Dining in Japan is a fairly traditional experience when it comes to the food. Sure, the restaurant may be housed in a skyscraper or decorated with neon lights, but classic cuisine abounds just the same. On our last night in Osaka, which was the ninth night into our journey through Japan, we wanted to step away from the steaming bowls of broth and noodles and try something new. So we sprung for INC & SONS, and it was one of the best nights and meals of our trip.
Situated on a quiet block in the city’s Kitahama neighborhood, a glowing pink neon sign will guide you through the doors and down the stairs to the subterranean space. There are plenty of tables lining the back wall of the restaurant, but a seat at the bar is where you’ll be able to catch all the action. INC & SONS boasts the type of DIY spirit that we love. They blend and age their own house whisky, roast their own coffee and spin jazzy vinyl on their Altec Lansing sound system. The open kitchen lets you watch as they prepare tasty small plates like lamb chops, steamed mussels and a mackerel sandwich. We had a great time socializing with the extra friendly staff, who were happy to make cocktail recommendations — they even put us in a cab and told the driver where to take us when we asked where to go for a nightcap. INC & SONS is the kind of place you wish was around the corner from your house so you could become a regular.
To learn more about the spirit behind INC & SONS, we caught up with food and beverage director Yusuke Fujita. Check out the interview to find out what’s inspiring their fall menus and which records are spinning in the background right now.
INC & SONS is unlike any other restaurant we visited in Japan — it’s very modern, while many of the other places we ate were quite traditional. Did you think Osaka was missing this type of establishment when you opened the restaurant?
We opened BAR INC in 2013 in the neighboring town of Kobe, so I was planning to put the second shop in Osaka. I think that INC & SONS is the only store of its kind right now in Osaka, but I think that Osaka will also have many new style stores in the future.
At INC & SONS, you roast your own coffee and blend your own whisky. Can you tell us a little about the flavors in each? What inspired you to make these signature items for the restaurant?
Did you know that there is a system called “keep bottle” in Japan? In stores where keep bottles are possible, customers can buy their favorite bottles and keep them at the bar for next time if they don’t finish them. We are making original blended whisky by placing it in whisky barrels for differentiation from other shops, and these are supposed to be keep bottles. Each person drinks whisky, whether it’s whisky soda, on the rocks or straight. We also use it to make whisky cocktails such as Old Fashioneds and Rob Roys. Because the whisky is matured every day in a barrel, its taste changes every time it is drunk. I think that it would be nice if you could enjoy a once-in-a-lifetime meeting with such aged whisky.
Regarding coffee, we are making original blends by hand with an INC & SONS barista and roaster of TAOCA COFFEE, which we trust. Apart from serving it on our coffee menu, I use it in coffee cocktails to infuse spirits with coffee, and it’s used in our food as well.
Your food menu features an interesting mix of western and eastern flavors and preparations. Do you change the dishes with each season?
Because there are four seasons in Japan, the menu changes four times a year for both food and cocktails. Rather than having things that the chef is turning to or looking at, all the chefs, bartenders and baristas will decide the theme and ingredients for the season, and we’ll create a rough menu in line with the theme for each section. So I guess everyone works to assemble the menu during these sessions. It was close to the feeling that bands are making music together.
Is there a particular bartender that’s been inspiring you lately? What are some of your favorite bars to check out in your free time?
I always try to see the overall balance as a store rather than looking at bartenders and chef’s individually, and see how their skills play well together. I always check out Maison Premiere when I go to New York. The balanced feeling of Maison Premiere has greatly affected how we do things at INC & SONS.
What spirit is your favorite to make drinks with right now?
Because Japan is now in the autumn, I am enriching the cocktail menu with an herb and spice spirits series. Of course, there are many menus using spirits that infuse Japanese materials, such as matcha and amazake [a sweet drink made from fermented rice] or homemade bitters and cordials. I always intend to be original because I would like you to enjoy things you can only taste here.
You have an amazing sound system in the restaurant and an excellent selection of vinyl records. Which albums are you playing at the moment?
Kamasi Washington’s new albumis now quietly ringing. It blends with the sound of a cocktail shaker, the rumble of an espresso machine’s steam and the voice of a customer.
Original interview translated from Japanese to English.