The certification program of Japanese Food and Ingredient Supporter Stores Overseas
Interview of Supporter Stores YOKARI
Expressing a Japan that goes beyond high-quality Japanese food
Riyadh / Saudi Arabia
Pursuing originality using exquisite Japanese spices
In the heart of Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia, one of the highest end Japanese restaurants is located inside Saudi Arabia’s most exclusive shopping center, Centria, which houses a dazzling array of international luxury brand stores. The restaurant, called YOKARI, has a Japanese chef working as the chief chef since October 2017. His name is Sato, and he is the only Japanese chef in Riyadh.
As there are approximately 20 Japanese restaurants in Riyadh, what causes the city’s epicures to praise YOKARI’s sushi as the most delicious sushi in Riyadh? The key is the frozen seafood ingredients for sushi, which are imported from Japan even though direct flights from Japan to Saudi Arabia are still unavailable. In addition, as alcohol is strictly prohibited across the kingdom, cooking each dish in Saudi Arabia requires an extra technique. Sato, as a Japanese chef, takes advantage of his asset—his familiarity with Japanese spices including yuzu (citrus fruit), sansho (Japanese pepper) and shichimi (common Japanese spice mixture including chili). His ingenious use of Japanese spice complements each individual dish with its unique, striking flavor. Sato says, “In a moment tasting our food, you will be mesmerized by the unusual flavor that no other restaurants have ever tried.” YOKARI’s core customer stratum is Saudi Arabian well-to-do women and most of them are regular customers. YOKARI’s established uniqueness surely has led to achieving this high repeat rate. The restaurant’s popular dishes include beef carpaccio with radish, drizzled with sansho oil and mushroom risotto with butter-based shiitake broth. The risotto, dressed with thinly sliced ginger and soy sauce-flavored thick soup, has a perfect balance of springy texture of rice and the thickness of the soup. The aroma of the flavorful shiitake is also impressive.
Unlike in Dubai, Sato needs different kinds of creative ideas in Saudi Arabia
Since Sato worked for five years in Dubai after in New York, he has ample experience in working overseas, especially in the Middle East. However, he realizes that each respective restaurant industry in Dubai and Saudi Arabia may seem similar, but in fact they are quite different. In Dubai, restaurant customers are mainly cosmopolitan tourists while in Saudi Arabia, most customers are local residents who have distinctive senses of taste and aesthetics. In the Saudi Arabian restaurant industry, Sato is particular about tableware as well as ingredients. Considering the tastes of the Saudi people, who prefer flamboyant colors, he placed a custom order with an Okinawa-based potter Atsushi Izena for a set of platters with images of Arabian deserts, bright skies, traditional mud houses and modern buildings. Fresh sushi rolls, which are made with seafood from Japan, are placed on the bright sky blue colored platter. This is like an exquisite work of art. Some dishes are garnished with edible flowers. All these ideas can appeal to the Saudi people—who love social media—and all the cuisine is a feast for both their eyes and taste buds.
Generally, the Saudi people are so conservative when it comes to food that they are likely to avoid unfamiliar food and dishes, which is also quite different from people in Dubai. When introducing a new dish, the chef himself visits each table and recommends each customer to taste it. The chef also explains what ingredients and seasonings are used in the dish and how it is cooked, as well as the characters and stories of the food producers in order to help them overcome their consevativeness. Many regular customers try unusual food just because Chef Sato recommends it with confidence. Saudi customers certainly trust Sato.
YOKARI acting as a bridge linking two countries
YOKARI is enthusiastic about not only providing fine Japanese cuisine, but holding a wide range of events because Sato has a strong aspiration to promote Japanese cultures and strengthen the ties between both countries. In the restaurant, many different kinds of events have been held one after another, such as a hands-on class on the Japanese tea ceremony by a Kyoto-based expert exclusive for visitors, a rolled sushi cooking class, a time-limited pop-up store dealing with kimono-patterned abaya cloaks (traditional dark-colored clothing to cover the whole body of women) and JAPAN NIGHT, in which Japanese pop music is played. Currently, Sato is seeking to create a fusion dish of Saudi and Japanese cuisine that no one has ever attempted. A dish for sampling seemed well received by the Saudi people. “I want to contribute to expanding Japanese content business, which is very popular in Saudi Arabia, for example, holding concerts of Japanese traditional musical instruments.” Sato is always full of unconventional ideas. Far from Japan, Sato tirelessly works on introducing the whole Japanese culture through Japanese cuisine.