Kazu Fukumoto, Chef /owner of Austin’s Fukumoto Restaurant, has three things that really drive him and combined, create a synergy that makes his restaurant truly special.
First of all, he is passionate about the expression of his culture. Though he came from his native Fukuoka Japan almost two decades ago, he strives for an authenticity of space and experience. This is evident in the smallest of details from the traditional Japanese interiors; plaster walls incorporating hay created by his father Mitsunari, to the use of vintage barn wood and river stone surfaces, to astonishingly, the Japanese oak binchōtan imported to fire his yakitori grill.
Secondly, he has a strong emotional connection to his cuisine. Chef Kazu’s mother passed when he was only sixteen, but his face lights up when he describes first learning to cook in his mother’s kitchen. Many of his dishes, sauces, and techniques have a connection to recipes and lessons from his mother and even his grandmother.
Lastly, chef Kazu is obsessive about details, making in-house, items that could be more easily or economically sourced; perpetually maintained Tare seasoning (special grilling sauce), house-cured salmon roe, house-made pickles, and fresh pickled wasabi root to name just a few.
He, along with a team of eleven, carve sometimes massive pieces of fish sourced from the Tokyo Fish Market (among others), prepare wonderful Hokkaido Uni, Japanese pork belly, outrageously pedigreed Wagyu beef, and even tiny Japanese river crabs on a daily basis.
Fukumoto is by concept an Izakaya style restaurant, the Japanese version of our gastropubs or Spanish tapas bars. They feature a wide assortment of small-plate items for sharing: various salads (including black seaweed), steamed mussels, fried tempura and karaage items, many amazing grilled yakitori items, all in addition to excellent nigiri sushi and a few traditional maki rolls. In keeping with the liquid side of the Izakaya concept, Fukumoto carries over thirty-eight premium sake varieties, fifteen Japanese beers, and dozens of other global wines and cocktails.
Chef Kazu started his sushi career at Musashino Sushi Dokoro which many consider the honorary ancestor of many of Austin’s popular and famous Japanese restaurants. Tyson Cole of Uchi fame, Také Asazu of Komé, and Ramen Tatsu-ya’s Tatsu Aikawa and Takuya Matsumoto also trace some of their training to Takehiko (Smokey) Fuse at Musashino. Kazu eventually rose to the position of head chef, a position he held for eleven years before opening his own restaurant.
Perfectly in line with Austin’s trend of brewpubs and small eclectic restaurants, Fukumoto feels much like the small after-work restaurants I’ve been taken to by colleagues in Japan. Comfort and authentic food are why in addition to a trendy, and certainly food savvy young crowd, it is not uncommon to see Japanese businessmen indulging in a taste of home.
Fukumoto has the same ‘otherness’ that I used to feel at Musashino when it was on Greystone in northwest Austin. A sense that just outside could be a busy Japanese street.
Behind the sushi bar is a blur of activity with sushi chefs preparing orders and other chefs tending the yakitori grill, but the main restaurant feels welcoming and is an easy place to linger. A small private dining room for ten to twelve guests behind the bar is quiet, and a great way to experience the restaurant as well.
On both of my recent visits to Fukumoto, our meal started with a grilled Tuna collar – a relative newcomer to the Austin food scene, fish collars (clavicle bones) are vaguely J-shaped structures between a fish’s gills and the rest of its body. They are difficult to carve, but are filled with tender, fatty meat and are a highly prized delicacy.
At Fukumoto, Tuna collars are hand carved, basted with Chef Kazu’s secret ‘tare’ recipe (now four years in the making), and grilled over oak charcoal. The slightly sweet ‘tare’ glaze is wonderful on the tender, smoky tuna meat tucked through the bone structures.
Fish collars are a bit of an effort to eat, but a slow pace and good sake make it worth the while.
We followed the collar with a bowl of black hijiki seaweed salad. Different from the typical green seaweed, the hijiki variety is a bit more savory and is served with bits of carrot, small slices of lotus root, and shelled edamame.
Next came two of my favorite dishes. Chef Kazu introduced us to his Hokkaido Uni pasta; imported sea urchin with al dente pasta, a touch of cream, and beautiful salmon roe. It has a very delicate fresh briny taste that blends beautifully with just a tiny amount of cream. It was followed by pasta mixed with in-shell clams, a bit of broth and Japanese mushrooms. Both dishes are full of delicate and amazing flavors.
After the pasta, we sampled several items from the busy grill. We ordered several skewers of; King Salmon, incredibly tasty Pork Belly, (mostly mild) Shishito Peppers, and one unusual delicacy: Bonjiri, affectionately called “Chicken Booty.” The last item is sometimes ordered in large quantities by some of Fukumoto’s Japanese customers.
Throughout the meal, we enjoyed an excellent Tatenokawa Phoenix junmai daiginjo (super premium) sake. It had a crisp, refreshing floral quality with a hint of black licorice that worked well with the full range of dished we had.
Sushi is an important part of Fukumoto, so we had to try several nigiri items. The otoro (prized super fatty tuna belly) as expected was unbelievably rich and buttery and topped simply with fresh pickled wasabi.
Otoro is typically expensive, but for a taste you can almost feel in your whole body, it is always worth the price.
We followed the tuna with; Ocean Trout, Orange Fed snapper and Hamachi Toro. Each was served simply and had a very clean and delicate flavor – Orange Fed snapper quite literally follows its name. Penned snapper are actually fed oranges and eventually take on the taste.
Our final dishes are also quite popular at Fukumoto – Chef Kazu created a classic Mont Blanc, (sponge cake and ice cream), completely covered with matcha (tea) icing reminiscent of green spaghetti and decorated with edible flowers. Even though it came at the end of a large meal, it vanished quickly.
Chefs’ other dessert was Tofu à l’éponge – house-made tofu over sponge cake with shiso syrup and honey syrup to pour on top. It was a lovely combination of flavors that would bring to mind a light cheesecake with a hint of the mint-like shiso leaves used in the syrup.
Hours later, in true Izakaya style – we had drunk well, eaten even better and had shared it with excellent company.
Fukumoto is at located at 514 Medina St, on east 6th Street just a couple of blocks east of I-35.