Book review by Kristina Sepetys
Sylvan Mishima Brackett is the owner and chef of the much-celebrated Rintaro, a Japanese izakaya restaurant in San Francisco’s Mission district. Izakayas are informal restaurants serving drinks and snacks, but Brackett takes such simple fare to another level with a deeply ingrained aesthetic that comes through in every dish. He describes Rintaro’s food as neither fusion nor strictly traditional. It’s “food that imagines California as the farthest western prefecture of Japan.” He serves it all in an equally beautiful environment, a wood-hewn space constructed by his carpenter father.
Born in Kyoto, Japan, and raised in the foothills of California’s Sierra Nevada, Sylvan Brackett trained—or, as he describes it, learned to “cook with heart”—at Soba Ro in Saitama, a quiet agricultural area north of Tokyo. Back in California, he worked at Chez Panisse as Alice Waters’s assistant and then as her creative director. Before opening Rintaro, he ran a catering company, Peko Peko, out of his charmingly appointed garage in Oakland.
Brackett gives his food a distinctly Northern California inflection with high-quality ingredients sourced locally. He uses eggs from Riverdog Farm’s pasture-raised chickens, bamboo shoots grown at a small specialty produce farm outside of Sacramento, silver cod and other fish caught from local waters, wasabi grown in Half Moon Bay, ume plums from a farm outside Davis, and Japanese cucumbers from Watsonville. These go into delicious dishes that keep diners returning, like slow-cooked broth with hand-rolled udon noodles, exquisitely fresh sashimi, pan-fried gyoza, creamy house-made tofu, and yakitori (skewers of smoky, charred grilled meat and other bits, like trumpet mushrooms).
Recipes for many of the restaurant’s beloved dishes appear in Brackett’s new book, Rintaro: Japanese Food from an Izakaya in California. Organized by types of dishes—sashimi, tofu and eggs, yakitori, noodles, fried and simmered dishes, desserts—the recipes have been adapted for accessibility to home cooks. Few involve more than half a dozen ingredients and all come with straightforward instructions and sourcing tips like where to get the best sashimi-grade fish in the Bay Area, how to make different cuts of fish and meat and the best knife to use for each, and where to source specialty ingredients.
The book is filled with stories and memories from Brackett’s childhood and life in cooking, which are illustrated with photographs by his sister, Aya Mishima Brackett, and charming images of Brackett’s own design. But the appeal of this large and handsome volume goes far beyond the autobiographical as it satisfies any cook looking for expert instruction on modern Japanese cookery. Inspiration comes in recipes for plump, juicy chicken meatballs, curries and fried cutlets over rice, silken tofu made from sweet soy milk, and gyoza dumplings in a batter so light it creates a lacy web around the pieces.
Following are recipes for two popular Rintaro desserts, excerpted with permission from Rintaro: Japanese Food from an Izakaya in California by Sylvan Mishima Brackett published by Hardie Grant Publishing, October 2023, RRP $40.00 Hardcover.
HOJICHA PANNA COTTA
There is nothing at all green about this green tea panna cotta. That’s because the tea leaves have first been roasted, transforming them from bright green to chestnut brown. I was surprised to learn that hojicha tea has only been around for 100 years or so, a baby compared to the centuries-old history of matcha tea. But hojicha’s distinctive earthy, nutty flavor works particularly well in a panna cotta. And while the pudding itself has a light tea flavor and is not particularly sweet, the hojicha syrup served alongside is highly sweetened, with a very concentrated tea flavor. The caramelized almond wafer cookies we serve alongside are a crunchy counterpoint to the silky custard.
Just before we opened the restaurant, our then-pastry chef, Junko, spent some time interning in the Chez Panisse pastry kitchen. The addition of hojicha in the custard and syrup are hers, but she tells me the basic panna cotta recipe was adapted from the Chez Panisse recipe. That was news to me, but I’m happy for this connection back to the mother ship.
Makes 8 servings
FOR THE PANNA COTTA:
- 3 tablespoons water
- 1 tablespoon powdered gelatin
- 2½ cups / 600ml heavy cream
- 1½ cups / 355ml whole milk
- 5 tablespoons / 60 g sugar
- 1½ teaspoons / 6 g hojicha tea
FOR THE SYRUP:
- 1 cup / 200 g sugar
- ½ cup / 118ml water
- 2 tablespoons / 24 g hojicha tea
- Almond Cookies (below), for serving
To make the panna cotta: Put the water in a small bowl and sprinkle the gelatin over. Let it stand for 5 minutes.
In a 2-qt / 1.9L saucepan over medium-low heat, combine the cream, milk, sugar, and tea. Heat the mixture until it registers 160°F / 71°C on an instant-read thermometer, stirring occasionally to prevent the cream from scalding (don’t overheat the cream mixture; it will cause the butterfat to separate). Remove the pan from the heat and whisk in the gelatin mixture. Let stand until it’s at room temperature, then divide evenly among eight 6-oz / 177 ml ramekins. Transfer the dishes to the refrigerator, lightly covered with plastic wrap, and chill for at least 4 hours or overnight. The panna cotta will keep, refrigerated, for up to 3 days.
To make the syrup: In a medium saucepan over high heat, bring the sugar, water, and tea to a boil. Turn down the heat to medium-low and cook for 35 minutes, until the syrup has thickened and turned chestnut brown. It should have the consistency of warm maple syrup. Strain through a fine-mesh strainer into a clean bowl and let it cool to room temperature. The syrup will keep, refrigerated, for up to a month.
Serve the panna cotta cold with a small pitcher of the syrup for pouring and the almond cookies alongside.
The melted butter and pastry flour give these cookies a tender, snappy texture. At the restaurant, we serve them with our panna cotta, but they’re great accompanying a cup of tea or as a garnish for a bowl of ice cream.
Makes about 100 cookies
- 3 cups / 325 g pastry flour
- ¼ teaspoon baking soda1 stick / 113 g unsalted butter, cut into pieces
- 5½ tablespoons / 80 ml water
- 1 cup / 85 g sliced almonds
- 1½ cups / 300 g demerara sugar or light brown sugar
Line an 8-inch / 20 cm square pan with parchment paper. Sift the flour and baking soda together in a large bowl. In a large saucepan over medium heat, melt the butter with the water. Remove the pan from the heat, add the almonds, and mix to combine. Add the sugar and mix to combine, then stir in the flour mixture and mix until a smooth dough forms. Let cool slightly, until the dough is beginning to firm up a bit.
Transfer the dough to the prepared pan and spread into an even 8-inch / 20 cm by 6-inch / 15 cm rectangle. Transfer the pan to the freezer and freeze for 90 minutes, until the dough is completely frozen.
Preheat the oven to 350°F / 175°C. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.
Remove the pan from the freezer and transfer the frozen dough to a cutting board. Peel off the parchment paper, then cut into two 8 by 3-inch / 20 by 7.5 cm rectangles. Return one rectangle of dough to the pan, then put in the freezer.
Slice the remaining rectangle of dough into wafer-thin cookies, aiming for a thickness of about ¹⁄₁₆ inch / 2 mm. Place the cookies on the prepared baking sheet, spacing them about ½ inch / 12 mm apart. Bake until the cookies are golden brown, 13 to 15 minutes, rotating the pan halfway through the baking time. Remove the pan from the oven and let the cookies cool on the pan; they’ll continue to crisp as they cool. Repeat with the remaining dough. Store any leftover cookies in an airtight container for up to 1 week. The dough will also keep frozen, well-wrapped in plastic wrap, for up to 2 months.