Rintaro: From Roots to Izakaya
“So I’ve been cooking since I was 17. I actually had my first popup in high school as my senior project. I made Japanese curry rice… It didn’t go over so well, all the people from my tiny hometown were like ‘ew looks like diarrhea!’” – Sylvan, chef and owner of Rintaro (pictured above)"
Written & Interviewed by Kenji B.
Photographed by Brennan K.
After years of apprenticeships and chef positions in the Bay Area and Japan, Sylvan Mishima Brackett opened Rintaro, a traditional yet new kind of Izakaya restaurant in the heart of SF. Rintaro is hidden behind a wooden fence on a quiet street off of south Van Ness. Once you open the gate and step into the courtyard, you are transported.
The sounds of the city fall away and it feels as if you may have entered a scene from Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away by accident. Your first steps are greeted by a calm patio, the gravel and stone path lead your eye to inside the restaurant. Savory fumes slowly infiltrate the air and the sudden bustle creeps up. Rintaro is in session.
Sylvan grew up near Nevada City, but would return to his grandmother’s town in Japan every few years. In his early 20s during his visits there, Sylvan started going to Izakayas with friends drinking and hanging out. He reminisces about these moments as fabulous experiences and it was around this time that he decided he would open an Izakaya of his own.
“Izakayas run the whole gamut from the small shack under the train tracks with the old guy smoking a cigarette and grilling little chicken skewers to that big restaurant in Kill Bill (I’ve actually been there). I wanted a food that’s really casual, where people can drink and hangout and it’s loud and fun…”
To get the experience he needed to be a restaurateur, he moved through a number of high profile apprenticeships. After working at Chez Panisse in Berkeley for seven years, he moved to Japan to work in a Kappo restaurant (traditional Japanese cuisine) right outside of Tokyo.
He moved back to Oakland after several years and began his catering company called Peko-Peko (meaning “I’m starving” in Japanese) out of his garage. It quickly became a hit throughout the Bay Area for its insanely delicious bentos. In addition to the catering, Peko Peko was also a pioneer on Off the Grid – a local street food community – and participated in numerous popups.
In 2014 he found what would become the location of his restaurant. The property was completely burnt out from a previous fire and everything was gone except for the arches that remain to this day. His father – an American designer who studied temple carpentry in Kyoto – helped with the build out and did all the wood work, using mostly Hinoki, a type of cedar from which traditional Japanese bath houses are made. The collaboration between family, culture, and craftsmanship embodies the spirit of Rintaro and is the perfect example of how Sylvan’s vision goes beyond just a restaurant.
Since it’s conception, Rintaro has flowered into a lively 60-seat Izakaya restaurant where reservations are usually recommended. The name ‘Rintaro’ is the Japanese translation of Sylvan, meaning ‘woods boy’ (When Sylvan’s father who studied Za Zen at the time, he brought his newborn to the temple he used to go to, the head monk had trouble pronouncing ‘Sylvan’ so he resorted to Rintaro).
Sylvan’s closeness to his roots and nature extends to his practice of using only locally sourced and authentic ingredients.
“We use almost all California ingredients, the fish and the meat and the vegetables – it’s a really wonderful place obviously for ingredients. Almost everything that we serve here I know who made it.
All of the Japanese stuff, Things like Katsuobushi come from a place in Southern Japan where they’re famous for it and the Kombu and all of the dry ingrendients come from Japan.”
The restaurant keeps a steady rotation of visiting chefs from Japan every 4-5 months or so to keep the team up to date and engaged. His friend Gori who has a soba place called Naru Soba in Hamamatsu south of Tokyo is due to come to SF late October to do special soba lunches and teach his team the subtleties of hand made soba.
“The idea is that we’re trying to create a food that is Japanese, but from California, rather than a fusion or something. Adapting traditional Japanese techniques to the local stuff. And part of that is just the techniques and keeping fresh and new ideas coming in – that’s what the visiting chefs will do, making sure we’re at the level that we need to be. I think it’s really easy when you’re doing a cuisine from another place to go down a rabbit hole and not have the touchstone of what the real deal is, so we’re trying to keep it real.”
Sylvan’s holistic approach toward his restaurant is undeniably refreshing and makes you want to be part of the community he has built around it. From the fresh local ingredients from Hikari Farm and River Dog Farm, to the materials and process involved in building his restaurant, the ceramics used to serve the food (almost all are made by hand by Nama Ya, a past employee), to the music curated by Eug Whang, head of local label Public Release, and more, Sylvan has involved the people in his community to help build the Izakaya that he envisioned years ago all the while keeping true to his origins and vision.
While Japanese dining (and culture) is becoming more popular and appropriated, there remains an outdated stigma associated with Japanese restaurants that can be old fashioned and lacking atmosphere. Taking this into consideration, Sylvan takes bits and pieces from the parts he feels are essential and mixes them in with other influences. The result: a direct manifestation of Sylvan’s Japanese roots and West Coast upbringing into a constantly evolving restaurant “where you’d want to go on a Friday night.”
What’s next for Sylvan Mishima Brackett —– ?
“At some point I want to open a standing udon place where you go in and get a quick bowl. Like a hole in the wall place where there’s a few tables and a counter but I don’t know if that will happen yet. It’s a handful with this place by itself.”