“I wanted a little place that would look like Japan – you know, wooden bridge over pond, cherry trees in bloom, golden carp, a host of paper lanterns.”
Dr. Boy Vasquez’ “first encounter” with a foreign cuisine changed his life forever. He was so charmed by the shibumi – the Japanese code of aesthetics that Westerners can only describe as “being closest to the Greek ideal” – and so entranced by its utter simplicity that he decided that his foray into the world of culinary enterprise would be Japanese-inspired.
Thus was born his first Japanese restaurant, more than 20 years ago, in the same building on Annapolis St. in San Juan where Charley Barretto held her SOM (Science of Mind) lectures. The prosperity-oriented environment must have so rubbed off on Dr. Vasquez, a retired obstetrician-gynecologist, that a second act was inevitable: the hugely successful Café Juanita in Baranggay Kapitolyo, Pasig. But even as Juanita shone as a star among Filipino restaurants with a distinctive menu and a unique ambience – “Filipino kitsch raised to the third degree of exaltation – its owner could not get over his homesickness for Japanese cuisine, nor forget the fun that he had working on his first Japanese restaurant.
When the opportunity presented itself in the form of a two-story house right beside Café Juanita – serendipity! – “the idea clicked that this was his chance to revive his “first love,” and not only to extend the business but also to indulge his taste for decorating and overdecorating – in the case of Juanita, a galaxy of vintage veils, antiques and semi-antiques, candelabra and chandeliers, plumes and beaded fans, porcelain figurines and glass and crystal stemware.
Except that all this excess is so un-Japanese.
No problem for the owner of Haru, ta-dah! the new kid on the block on West Kapitolyo. There’s also plenty of decorative objects in this months-old Japanese restaurant, though Dr. Vasquez has had to force himself to be more sparing this time. The atmosphere is there, and it’s in the details. After all, the best restaurants in Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka are not the biggies but the ones patronized by real people, holes-in-the-wall with five or six tables each. As Dr. Vasquez puts it, “Little space but lots of ambience.”
Haru, according to its humorous owner, “is just another way to say Hello.” As in Hello to the bounty of the sea. “Fresh fish, fresh sea food,” emphasizes chef Tom Yamasaki, who has lived in Metro Manila for 23 years and is married to a Filipina, who has borne him two sons. Tom is a proud alumnus of Sugi in Makati and the Greenhills branch before it closed down.
With an expert like Tom running the show in the kitchen, and Dr. Vasquez’ son Adolfo managing the paperwork and payroll, Dr. Vasquez has the freedom to enjoy the best part of playing restaurateur. He takes delight in meeting his guests – “it’s all the socializing I do these day” – and he persists in “meddling,” such as taking note of paint about to peel off in one corner, of a large fern with withering leaves, of a chipped tile on the floor, of the need to order another CD of Japanese music.
“What else is there for me to do? I love this life,” he grins with a broad smile and a sparkle in his eyes, as if to say everyone but everyone should take the same attitude and like what they do, love their work or suffer the consequences of ulcers, depression, anorexia. . . Haru, is everyone listening? s