The bustle and cacophony of Osaka is both maddening and slightly addictive. The city overwhelms the senses with its jumble of architectural incongruity, flashing neon lights, and inevitable teeming crowds. Better known for casual fare such as takoyaki (octopus dumplings) and okonomiyaki (savory pancakes filled with meat and cabbage), Osaka usually takes a backseat to its neighbor Kyoto when it comes to haute cuisine, and restaurants serving outstanding non-Japanese cuisine are something of a rarity. But one place in particular has emerged as a fine-dining destination, drawing guests from across the country and abroad: Hajime, the two-Michelin-starred restaurant helmed by chef Hajime Yoneda.
Hajime Yoneda is a trim man in his early 40s, with a full head of spiky, black hair and square-framed glasses that give him a bookish appearance. Out of his chef’s whites, he wears a casual pullover top tucked into his jeans, with slightly dressy leather shoes. It’s a look that works for him, one that jives with his serious comportment and pragmatic disposition. One can easily imagine Mr. Yoneda working quite ably, if not happily, as an engineer.
In fact, when he was in his 20s, he did work as an engineer, before he went into the restaurant business. Although he’d always dreamed of becoming a chef, his parents had other plans (a problem familiar to many Asian children who harbor creative aspirations that fall outside of the profession concert violinist). Instead of going into debt, Mr. Yoneda earned a degree in engineering from Kinki University and worked at a computer company while he saved up enough money to go to culinary school.
In 2002, he relocated to France to work at Bernard Robin the Loire region. When he ran into visa trouble unexpectedly, he decided to use his time to study painting and even held a handful of exhibitions at local galleries. Mr. Yoneda’s talent as a painter eventually helped him get his work permit: The local mayor, who had been impressed by one of his shows, had a word with President Jacques Chirac, and the problem was quickly solved. Back in Japan, he worked under Michel Bras at Toya in Hokkaido before returning to his native Osaka to open Hajime in 2008.
His contemporary creations are based on classical French cooking, infused with a Japanese sensibility and an intense reverence for nature. Dishes are thoughtfully composed (often with an intellectual bend), meticulously executed, and served on exquisite custom-made Japanese ceramics. One of the chef’s signatures, called Chikyu (Earth), takes its cues from Michel Bras, one of Mr. Yoneda’s mentors. Chikyu is both a meditation on the cycle of life and a reconstruction of the planet in miniature. It features dozens of varieties of vegetables, prepared individually, and plated to resemble a mountainous landscape encircling a sea of concentrated asari clam broth. The dish, he says, was inspired by the connection between the mineral-rich waters that produce Japan’s best seafood and the densely forested mountain areas that surround them. “Fallen leaves from the forest enrich the earth, and the nutrients flow into the sea,” he explains.
Such gauzy, poetic undercurrents are found throughout his 12-course tasting menu, but precision is the cornerstone of Mr. Yoneda’s cuisine. On a recent visit a slice of nodoguro (black-throat perch) is seared on one side and left raw on the other. The fish is cooked gently to perfection with the addition of umami-rich hot dashi made from sea bream and finished with emerald-green chive oil. The fresh cow’s milk cheese for a winter dessert is made to order — finished exactly one minute before it reaches the table — and served with semi-dried persimmon puree and olive oil. Mr. Yoneda’s artful presentations demonstrate great attention to detail as well as a flair for drama.
The menu unfolds as an exploration of geography, roving from the seaside to the forest and rivers, and moves through a series of evocative seasonal vignettes. The final dessert on the winter tasting menu, a dish called Snow, is a pristine orb of white chocolate, cool to the touch, which encases soothingly warm strawberry compote. The end result is a culinary narrative about nature and the passing of time. “Ever since I opened the restaurant, I’ve been thinking about the seasons, the earth, and environmental issues,” he says. “I’m trying to bring that awareness to my guests through cuisine.”
1-9-11 Edobori, Nishi-ku
+81 6 6447 6688