Pulse News Mexico photo/Melissa T. Castro

By THÉRÈSE MARGOLIS

When it comes to food, the Japanese tend to be purists.

Ask for a California roll or shrimp sushi with mayonnaise (as it is commonly served in Moscow) at a traditional restaurant in Osaka, and you are likely to earn a scornful glare of disapproval from your chef or server, if not an invitation to go elsewhere.

Pulse News Mexico photo/Melissa T. Castro

The Japanese obsession with culinary purism is rooted in the fact that from the early 17th century until 1853, the country was almost completely closed off from the rest of the world, and all cultural legacies — from painting to music to, yes, food preparation — were considered crucial elements of their national and ethnic identity. So for Japanese foodie sophists, any variation on the delicately perfect dishes that have endured as culinary art on their island for centuries is nothing short of gastronomic sacrilege.

In fact, in 2013, devout followers of washoku (traditional Japanese cookery), for whom the inclusion of any foreign ingredients or Western-style preparation techniques is a unthinkable desecration of their ancient cultural legacy, actually went to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to have Nipponese cuisine added to the World Heritage as an “endangered national endowment.”

And so, when “Iron Chef” Masaharu Morimoto alumni Makoto Okuwa decided to buck the washoku pedants and fuse traditional Japanese cooking with hints of international flavors and contemporary innovations in his namesake restaurant in Bal Harbor, Florida, back in 2011, it was anybody’s guess whether the new eatery would be a boom or a bust with the Japanese food dogmatists.

Pulse News Mexico photo/Melissa T. Castro

But Makoto — who apprenticed under esteemed sushi master Shinichi Takegasa in Japan for more than a decade before moving to the United States, where he worked in high-end Japanese restaurants in Washington, D.C., New York and California and was named Star Chef’s New York Rising Star of 2006 — never forsaked his classic edomae-sushi training and the fundamental washoku principals of seasonality and balance.

Consequently, Makoto, despite pushing the boundaries of traditional Japanese cooking, became a resounding success almost overnight, both with his Japanese and Western clienteles.

Signature dishes such as spicy edamame in fiery chili sauce and truffled tuna with tempura flakes jettisoned the restaurant into the international spotlight, and pretty soon there was a second Makoto in Panama City.

Photo: Makoto

Four years ago, a third Makoto restaurant premiered in Mexico City’s upscale Colonia Polanco, and, despite the devastating financial effects of the covid-19 pandemic, it is still going strong.

Located on the upstairs floor of a tiny commercial plaza on the corner of Campos Elíseos and Julio Verne, Makoto has a bright, airy feel with a slick, contemporary décor and uncluttered, understated elegance.

There are plenty of options for dining, whether it be at the ultra-long and impeccably  immaculate sushi bar, the seated inside dining area or the easy-breezy, open-air tables on the terraza.

And while the occasionally over-decibelled house music can be a bit overwhelming at times, the attentive, friendly service and exquisite cuisine certainly make up for any inconvenience of having to raise your voice to be heard over the pounding background soundtrack.

Photo: Makoto

The food, of course, is the main attraction at Makoto, and with over 100 items on the menu, your biggest concern may be trying to narrow down the options of what to order.

At the recommendation of the in-house chef César Ramírez, my daughter and I opted for a five-course meal of sushi, edamame, miso soup and chicken teppan, with a gelatined choco bar and coffee ice cream for dessert. All the dishes at Makoto are served in visually pleasing presentations and generous portions, so sharing is not only acceptable but expected.

First up was a tray of beautifully arranged futomaki sushi rolls, with salmon (once considered an absolute no-no in washoku cuisine), bluefin tuna, crab, red roe, steamed rice, nori seaweed, egg and avocado (still considered an absolute no-no with hardcore washoku purists, but, hey, it tastes so good in sushi, even diehard traditional Japanese food sticklers are giving it a pass) all rolled into a thick, corpulent circlet of colorful deliciousness.

