If you’ve ever doubted the influence a new chef wields over the cuisine at a restaurant, it takes little more than a brief look at the newly minted menu at Yokohama, 1932 E. Kenilworth Pl., to underscore the point.
In November, former Hinterland Chef Matt Kerley took the reins as the new culinary director at Stand Eat Drink Hospitality. And in his first month on the job, his influence is evident in a new menu, which still offers plenty of ramen options, but also emulates the casual vibe of a Japanese izakaya, a casual spot where folks stop in for after-work drinking and snacks.
"I believe that this place can be more than just a place to grab a bowl of noodles," says Kerley. "And I wanted to be able to showcase more. So, the izakaya take is really about giving people a menu where people can sit down and try all sorts of dishes and really experience a variety of bright interesting flavors."
Kerley says the inspiration for the flavors in many of the dishes hearken back to inspiration he gained as a young chef in San Francisco.
"The culture of cuisine there is really transcendent," he says. "Being from the Carolinas, I had no idea the diversity of Asian cuisines; but the more I ate and worked with the ingredients, the more I began to identify with the flavors, which were really clean and fresh and filled with umami. It’s been fun because here I truly have this opportunity to explore the Japanese flavors that I really fell in love with there."
Among the highly snackable, shareable plates that define izakaya are items like edamame with a sesame-soy glaze and fresh horseradish ($5), hand cut sweet potato fries seasoned with furikake and bonito salt ($5) and relentlessly crispy agedashi tofu featuring marinated and fried silken tofu served in tentsuyu broth with bok choy and scallions ($5).
An okonomiyaki pancake features a savory pancake with kimchi topped with pork belly, Kewpie mayo, furikake seasoning and bonito flakes, which dance merrily on top of the dish in response to the heat ($10).
But, there’s also a warm octopus salad featuring gochujang-charred octopus, Asian pear, yogurt, arugula and chili flui-gel ($12). It’s a dish Kerley describes as "slightly avant garde, but totally something you would see in a traditional izakaya lounge."
Meanwhile, the "fried egg" is really a take on the Scotch egg, featuring a deep fried soft egg wrapped in pork sausage and served with pickled daikon and sesame dipping sauce ($7).
On the ramen side, guests will find five different varieties including spicy miso ramen, which can be made gluten-free, along with beef, shrimp, tonkotsu and a vegetarian ramen made with mushroom dashi.
"I tend to err on the lighter side when it comes to broths," notes Kerley. "And I’m using traditional bases for the tare [seasonings], but also taking some liberties to take flavor profiles to another level. And that’s the place where my style really shows."
Options include a beef-based ramen that starts with a deeply flavored beef marrow bone broth flavored with garlic and soy and topped with marinated New York strip drizzled with tonkatsu sauce, braised bok choy, soy egg and sesame seeds ($16).
Spicy miso starts with a base of chicken broth, a yellow-miso chili tare, chashu pork belly, braised bok choy, bean sprouts and a soy egg ($12). Mushroom ramen features a mushroom dashi broth with roasted garlic tare, maitakes, roasted tomatoes, a soy egg, pickled daikon and fried onion ($11).
Shrimp ramen is made with chicken broth enriched by a chili-shrimp tare and augmented with head-on gochujang prawns, slow egg, scallions, fried garlic, bok choy and bonito salt ($16).
There's also kimchi ramen starts with tonkotsu broth, kimchi-ginger tare, fried chicken thigh, slow egg, pork sausage, scallions and kimchi ($13).
Not in the mood for izakaya or ramen? Kerley’s menu also contains a chicken sandwich featuring Korean fried chicken, spicy pickles and fried onions ($11) along with the Gurisu burger featuring togarashi beef patties, soy braised onions and mushrooms, Thai chili mayo and Jack cheese ($12).
"In the end, we’re here to have fun and create fun food," says Kerley. "In doing so, we’ve really tried to create a menu where there’s something for everyone. The burger we’re doing is just so awesome. And it’s not like I want to be known for a burger… but it’s really good, almost like this slightly Asian Wisconsin butter burger."
Yokohama is open Saturday through Tuesday from 3 p.m. to 1 a.m. and Wednesday through Friday from 3 p.m. to 2:30 a.m. Happy hour takes place daily from 3 to 6 p.m. with a late night menu offered daily.
Lori is an avid cook whose accrual of condiments and spices is rivaled only by her cookbook collection. Her passion for the culinary industry was birthed while balancing A&W root beer mugs as a teenage carhop, fed by insatiable curiosity and fueled by the people whose stories entwine with each and every dish. She’s had the privilege of chronicling these tales via numerous media, including OnMilwaukee and in her book “Milwaukee Food.” Her work has garnered journalism awards from entities including the Milwaukee Press Club.
When she’s not eating, photographing food, writing or recording the FoodCrush podcast, you’ll find Lori seeking out adventures with her husband Paul, traveling, cooking, reading, learning, snuggling with her cats and looking for ways to make a difference.