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Flatt’s, a guesthouse in Noto-Cho, Japan, is operated by an inventive Australian chef and his local-born wife. It offers a view of the Sea of Japan.

Edward Schneider, Washington Post

Japanese guesthouse serves food with an Italian flourish

  • Article by: Edward Schneider
  • Washington Post
  • February 1, 2013 - 1:27 PM

Located near a fishing village on the Sea of Japan, Flatt’s is a guesthouse and restaurant operated by an Australian chef and his local-born wife. It’s a small, traditional place of the kind you see all over Japan: There are four guest rooms with tatami-mat floors, futon bedding and views over the garden and out to the sea, indoor and outdoor bathhouses and a dining room furnished with low tables and cushions.

After meals, the owners spend time chatting with their guests. The ingredients are hyper-seasonal, ultra-local and fresher than most you’ll ever see.

But there’s a twist: Ben Flatt’s training is mainly in Italian cooking. And that’s what he’s pursuing, in his own way, on the Noto Peninsula, north of Kanazawa.

When traveling in Japan, my wife and I have always steered clear of Western food (except for pastries). But how could we resist something like this?

For people like us, who speak little Japanese (or none, in my case), arrival at a rural guesthouse can seem fraught with uncertainty and misunderstandings, although the ending is invariably happy. Here at Flatt’s, those first steps are easy: The owners speak English. Ben Flatt met his wife, Chikako, when she was teaching in Sydney, and he followed her home to Noto, where they’ve been for 17 years.

The absence of a language barrier means that you can ask even complicated questions — and that you’ll enjoy a fuller experience. We’ve had great fun in places where scant English is spoken, but we’ve missed real interaction with the hosts and with other guests. At Flatt’s, this conversational dimension is restored, and it makes a memorable difference.

 

For dinner we were offered the option of sitting at a Western-style table. This was sorely tempting, until we saw that it would isolate us from the main action. So we chose Japanese-style seating.

We began with a potato soup that said a lot about the restaurant. The potatoes were home-grown; the savoriness came in part from ishiri, a deeply flavorful liquid made from fermented salted squid innards. Most people buy ishiri in bottles; Ben brews his own, and it is remarkable in the way it adds savoriness without the flavor of seafood. This soup tasted not of squid, but of potatoes, enhanced. There was good focaccia, from the Flatts’ own nearby bakery/cafe.

For the most part, the remainder of our meal was seafood-based. The fishing boats go out around 3 a.m. and return a few hours later. Seafood comes into the kitchen in prime condition and alive.

The next dish was notably tender whelk in a gentle garlicky emulsion — the first detectable garlic we’d had since arriving in Japan 12 days earlier. Then, another gastropod: sazae (turban shell) with basil dressing, served alongside slices of raw hiramasa (yellowtail amberjack) with a homemade salt/yuzu/chili condiment (yunanba) that had been aged for two years.

Pasta followed: herb-scented egg noodles with squid, served atop a black sauce made with fresh squid ink and more ishiri. Again, the ishiri was there to deepen flavors, not replace them; I wouldn’t have recognized its presence without prompting. The dish was lovely and the flavors elegantly balanced.

A small lettuce and tomato salad also came from the Flatts’ garden. Crackling-crisp fried okoze (stonefish) followed, with yuzu, thyme and local (of course) sea salt. Then a shiitake mushroom-cap “steak” with ishiri and Parmesan. All that savoriness may sound overwhelming, but it wasn’t.

Finally, a fine fish we’d eaten several times on this trip: nodoguro (black-throat sea perch), topped with mild home-salted cod roe and lots of herbs and served with a light pan sauce. It was perfectly cooked.

A light dessert and tea from the Flatts’ own tree for my wife (espresso for me) were followed by a relaxing hot bath and a comfortable night’s sleep.

Breakfast surprise

We didn’t know what to expect in the morning: croissants or wild vegetables. The latter came closer to what we found on our breakfast table: many little dishes, entirely Japanese, including tofu and various vegetable preparations along with broth in a big scallop shell over a burner, in which we were invited to poach squid rings and an assortment of vegetables.

Apart from that breakfast, it’s hard to slip Ben’s cooking into either an Italian or a Japanese pigeonhole. He’s doing what good cooks should always do: bringing his own background and skill to bear on local ingredients and approaches, and doing it with an acute palate and polished technique.

 



 

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