Break down the word "izakaya", "i" (to stay) and "sakeya" (sake shop), and you've got exactly that — a bar. So, of course, drinks will be the focus: a serious sake list, sojus of all sorts, crisp beers, the whole shebang. And the food will be, as Jesse puts it, "real izakaya fare", Japanese comfort food: sushi, great katsu, yakitori, and the like. For a real-deal sushi experience, make sure to sit at the sushi bar. "You should sit with me. It's a progression of flavors and textures. It shouldn't all be muddled on one dish."
Jesse got his start at 14 years old, washing dishes, mopping floors, and cutting cucumbers at his father's restaurant. Then he moved up to the tempura station, working up the line to sautée, and eventually cooking Fuji's hot entrées. At 18, he was finally allowed behind the sushi bar, which became his full-time gig at 20 years old.
"I loved it. I always loved it, the skill-set you had to build. It was a creative outlet. What I hated, growing up in my early twenties, was the hours, the days. I couldn't hang out with my friends, couldn't date like I wanted to. Now it's all paid off, obviously. In retrospect, it's good, I put my time in early. I feel like a lot of chefs start later, they go to culinary school, and they get out $150,000 in debt."
Jesse's parents pushed him to go to Rutgers business school while he worked full-time at the restaurant, promising him a culinary education plus a steady income while he received his degree in business marketing. Over the years, he gained some control in Fuji's kitchen, but the restaurant was still his father's. At Royal Izakaya, things will be a little more even between father and son.
"He's still my father, my master, my elder. But in terms of [Royal Izakaya], we're more on-par."
Japanese food in Philly is still on the rise. He says the cuisine's underrepresentation in Philly is due to the region's especially-small Japanese population. And while Philly's Japanese chefs continue to make waves in the dining community, Jesse knows there's still some work left to be done.
"We have to work collectively to push the cuisine and educate the consumer, the market. It's a collective effort, and when we're all pushing it, it's going to benefit all of us. Once you have really great sushi, it's very hard to go back to eating cheap sushi. It's a very simple thing, but it's so technical. Everyone forgets its about the rice, it's about the knifework. Everyone says, 'Oh, the fish is so fresh!' Well yeah, it's supposed to be."
Basically, if you're not eating fresh sushi, then what are you even doing?
Double Knot's opening has already done wonders laying down the groundwork for the Itos to impress, though they are shooting for a simpler, more approachable izakaya.
"You can just come chill, spend a little money, get full, have a beer, party. It's going to be cool."