Pulse News Mexico photo/Melissa T. Castro

The sushi rolls were served along with traditional garnishes of pickled ginger slices and wasabi, but to give the dish a true Makoto twist, the accompanying soy sauce had a dash of fresh orange nectar that gave the futomaki an unexpected burst of contrasting tart and sweet flavors that harmonized perfectly in the mouth.

The spicy edamame — which chef Ramírez said is a “must-have” on every Makoto table — also had an unusual twist: The steamed soybeans were drenched in a peppery sweet sauce with a kick of garlic and ginger that was reminiscent of a Chinese General Tso coulis. Sheer culinary ecstasy!

For the most part, miso soup is miso soup, and there isn’t much you can do to alter it.

This Japanese answer to Western chicken soup (Jewish penicillin) is considered the ideal Asian comestible remedy for sniff-ly noses and congested chests, and chef Makoto was smart enough to not mess much with the traditional recipe.

Pulse News Mexico photo/Melissa T. Castro

He did, however add a shot of sake and mixed in a blend of different fish and seafoods, all super fresh, to give it a zesty zing and a rich, golden hue.

But it was the main course, the chicken teppan, that was the most surprising and delightful jolt on the palate.

Far from the modern parade of vegetables and meats grilled by a sabre-wielding sous-chef, juggling utensils and flipping shrimp tails onto your plate from a flat-top grill, the Makoto chicken teppan was served in an iron skillet already prepared and with a modest mixture of chopped onions and green peppers.

The dish was lightly seasoned with salt, pepper, sake and vinegar, not smothered in garlic or ginger, so the natural taste of the ingredients shined through.

But what really made this teppan stand out was the fact that it was served not with the standard Kikkoman ponzu and sesame sauces, but with a creamy Mediterranean-style yogurt and dill sauce, similar to that which would come with a Greek gyro.

Pulse News Mexico photo/Melissa T. Castro

If you had asked me beforehand if I thought that this unusual combination would have worked, I would have answered a resounding “no.”

But once I tasted the teppan chicken cubes dipped in the dilled yogurt, it was culinary love at first bite. Certainly not a marriage of ingredients that a fundamentalist washoku-phile would approve of, the teppan and yogurt was a gastronomic match made in heaven, with the grassy undertones of the dill accentuating and amplifying the subtle taste of the grilled chicken.

To accompany the teppan, chef Ramírez threw in a bowl of brown rice with minutely chopped carrots, chives and corn kernels, all pressure-steamed with a splash of aromatic sake.

Pulse News Mexico photo/Melissa T. Castro

The sweetness of the corn, carrots and sake balanced perfectly against the savory and astringent tastes of the rice and chives to create a euphonious amalgam of flavors on the tongue.

The dessert was almost too pretty to eat, an artistic display of gelled chocolate mousse with blades of dark chocolate tipped with gold leaf projecting upward, accompanied by a bowl of dark roast Arabica coffee bean ice cream.

In keeping with elite Japanese standards, Makoto also has a selection of more than 10 different types of sake to choose from, served either cold or hot, according to your preference.

And for real Japanese food aficionados, the restaurant offers three special events each month: a sushi and sake pairing meal, a chef’s table dinner with Ramírez providing personal insights into Makoto’s culinary secrets, and a seven-course omakase lunch of a whole giant bluefish tuna brought in from Sonora. (The dates of these special events vary each month, so call ahead to check when they are happening.)

More information:

Makoto is located at Campos Elíseos 295, in Mexico City’s Colonia Polanco (phone: 55-5281-5686). It is open Monday through Wednesday from 1 p.m. to 11 p.m., Thursday through Saturday from 1 p.m. to midnight, and Sunday from1 p.m. to 6 p.m. Valet parking is available in the front of the plaza or there is a self-parking lot behind the restaurant. Reservations are highly advised. All major credit cards are accepted.

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