As a Shinjin (a newbie in a company), my first three months in Yaeyama Islands were some of the most mentally exhausting periods in my life – the long working hours, top-down management style, cultural differences, and the gap between expectation and realities – all that had been overwhelming for a university graduate who had little experience in the “real” Japanese society.
Perhaps good food can’t mend a broken heart, nor can it solve your problem, but at least it distracts you, and give you the energy to get through another day. And Solemare was one of those places in Ishigaki that guarantee such a quality food therapy. I went there whenever I get a day off, chewing on my pasta while thinking about life, and thanks to Sato-san, who has always been so willing to listen and to share, my partially self-induced misery has been effectively cured on those exhausted nights.
But even without this personal episode, Solemare is still one of the best restaurants in Ishigaki for its authenticity, consistency, and insistence on using the best ingredients on the season.
As a young chef, Sato-san first came to the Yaeyama Islands some 20 years ago to work in one of the resort hotels on Iriomote island, the jungle paradise 40 minutes away by ferry from Ishigaki.
His boss then gave him a task of incorporating local ingredients into Italian cuisine. Straightforward as it sounds, local ingredients could be tricky as they are often of different varieties and reflect different terroir than those produced elsewhere. Due to high minerality and full exposure to the sun, island vegetables sometimes could have flavors that are too strong or special for the traditional repertoire.
To take on the challenge, Sato-san spent many hours in the market on familiarizing himself with the character and seasonality of the ingredients, and modify his recipe to bring the best out of them. Imported ingredients are sometimes used to complement the flavor of locally produced vegetables. He even spent a year in Southern Italy to learn authentic Italian cooking. After that, he worked in several famous Italian restaurants before he finally returned to Ishigaki to open his own restaurant, Solemare, in 2000.
The task that his boss assigned to him has become his lifetime work. He is constantly experimenting with Okinawan ingredients. For example, he replaced the potato with Beni-imo yam in making Gnocchi, which gives it a more glutinous texture and sweet aroma.
He also takes his inspiration from Okinawan culinary tradition such as Tebichi (pig trotters simmered in awamori liquor and soy sauce). His Italian version of Tebichi-Chura-Buta Pork Bollito removed soy sauce, concentrating the umami of pork to the maximum with simple seasoning. It’s simmered to the point that you can easily tear the skin and the meat apart with your tongue.
I’m a big fan of octopus, and Ishigaki Island has some of the best quality Shima-taco (island taco) in Japan, yet chefs in Ishigaki invariably deal with it by deep-frying or serving it raw. That’s why Sato-san’s signature appetizer –marinated octopus with dried tomato –was such a delight to me. And their house wine, Trebbiano Del Rubicon from Tuscany, the refreshing apple and lemon note and pleasant acidity will wash away the saltiness from the sea lingering on your tongue.
Solemare also offers an extensive menu of pasta: from classic carbonara to tomato pasta with tuna brought by the warm currents of Kuroshio. My guilty pleasure is the Porcini mushroom fettuccine –fresh mushroom and cream sauce could never go wrong. And unlike some Italian chefs in Japan, Sato-san –a slender and soft-spoken gentleman – is never shy from putting lots of cream and cheese into his dish. It’s also possible to replace fettuccine with other hand-made pasta (ask staff for more options).
For you dessert-lovers, the Jasmine-scented Panna Cotta and Brown Sugar Tiramisu are not to be missed. With a cup of expresso, and a pleasant chat with Sato-san, a day on the island is beautifully wrapped up.
Misaki-cho 2 Daiwai Building 1F