Tucked between Bowery and Elizabeth, on the sleepier side of Bleecker, is Maiko Kyogoku’s Bessou. The unassuming, minimalist yet cozy space specializes in Japanese-American comfort food. The menu is concise but offers enough to make you want to dine family-style or return again and again. Everything is delicious. We tried it all (or most of it) and left with full belies and a new friend. Maiko was extremely welcoming and knowledgeable as she explained each dish, down to the subtlest accouterments. Her passion and excitement in sharing made us quite comfortable. After all, Bessou is Japanese for home away from home.
Before opening Bessou, you worked alongside contemporary artist Takashi Murakami. What were you doing then and why did you want to get into the world of food and fine dining?
I worked as a project manager for Takashi Murakami from 2007 to 2009. I managed his collaboration projects (including his Louis Vuitton Monogramouflage collaboration and Kanye West album cover designs) and coordinated opening events for his © Murakami retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum, Museum für Moderne Kunst in Frankfurt, Germany, and the Guggenheim in Bilbao.
I was in my early twenties and figuring things out. At the time, I was intent on working for a Japanese company, fully immersed in Japanese culture while still living in the comforts of my hometown, New York. I was able to do that working at Kaikai Kiki.
That being said, I’ve always had a deep appreciation for food, especially Japanese cuisine. My parents were restaurant owners. I grew up around food. I think there was a part of me that wanted to be different from my parents, but after working at Kaikai Kiki, I knew that it was time to delve into my true passion.
Do you think there’s any connective tissue between the two industries or, at least, the two positions?
Definitely. With Bessou, I am trying to bring these seemingly disparate worlds together– Japanese and American– the aesthetics, cultures, and cuisines, to create a unique dining experience. It’s similar to contemporary art where an artist tries to reflect and integrate cultural experiences through creative expression.
What made you decide to open a restaurant?
Having seen my parents run a restaurant, and having worked in hospitality for many years, I definitely hesitated just knowing how unrelenting and cutthroat the industry can be, but I found out that’s where my heart is.
Were you certain that it would be centered around Japanese cuisine?
I think so. Food is one of the most fundamental ways to learn about a culture and, as I’ve never lived in Japan, the home cooked meals growing up were a way for me to learn about my Japanese heritage. I think I also decided to open a restaurant so that I could share this love with others.
The food at Bessou is certainly beautiful and presented, arguably, as an edible work of art. Do you think there is a creative process behind each dish, similar to that of a visual artist, which goes even deeper than the visual and into the ingredients?
Thank you. One thing I know about the Japanese philosophy of food is that there is just as much importance placed on the aesthetics of a dish as there is in its taste. We certainly think about composition, the colors of a season (winter, spring, summer, fall), the layering of textures and how the eyes translate flavor to the mouth. I know that sounds odd, but if you please the eyes, you’re sure to please the taste buds.
What is your favorite dish on the menu?
That depends on my mood. Right now, I’m really into the braised short rib kakuni. It’s a sweet, soy braised bone-in short rib we get from the wonderful guys at Happy Valley. We slow cook it for hours until the meat practically falls off the bone! It comes with chickpeas, house made fishcakes, and braised daikon radish, with a little karashi mustard that cuts through the fattiness of the meat perfectly.
What is your favorite Japanese dish of all time?
Grilled pike mackerel (sanma) with a fluffy bowl of rice, pickles, and miso soup.
What are you most proud of regarding Bessou?
Japanese home cooking is new to New Yorkers so I wasn’t sure how people would react. It’s been great to see how positively people are responding to the food. I think it’s because we are presenting Japanese comfort food in a way that is accessible while still true to authentic Japanese flavors. I’m proud to be able to share the richness and diversity of Japanese cuisine through my family’s home cooking.
Can you tell us a little bit about your team and why you chose them to be a part of this venture?
Emily Yuen is the Executive Chef. She is my right hand woman and friend. She keeps the kitchen running every day, and is she fierce! Don’t let her girlish looks fool you. We met while working for Daniel Boulud in 2014. She was a sous chef at Boulud Sud, and executive sous chef of DB Bistro in Singapore prior with extensive experience in French cuisine. She had never worked with Japanese flavors. It may come as a surprise, but in my initial search for a head chef, I wasn’t looking for someone with a background in Japanese cuisine. I wanted the chef to be able to reinterpret Japanese classics from an outsider’s perspective. Emily was the obvious choice, with a background in French and Mediterranean cuisine accompanied by the curiosity to learn. She spent months cooking with my father, and training at some of the best Japanese restaurants in New York, before we opened.
And the décor (which we love)–how did you decide on the appearance of the space?
Bessou means holiday villa or vacation home so I wanted to create a space that would evoke just that. It’s hard for New Yorkers to get away sometimes. I wanted to create a space that was comforting and relaxing – a little escape without actually having to get away. This is part of why I wanted an inviting yet minimal look using mostly wood, simple accents, and greenery.
Similarly, what is the significance behind your logo? Who created it?
The logo was designed by Farewell, an amazing design and branding team based out in Brooklyn. We have primary and secondary logos that evoke different aspects of Bessou but all relate to the concept of Bessou as a type of home. The logo deconstructs the Japanese character for house.
If customers were only able to order one thing on your menu, what would you suggest?
I would suggest the inaniwa udon. You can enjoy so many different textures and flavors in this one dish. The inaniwa udon is a specialty of Akita, my mother's hometown in northern Japan, and is a dish she’s made for me often. The noodles are not your typical udon noodles. They’re slippery, delicate but chewy, and served cold. The hot tempura that’s served with the noodles is a nice textural contrast, with crispy bites of root vegetables, earthy maitake mushrooms and shiso leaves. The dipping sauce also compliments the dish well. We make ours in house with kombu kelp and shiitake dashi.
What is the one thing you’d like your customers to take away from their overall experience at Bessou?
I hope that my guests feel like they’ve stepped into a warm and inviting space, one where they feel both relaxed and comfortable, like a little retreat from the everyday.
Photos by Heather Sten