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This Japanese restaurant is changing the way we brunch
Japanese Kabocha Curry Shakshuka
Photos: Rachel Vanni/Tasting Table

Start the year off right with the healthy ingredients, dishes and recipes that will stick with you long after you’ve abandoned those pesky resolutions. We're going all in on Clean(er) Eating—and drinking, too.

From the minute you step foot into Bessou, a new restaurant from former artist assistant and hospitality vet Maiko Kyogoku, it's clear you're in for something special. As you decide between dishes like beef tataki salad or octopus a la plancha for dinner, you'll sip cold barley tea and sample homemade pickles. But the real star here is brunch, and the kabocha shakshuka (see the recipe) is not to be missed. Curried roast squash in a puddle of rich shakshuka tomato sauce is topped with baked eggs and miso tofu labneh and served with Texas-sized Japanese milk toast in what might be the best breakfast dish you'll eat all year.

"I can't live without shakshuka," Kyogoku says as she talks about the brunch menu she developed with executive chef Emily Yuen. Between dan dan udon noodles, matcha black sesame babka and a Bloody Mari made with wasabi oil, miso and sake, your head might start spinning with options. But rest easy. Eating at Bessou feels like eating in the comfort of your own home, and Kyogoku wouldn't have it any other way.

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After all, the name Bessou means "home away from home" or "second home" in Japanese, Kyogoku, a native New Yorker, explains. "For me, the hardest part is how to make it more of a restaurant and less of my actual second home," she says of the new digs. 

Spice canisters holding everything from soba noodles and bonito flakes to dried mushrooms.

With a father who owned a beloved sushi spot on the Upper West Side for 30 years, Kyogoku's inclination makes sense. "We were a restaurant family," she says. "At least once a week, we would go out to eat Japanese food and check out the competition." Most other nights Kyogoku's mom would cook at home, often making lavish spreads. "My parents were really adamant about me being very culturally Japanese." Both inside and outside the home, food was the centerpiece.

Drawn to Japanese culture but in love with the city where she grew up, Kyogoku found a job after college in NYC working for legendary Japanese artist Takashi Murakami, managing the artist's special collaborations with the likes of Louis Vuitton and Kanye West.

But these days, she's more concerned with mottainai, a Japanese principle to minimize waste, than with her celebrity-studded past. It's the "idea that there's a spirit for everything, and you shouldn't take advantage of anything," Kyogoku explains, pointing out how she repurposes food scraps for family meal and has outfitted her restaurant with secondhand wares. The glasses come from places like recently closed restaurant Telepan and tchotchkes from former Cobble Hill haunt Brucie. "It's a huge waste to not find another life for these things," she says, going on to talk about her trips to Jono Pandolfi's studio to buy from his "seconds" sale. It all fits seamlessly with her vision of Bessou feeling like a second home.

"I wanted to showcase home cooking in all of its aspects," Kyogoku continues. That's where the shakshuka comes in. "Every mom knows how to make curry. And usually it's from a box," she adds with a laugh.

"I think that curry is something so homey but wasn't something that made its place on the dinner menu, because it's much more casual and just didn't really fit in, unfortunately."

Enter brunch, where Kyoguku found the perfect fit for Japanese curry. "I feel like brunch is an area where we can be a little more adventurous. We don't need to be so tied to the traditions, because brunch doesn't really exist in Japan," she says. Speaking about her dad's sushi restaurant, the restaurateur says, "I never thought of continuing his vision, because there was a time and a place for that kind of restaurant. But now it's more important than ever to share new Japan." 

Bessou owner Maiko Kyogoku and executive chef Emily Yuen. 

Kyoguku isn't alone in that mission, either. From San Francisco's Motze, an experimental Japanese spot serving a family style prix fixe, to NYC's comfort-driven Tempura Matsui and Tsurutontan—to say nothing of the proliferation of imported chains—newfangled Japanese restaurants all over the country are doing just. "It's important in modern times to acknowledge that there's so much influence from one another. Look at French cuisine nowadays, and there's dashi and yuzu and all this stuff, and it's incredible. It doesn't make French food any less French, and it should be the [same way] in Japanese cuisine. It's more important now than ever to acknowledge that we all exist together." 

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