To Americans, breakfast means Belgian waffles doused in syrup, fried eggs, and greasy sausage — in other words, sugar, fat, and more fat. But to the Japanese, it means a meal loaded with iron, fiber, and protein, all subtly flavored without the help of grease. Earthy miso soup, koshihikari steamed rice, and gooey soybeans rule the day.
At the recently opened Cassava Bakery + Cafe, Chef Kristoffer Toliao has introduced the Outer Richmond to the best of what Japanese breakfast has to offer. He runs the restaurant with the help of his wife, Yuka Ioroi, in a tiny cafe decked with sprightly flower vases. Trained in Pasadena at Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts, Toliao buffed up on his Japanese cuisine at the Michelin-rated Kikunoi in Tokyo. He said he was stunned by the health-conscious and delectable foods in Japan, and decided to bring them home.
Japanese breakfast ($10) draws upon Toliao's lessons. Sweet and sticky koshihikari rice serves as the canvas for a hodgepodge of colorful ingredients, including a poached egg floating inside a salty dashi broth (in Japan, the traditional onsen tamago egg is slow-cooked in hot springs, but in San Francisco, Toliao's method is simply sous-vide). Other items tossed into the mix include hijiki, a deep purple seaweed simmered for an hour in niban dashi, or second stock, with sauteed carrots, edamame seasoned with sesame oil, and crunchy lotus root. The mellow flavor is delicately balanced between salty and sweet.
To complement the hearty rice mixture is miso soup and traditional natto. The soup is made earthy and delicious with ichiban dashi, or the refined first stock made with kombu (kelp) steeped in katsuobushi (shaved tuna flakes) and combined with in-season root vegetables. Then there's the natto, soybeans fermented in stringy bacillus subtilis. Many first-time samplers of the traditional Japanese dish balk at its bitterness. Toliao made his natto newbie-ready by cutting the pungent flavor with Meyer lemon, a fruit native to China.
Depending on the season, Toliao switches out his ingredients. This fall, he has swapped the simmered hijiki for shira-ae, a tofu salad with in-season shimeji mushrooms, lotus root, hijiki, and yam noodles tossed in creamy tofu dressing. In other dishes, he has included items like a domestic radish. “We want to have the subtlety of the Western influence,” Toliao says. “That's the best way to keep it interesting.
“That's what makes cooking here in San Francisco beautiful,” he adds. “Everyone can have their own take and interpretations.”