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Japanese pub experience in Lucerne
Benjamin Egli-Iwasaki is obsessed in the best possible sense of the word. He's fanatical about Japanese cuisine. And in true "Izakaya" style, guests are expected to share their food at his restaurant in Lucerne's old town.
The route to this Japanese gourmet paradise leads straight to prison. To Lucerne's historic main prison at Löwengraben, where prisoners were kept behind bars until 1998. These days, the prison houses a hotel and Benjamin Egli-Iwasaki's restaurant. And visitors are captured only by the sophistication of the Japanese food culture.
Eating in an Izakaya, a kind of Japanese pub, is all about sharing. Guests help themselves to whatever food is on the table. And you don't order just one or two courses, but rather a variety of different dishes – similar to the Spanish tapas culture – so that everyone at the table can enjoy a culinary journey through Japan. As a result, you don't pay more than CHF 20 per plate. Host Egli-Iwasaki likes to see emotions running high – as is customary in an Izakaya – with people laughing, crying, swearing and flirting. His Izakaya is intended to be a place of spontaneous encounter where the love of authentic Japanese cooking is the unifying element.
Away from the omnipresent sushi mainstream, chef Egli serves up the kind of food for which minimalist, fresh Japanese cuisine has long been celebrated in gourmet circles. From miso, yuzu, soya and mirin to ponzu, sashimi, tempura and yakitori. Not to mention slippery fish, crispy bird, hearty beef and pork. Japanese cuisine has some similarities to that of other East Asian countries, however oil and spices are used much more sparingly. There is a much greater focus on maintaining the original flavour of the fresh products. "I like natural cuisine. While Mediterranean cuisine sparkles with a thousand spices, Japanese cuisine dazzles with the bare essentials", says Egli. One such example that always impresses the Europeans is "Jiimamii Dofu". The combination of peanuts, potato starch, soy sauce, sugar and sake – although incomprehensible at first – results in a wonderfully surprising dish that could easily double up as a starter or dessert. But one thing's for sure, Jiimamii Dofu promises an exciting voyage of adventure into a whole new world of flavours.
No Japanese dish is complete without a fresh, chilled beer or delicious cup of sake. This is also usually enjoyed cold – especially the good quality sake. Shochu, also known as Japanese vodka, is recommended for anyone wanting to finish off the culinary experience with something a little stronger. The only food that Benjamin doesn't expect his Swiss guests to have to eat and that therefore doesn't feature on his menu are fish guts, chicken sashimi and Hotaruika, a type of fermented raw squid with a very strong smell.
Benjamin Egli was born in Lucerne in 1991. His parents travelled a lot with him and his two brothers and introduced him to cuisine from all over the world. He developed an interest in cooking and food from a young age. The father of one of his school friends, for whom Benjamin cooked as a 14-year-old, complained that he'd tried to impress his daughter with his own amateur cooking skills but never stood a chance against Beni. Benjamin went on to train as a chef. "I became a chef, not just because it's my chosen profession but because it's my calling! I'm always full of ideas. Something always has to be going on. I want to keep my own stress levels high. For me, reducing the tempo would be a little like dying".
Benjamin's moment of revelation came during a stay in Vancouver. That's where he met his wife, Yuko. Not only did he find his true love, but it also sparked his passion for Japanese food and culture. "I was completely fascinated by her. Our restaurant wouldn't exist if it weren't for her. She also watches closely to make sure that we uphold the quality standards of Japanese cuisine". Benjamin visited Japan as often as possible. He knows enough Japanese to get by. He's at his best when he's talking about food and cooking. "But if my cooking was as poor as my Japanese, there would be no Nozomi".
Led by master chef Takumi Murase, he spent a winter season working as a chef at Restaurant Megu in the 5-star Hotel Alpina in Gstaad, where he honed his understanding of his chosen cuisine. He married his wife in Japan in spring 2014 and explored the cuisine of Kyushu, Osaka and Hokkaido. He created lots of his own recipes and asked for cooking methods and tips from Japanese restaurants. He also watched cooking programmes featuring Japanese chefs. "My first deep-fried chicken in Japan was an enlightening experience. This is how chicken should taste!" The Japanese eat a lot of chicken, fish, beef and pork. Veal is not very common and lamb is considered Mongolian cuisine. In Japan, love is expressed much more through the stomach than here in Switzerland. Niku Jaga is a dish comprising beef and potatoes. After the first few dates, the woman is expected to cook the man a Niku Jaga. The quality of the meal determines whether the relationship has a future.
They decided to open their own Izakaya in summer 2018 – at the same time as their son, Akira, was born. Nozomi translates as "hope" and "humility". The restaurant was a hit from the start. According to Benjamin Egli, "it was just sensational". Lucerne loves Japan.
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