Roaming culinary samurai finds a home

ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Igarashi examines the pages from his culinary sketchbook as he prepares for the opening of pop-up restaurant Ronin.
ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Igarashi examines the pages from his culinary sketchbook as he prepares for the opening of pop-up restaurant Ronin.
Posted: April 04, 2014

THERE'S a certain cinema-stoked romance behind the idea of the ronin, the masterless swordsmen who roamed feudal-era Japan, willing their skills to the highest bidder as mercenaries with little to lose. Movies will have you believe that these stoic warriors, cast out into the wilderness by some evil turn of events, eventually have their day, adhering to a moral code that rewards the just-minded.

Ryo Igarashi doesn't quite buy into it, and he's Japanese.

"It's an unemployed samurai," said Igarashi, chuckling at the chivalrous connotation. "That's kind of like me. I've worked everywhere."

The chef has certainly dedicated most of his time to swinging blades - a little shorter, but equally sharp - since coming to Philly from Japan 17 years ago. The past two, in particular, have been hell, physically, personally and creatively. But it seems that he's finally ready to leave his nastiest stumbles in the past, now that he's been presented with what every chef hopes for at least once a career: a shot at cooking his food, his way.

Global path to Maru

Originally from Kita, a northerly ward of Tokyo, Igarashi came to the States for school but quickly discovered that cooking made more sense to him.

Floating through the ranks as a young chef, he put in time at Amada, Distrito and Raw before the opportunity to open a place of his own came into focus. In 2010, he and his then-wife, Nicole, opened Maru Global, a shop specializing in takoyaki, the griddled batter balls that are a ubiquitous street snack in Japan.

A new concept for Philly, Maru got good reviews, but Igarashi admits that it "never quite popped." A fire and landlord issues led to Maru leaving the space, with plans to relaunch at Headhouse Square's Tokio, owned by Madame Saito, Igarashi's first in-the-biz boss in Philly.

Just as that project was getting started in early 2012, Igarashi banged his head hard on the corner of a prep table when he bent over to pick up a dropped pen.

Visiting the hospital two weeks later with vomiting and splitting headaches, Igarashi was told he'd fractured his skull. Suffering from internal bleeding, he was rushed into emergency brain surgery. After doctors applied more than 100 staples to his head, he began the extremely slow recovery process - but the new restaurant suffered, and closed, as a result.

By mid-2012, life was looking up for the Igarashis, as they won a free, fully loaded food truck in a giveaway from "Honest" Tom McCusker, of Honest Tom's Tacos, and planned to relaunch Maru on four wheels. But the couple split shortly after the acquisition, leaving Igarashi without a cooking foothold to call his own.

Pop-up time

Eager to work but not sure where to go or what he wanted, Igarashi took on any opportunity afforded to him. In early 2013, he hosted an izakaya pop-up at Saito's place but overbooked it, resulting in a not-so-smooth evening.

He worked at Hikaru, the hibachi place in Manayunk. He cooked Thai food for Circles. He jumped back into the employ of his old boss, Jose Garces, at the Atlantic City noodle house Yuboka. He worked for newly minted Food & Wine Magazine Best New Chef Eli Kulp at Old City's Fork. He shucked oysters at Pennsylvania 6. He cooked both savory and pastry at Bella Vista's popular Little Fish.

"I really tried to find a home, where I could get comfortable," said Igarashi of this head-spinning, journeyman period, when he punched more cards in a year than many cooks punch in a decade.

Igarashi still had the fire to open his own place, but not the means - until he was introduced to Kevin Wong, a developer with his own goals for the Philly restaurant scene.

Wong, a Cinnaminson, N.J., native with degrees in design and architecture, was immediately struck by Igarashi's story, as well as the personal cuisine he hoped to share - modern, Asian-influenced cooking that's not beholden to one style, pulling together flavors and skills from multiple disciplines.

"I like the way he thinks," said Wong, who grew up in the industry himself. His parents started with a Chinese takeout in South Jersey, eventually moving into the distribution and real-estate sides of the business. "He's uninhibited."

Though Wong has secured zoning approval for a pending restaurant project near the Pennsylvania Convention Center, it won't be ready until this fall at the earliest. In the meantime, he's teamed up with Igarashi to launch the aptly named Ronin Kitchen, a pop-up restaurant with a distinct vision.

Six courses, three nights

Wong and Igarashi, collaborating once again with Igarashi's old friend Saito in her currently unused Tokio, at 124 Lombard St., have created a streamlined 20-seat BYOB with an open kitchen.

Here, beginning April 10, they'll offer six-course menus three nights a week. Seats, at $53 a head excluding gratuity, must be booked and paid for in advance online at roninkitchen.com. The ticketing system, already in the news thanks to Garces' plans to use a similar setup at his high-end Volver, ensures that Igarashi can land the highest-quality ingredients without waste, according to the chef.

Igarashi is referring to each set of six plates as "volumes," and by the end of Ronin, he'll have the material for a full menu. His first volume - previewed online, it'll change weekly - will feature without-borders spins like buckwheat gnocchi topped with cured cod roe; chazuke-marinated salmon; and ribeye served with a teriyaki variation made with beef jus. Future installments will explore Japanese, Korean, Chinese and French cooking, with no deference toward any one tradition.

"Maru Global was great, but it had a limit in terms of expectations," Igarashi said. "This is more of a space to be creative - more technique, more imagination."

Even though the pop-up is named for a professional wanderer, Igarashi seems ready to settle down. He jokes that Wong, an undefeated amateur kickboxer who also practices mixed martial arts, will beat him down if he doesn't. The fight he's really training for is the one with himself - to prove that he can be knocked down but never knocked out.

"Everything I do, they're going to judge me," he said. "And I want them to."


Drew Lazor has been writing about the local food scene since 2005. His twice-monthly column focuses on unexpected people doing unexpected things in Philadelphia food. If you come across a chef, restaurant, dish or food-related topic that bears investigation, contact him at andrewlazor@gmail.com or on Twitter @drewlazor.

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