A Japanese Holiday Feast, By Way of California

The chef Sylvan Mishima Brackett’s San Francisco izakaya, Rintaro, will turn 10 next year, and in a city crowded with good places to eat, and a state with access to spectacular ingredients year-round, it still stands out. The restaurant’s courtyard, hidden from the street behind a nondescript door, is filled with fragrant fruit trees (including a persimmon and four yuzu) and in the main dining rooms, guests can watch cooks grilling skewers of chicken behind a hinoki counter or preparing glossy sashimi in the open kitchen. Brackett worked at the chef Alice Waters’s farm-to-table institution Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Calif. — first as her assistant and later as a creative director — before opening his own restaurant, and he shares her commitment to seasonal and local ingredients, putting them to use in dishes informed bythe food of his mother’s native Japan.

Among the Japanese traditions Rintaro upholds is the making of osechi bento, handcrafted multitiered cedar boxes containing customary Japanese New Year’s foods. Each December, localscan order one in advance of the holiday, knowing that it might contain delicacies such as cured steelhead trout roe and Santa Barbara spot prawns. At the very end of 2022, however, just as Rintaro’s staff were putting the finishing touches on the boxes, a flood swept through the restaurant. Not only were the precious bento — which take Brackett and his team nearly a week to prepare — destroyed, but the restaurant sustained significant damage. (After closing for repairs, Rintaro reopened that February.)

Brackett arranges a platter of bigeye tuna sashimi.Credit…Philip Cheung

Following that dramatic start to 2023, Brackett and his wife, Jenny Wapner, a book publisher, opted for a quiet New Year’s Day celebration this year. Instead of making bento for the public, Brackett and his mother cooked a special meal for their family and close friends at Brackett and Wapner’s Craftsman bungalow in Oakland. Using ingredients sourced from Japan and California (which Brackett often calls the “Westernmost prefecture of Japan”), such as wasabi from Half Moon Bay and greens from a Japanese-owned farm in Watsonville, the two prepared a feast comprising a dozen dishes — a mix of Japanese New Year’s staples and family favorites. The day began with a raucous kid-led gift exchange, and the same energy continued into the evening. After dinner, Brackett and Wapner’s son suggested lighting some fireworks leftover from the Fourth of July, and everyone headed outside to welcome the New Year with flashes and bangs.

Yakizakana, or grilled fish, is not a classic New Year’s dish, but Brackett made it at his mother’s request. The black sea bass were soaked in a saltwater solution, then dried in the restaurant’s walk-in refrigerator for two days before being grilled and served with grated daikon radish and Meyer lemon.Credit…Philip Cheung

The attendees: Sylvan Mishima Brackett, 48, and Jenny Wapner, 46 — along with their children, Louis, 10, and Vera, 5 — hosted Brackett’s mother, Toshiko Brackett, 70; his sister, the photographer Aya Brackett, 45, her husband, the film and commercial director Corey Creasey, and their two children, Miya, 9, and Nico, 4; and Virginia Haruna Vaughn, 38, the general manager of Rintaro, and her boyfriend, the art director and designer Austin Long, 34.

The dining room table set for the meal.Credit…Philip Cheung

The table: The family-style feast was served at a long table in the home’s wood-paneled dining room on vintage blue-and-white ceramic Japanese platters that Sylvan Mishima Brackett has collected from eBay and from shops and flea markets in Japan. He also used 1960s Japanese deadstock ceramic plates and wooden lacquer bowls from Machiko, a notable pottery village in Japan, and sake cups made by Wapner’s sister-in-law, Yuko Suzuki of the New York-based line Suzuki Ceramics. Wapner herself made a seasonal floral arrangement of kumquat tree branches and fragrant flowering acacia, displaying it in a large copper chalice over the fireplace.

A dish of mochi, which was toasted and added to the ozoni, a traditional Japanese New Year’s soup, and a bowl of locally grown quince.Credit…Philip Cheung

The food: New Year’s Day is the biggest holiday in Japan, and New Year’s (osechi) meals date back thousands of years, traditionally including foods that are said to bring health and good luck. Because most of the dishes are prepared in advance, they tend to feature ingredients that have been preserved with sugar, salt or vinegar — for example, pickled vegetables, preserved fish and sweet black soybeans cooked in sugar syrup. “In Japan, modern osechi will often contain roast beef or ham or cheese or fancy sausages or mini beef Wellingtons — all sorts of special occasion foods,” says Brackett. “But they always include the traditional foods, too, because it’s just what you do on New Year’s Day.”

The meal, which Brackett and his mother prepared over two days, began with ozoni (a New Year’s soup with pieces of toasted mochi in a dashi broth flavored with yuzu peel). He sourced special Santa Barbara spiny lobster, prepared dashimaki tamago (a rolled egg omelet) and assembled platters of bigeye tuna sashimi. Also on the menu: Toshiko’s sticky-sweet marmalade chicken, which she always prepares for the holiday. For dessert, Haruna Vaughn brought yuzu-lemon bars featuring citrus from her mother’s garden in El Cerrito, Calif.

Guests Virginia Haruna Vaughn, left, and Austin Long, center, along with Brackett, right, toast the New Year with Japanese sake from Shirataki Brewery.Credit…Philip Cheung
The publisher Jenny Wapner, Brackett’s wife and the meal’s co-host, talking with Haruna Vaughn.Credit…Philip Cheung

The drinks: When the guests arrived, Brackett and Wapner served Lambrusco and Champagne for the adults, and Japanese melon cream soda for the children. With the meal, the grown-ups drank Daiginjo Junmai’s Seven sake from Shirataki Sake Brewery in Yuzawa that Haruna Vaughn brought back from a recent trip to Japan.

The after-dinner entertainment included setting off fireworks on the sidewalk in front of the house.Credit…Philip Cheung

The music: Haruna Vaughn curates Rintaro’s playlists, which can be found on her Spotify profile, and she also chose the music for the meal. “I try to include a mix of artists that echo the mood of the restaurant, merging complementary ingredients from California and Japan,” she says. “So there are a lot of Bay Area bands, including the Aislers Set, Shannon and the Clams, Jessica Pratt, Sonny and the Sunsets and Papercuts, alongside Japanese artists such as Yura Yura Teikoku, Shintaro Sakamoto, Yukihiro Takahashi, Haruomi Hosono and Cibo Matto.”

Marmalade chicken is a specialty of Toshiko Brackett’s and a dish Sylvan Mishima Brackett remembers from the New Year’s meals of his childhood.Credit…Philip Cheung

The recipe for Toshiko Brackett’s marmalade chicken (adapted from the Rintaro cookbook): Heat 2 tablespoons of vegetable oil or another neutral oil in a large heavy skillet over medium-high heat. When the oil is hot, add 16 chicken drumettes (about 450 g) and fry, turning, until browned on both sides, about 7 minutes. Pour in 1 cup of cooking sake and ½ cup of usukuchi (light-colored) shoyu, then add 4 grated garlic cloves and 1 cup of orange marmalade and stir to coat the chicken wings. Turn down the heat to medium-low and cook, stirring occasionally at the start, then more frequently as the glaze thickens to prevent scorching, until the sauce thickens to a glaze and the chicken is cooked through, about 30 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature.

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