Heiwa Shokudo is a rather unlikely veteran of the restaurant scene. The popular and tiny Japanese restaurant has occupied its little corner of Hiawassee and Lexington Avenue for 16 years. Some of my oldest memories of Asheville, in fact, involve sitting on the sidewalk at a wobbly table, honing my chopstick skills over a bento box, or squeezing into the back room with too many friends and too much sake.
Those sidewalk tables are gone now, but there is a patio available for al fresco dining. That menu, however, has barely changed an iota in the over decade-and-a-half that Heiwa has served Asheville.
Heiwa has always turned out what I affectionately referred to as "hippie Japanese" — it's the kind of Japanese joint where the menu reminds vegans of the presence of bonito (dried fish) flake in the miso. Brown rice is always an option, and some sushi rolls come stuffed with tempeh. Noodle soups are christened "Yuppie" and “Zen Monk,” and tofu dishes abound.
The little town favorite has changed hands a couple of times, and recently changed hands again. The new executive chef Daisuke Sugimoto, aka Chef Dai, came to Asheville about two months ago from Greenville. He admits that he's a bit of a purist when it comes to Japanese food, and it’s no wonder: Chef Dai grew up in Japan, and spent some of his formative years following his mother around the kitchen of her Tokyo restaurant, Raku-Raku, an eatery that specialized in Japanese-style dumplings.
Chef Dai wants to bring an authentic taste of Japan to Asheville. He is also a good businessman. He takes special pains to stress that he doesn’t want to change the familiar and much-beloved Heiwa menu, because he knows that simply wouldn’t fly. Many chefs and restaurateurs come to learn the hard way that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
So Chef Dai is no stranger to the unwritten rules of the restaurant business. While in Greenville, he was a partner in a popular, sleek Japanese joint called Sushi Hana. There, he catered to the tastes of the South Carolina upstate, which he said leaned heavily — pun intended — toward the mayo-drenched, deep-fried side of Americanized Japanese cuisine.
In Asheville, Chef Dai notes with a laugh, the people on the sidewalk, well, take up a bit less space. Health-conscious folks dominate his customer base, and Chef Dai feels that catering to Heiwa's built-in clientele is his duty. "I was thinking that I could adapt the regular menu to my own taste, but some people mentioned they don't want any changes, so I respect the taste of the regular customers," he says. "There are so many [Heiwa] regulars who don't want us to change anything. Those people are craving the exact same things for a long time … Some customers come back every day."
Still, he thinks that the flavors and sensibilities of traditional Japanese food — the cuisine of simple tofu preparations and lean, clean fish dishes — will be a good fit for the restaurant. So rather than throwing a completely different menu at a well-established restaurant, Chef Dai will offer an expansive list of weekly specials. "I'm just trying to add more variety," he says. "I'm trying to add more typical, traditional Japanese food, not only Asheville food."
Chef Dai says that classic Japanese food includes more vegetables than we may be accustomed to seeing on menus in the U.S. He's already introduced a few veggie-heavy dishes to Heiwa via thespecials menu. There is, for example, an appetizer of local Japanese eggplant in a ginger sauce, as well as traditional gomaae, a dish of spinach dressed with sesame. Pointing to the admittedly — and surprisingly — small vegetarian entree selection, Chef Dai reports that he intends to offer even more variety for Asheville's vegetarians and vegans. "I never really heard of vegan before I moved here," he admits.
Chef Dai has added more variety for seafood lovers as well. Take the poke, for example. A simple and refreshing raw-fish preparation, poke is more frequently found in the Hawaiian islands than Japan. Its variations are many, but it's often found made with chopped tuna and a mix of seasonings that lend themselves well to Japanese food. Think sesame, scallion, soy and ginger.
Heiwa not only often offers tuna poke on the menu, but a tofu and "mixed-seafood" poke as well. Those two words, when found on a menu, generally strike fear in my heart — all too frequently, "mixed-seafood" really means "dumping ground for leftover scraps." However, in this case, Heiwa is opening the door for guests to choose whatever fish they would like from the sushi menu.
"I'm trying to add a new style for Heiwa, use a lot of local and organic, and [I’m] also trying to expand the sushi menu as well," he says. Indeed, funky sushi rolls turn up frequently at Heiwa. Take the Popeye roll, which features spicy tuna, avocado, nuts, tobiko and spinach. Another wraps tuna with mango and avocado.
On the day that I visited Chef Dai, his specials menu offered octopus poke, kimchi tuna, littleneck clam soup and fried jalapeños stuffed with crab. As much as Chef Dai is hoping to steer his menu in a more traditional direction, he’s still willing to think outside the bento box.
Authentic Japanese flavors, however, are what move Chef Dai. He’s excited to add real Japanese noodle dishes to the existing soba and udon-soup selection. "This is not really Japanese food," he says, pointing to the Hobo, which includes deep-fried, marinated chicken in the broth. "[In Japan], we don't use chicken with the noodles. It's not authentic. It's very American-style Japanese food." Bringing in more of a Japanese style he says, means that the menu will become more "health conscious.”
He also plans to include tunuki to his repertoire, a soup dish with fried, sweet tofu, spinach and a whitefish cake. "It's a popular, typical Japanese noodle dish," he says. "It's very simple." Another planned addition is kamo, a soba soup that encompasses little more than duck, noodles, scallion and broth.
When asked what he thinks of Asheville, Chef Dai admits that he works a lot and is otherwise busy with he and his wife Naomi's new baby girl, Hannah. But, Chef Dai says, what he has seen, he likes. "It's very interesting," he says with a laugh. "It's very small, but it's really, really beautiful. The people are nice here, and I love it."
Heiwa Shokudo is now open seven days a week for lunch and dinner. For more information, visit heiwashokudo.com.
— Send your food news to Mackensy Lunsford at email@example.com.