A Sensational Japanese Restaurant Hiding in Plain Sight
It is quite the unlikely bromance, really.
They bonded during their tenure at Sofitel—the much younger Marco Legasto was an all-around sous chef while Yoshimi Igarashi managed the extensive Japanese preparations in the hotel. As we sat in the diminutive dining room of Ikkyu-an, the new Japanese restaurant they now share, Legasto beams proudly as he talks about his friend's laudable track record of opening successful restaurants. Igarashi, he shares, opened Ben Kay in what was then the Hotel Nikko (now Dusit Thani) along Pasay Road (now Arnaiz Road). If there is still a Ben Kay in any country in the world, Igarashi probably set up their kitchen for success.
Legasto, who's already occupied with Prime 101, Abuela's, and Downtown & Halsted, plays restaurateur for this project. If you have a sushi chef who counts Jiro Ono (yes, the Jiro who dreams of sushi) as one of his contemporaries, it would be safe to let him just do his own thing.
Igarashi approached Legasto, telling the latter that he wanted to stay in the Philippines with his Filipina love and their child. Financial demands of course required him to secure some form of income. "I always try to do what I can for my friends in the industry," Legasto admitted. He got his fellow investors on board and they turned the small space under Legasto's Fil-Hispanic comfort food concept into a slice of Japan.
For his part, Igarashi garnered a loyal dinner crowd from fans of his defunct Sushi Kappo Kobikicho where the sushi veteran wowed with traditional kaiseki. In Ikkyu-an, this Japanese tradition remains that the ultimate luxury as well as a practice of unconditional trust. His kaiseki menu features what the chef wants you to eat that evening. There are two price points to choose from, depending on the number of dishes and ingredients. However, if you know exactly what you want, then the ala carte menu carries a good selection of the classics.
As expected from a learned sensei, Igarashi plays to his strengths and offers traditional Japanese dishes utilizing only the best ingredients. For their lunch specials, they offer a good number of cooked meals complete with appetizers, side dishes, and desserts, but the dinner menu has been curated to appeal especially to a more discerning Japanese food lover. "We only use imported seafood for the dinner menu," Legasto reveals.
A good showcase of this is the Sashimi Gozen, a set meal built around the plate of fresh imported raw seafood expertly sliced and plated by Igarashi. It does come with a side of steamed rice, but a more filling but equally indulgent choice would be the Ikura Gozen. Subtly vinegared sushi rice is topped with a thin layer of cooked salmon, then generously adorned with a lush blanket of salmon eggs. Legasto urges me to top it with a raw egg yolk, lending a nice creaminess to the rice bowl. Soy sauce is barely needed as the roe contains all the sodium it needs. For a little spice, a dab of wasabi does the trick.
Legasto admits that he foresee a collaboration between them in the kitchen sometime in the future, perhaps something that would allow him to play with western flavors using Japanese techniques (or vice versa). But, for now, he and his partners seem to be happy letting Igarashi take full creative control. The Japanese master sends out some butakakuni—premium pork belly braised for hours in soy and wine. A dish often written off as homey and old-fashioned, Igarashi demonstrates how, with proper cooking and using good ingredients, a good chef can conjure butakakuni's most indulgent potential.
Soba Lunch Set
Kaki Buter Shoyu Yaki
It's the same with the oysters, simply sautéed in butter and light soy sauce then complemented with enoki mushrooms and slivers of bell pepper, the plump and fresh seafood bursts with inherent sweetness despite being slightly cooked. The rich sauce calls for a few—or many—spoonfuls of steamed rice.
Red Bean Ice Cream
The name Ikkyu-an comes from a legendary Japanese monk who owned a restaurant. He apparently built a door that was lower than standard so all guests who entered had to bow down. The premise behind this strange construction decision is so everyone in the restaurant are equal, at least while they are all inside Ikkyu-an's little eatery. A cute story, no doubt, but also aspirational for the little restaurant these two friends build together. Just as the monk wishes to inspire others to practice mutual respect, so do these two chefs who recognize their prospective strengths and, ultimately, trust the other to lead their venture towards success.
Ikkyu-an is at G/F Somerset Millenium, Aguirre Street, Legazpi Village, Makati City.