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The Coolest New Jewish Deli? It’s in Tokyo.

Why not have a slice of matcha-flavored babka with that bagel and lox?

Simone Somekh
March 19, 2018
Simone Somekh
The staff of Wise Sons, Tokyo's new Jewish deliSimone Somekh
Simone Somekh
The staff of Wise Sons, Tokyo's new Jewish deliSimone Somekh

Next time you find yourself craving matzo ball soup on a chilly March evening in Tokyo, do not panic.

Head to Tokyo Station, then walk two blocks west, towards the Imperial Palace. You’ll find the soup waiting for you on the basement floor of the Marunouchi Building, a 37-story skyscraper, at the newly opened Japanese branch of San Francisco’s Jewish-style deli Wise Sons. Treat yourself to an original pastrami sandwich, bagel and lox, and a slice of matcha-flavored babka.

For the launch of Wise Sons Tokyo in late February, the restaurant’s founders and chef decided to keep the menu almost identical to the original. One of the deli’s staple dishes is the matzo ball soup, but—alas—they couldn’t find any matzo in Tokyo. Importing it from abroad was too costly, so they naturally decided to bake their own.

Jotaro Tanaka, appointed to be the chef and manager of the Japanese branch, had never tried matzo before—let alone tried baking it. With the help of Wise Son’s own chef Joey Boujo, who spent six weeks training the team to make every dish on the menu, he learned.

“You mix water, salt and flour. As soon as it’s ready, put it straight in the oven, flat on,” Tanaka told me during my visit to the shop. “Once it’s baked, grind it.”

I’m not sure if it takes him longer than 18 minutes to put the flattened dough into the oven, but he certainly described the process as a quick one. The restaurant may not be certified kosher, but Tanaka’s matzo balls sound almost kosher for Passover to me.

Evan Bloom, who co-founded Wise Sons in 2010, had been fascinated with Tokyo for years. After a few trips to the city, he began playing with the idea of a Japanese branch of his deli chain, which has expanded to six locations in California over the last few years.

“The Japanese are really good at replicating. There is dedication, craftsmanship, perfection in their food culture,” he said. “You can eat a meal at any price in Tokyo, and the quality remains high.”

The leap from San Francisco’s Mission District all the way to Marunouchi seemed like a far-fetched dream to Bloom. It wasn’t just about bringing his brand to Japan, but rather an entire tradition of Jewish American food to the Far East. A partnership agreement with Giraud, a Japanese company that operates several Italian restaurants in the city, did the magic. “Miraculously, it happened.”

Giraud placed the restaurant on the basement floor of Marunouchi. (Pro tip: When looking for good food in Tokyo, always go downstairs.) The skyscraper is located in the heart of the city, where plenty of trading companies and banks have their offices and many foreigners visit.

A few days from the launch, Amos Goldbaum, a muralist from San Francisco, flew to Tokyo to give the space his final touch. He envisioned Mount Fuji overlooking San Francisco, and painted it over the course of a few nights in his signature black-on-white style. (Look at his Instagram account for a time-lapse video of the process.) The artwork covers an entire wall of the restaurant, which is also decorated with family photos, jars of halva, boxes of matzo, and a glass jar full of Israeli Bazooka gum.

From “Jewish delicatessen,” Wise Sons Tokyo’s tagline became “San Francisco delicatessen.” The decision to brand Wise Sons as American rather than Jewish is an interesting one; it’s likely that while most Japanese are familiar with American food, fewer are with Jewish traditions. The shop opened to the public on Feb. 26.

The menu features several hot sandwiches, like the Pastrami Reuben, with pastrami, sauerkraut, and cheese in Russian dressing, the Big Macher Burger, and the Classic Corned Beef, a thick stack of corned beef on rye bread dressed with mustard.

The bagels come in five different varieties, and, just as the challah (used in the French toast, but also sold separately), they are baked in a separate bakery, which began producing them specifically for Wise Sons. “There are bagels in Tokyo, but they’re different, very squishy and sweet,” said Bloom.

The restaurant smokes its own salmon, which makes for a perfect New York-inspired bagel and lox, but with one difference: While in New York you’d see most people eat bagels as a sandwich, Japanese customers seem to prefer the open-face version, which fits the local food aesthetic. The shop also sells bentō boxes containing items from the menu for workers who want to eat their lunch in their office.

The must-have, however, is the matcha babka, added to the menu alongside the more traditional chocolate and cinnamon versions. After all, if the Japanese loved matcha Kit Kats and azuki beans-flavored Häagen-Dazs ice-cream, why not try a local version of babka? Glocalization, everybody!

Chef Joey Boujo worked with the local team to create their own version of the popular recipe, mixing matcha powder—ground green tea leaves—into the dough of the babka, which is strikingly green and strong in flavor. Only for the true matcha lovers out there.

You came just for some soup, I know. And you left full of all sorts of Jewish-style comfort food. When you leave the building, walk towards the Imperial Palace for a much-needed post-meal stroll around the water-filled moat.

Simone Somekh is a New York-based author and journalist. He’s lived and worked in Italy, Israel, and the United States.