This contribution is a personal story from JSP founder Jeff Nesmith.
JSP celebrates vegan food and of the people who make it a truly exciting cultural experience. Slowfood Cafe Hippopotamus in Tokyo was one of those experiences. Naoko-san, the owner, is AMAZING. Creative, warm, and excited! I was there one year ago and have regretted not writing about her and Hippopotamus sooner, especially now that it has closed (but don’t lose hope, there is good news at the end!)
Tokyo is a vertical maze. Wondering around may not yield the most exciting explorations. You have to do your homework or waste time climbing stairs or taking elevators. Hippopotamus was the no exception. You would never find it by walking around. Even once you find yourself outside the door, it can be so quiet and unassuming that you question the location. Well, just hike up your skirt and pull open the door and hope for the best! And there, the best awaited me.
Hippopotamus was quiet. Only two people in the tiny place. A woman behind the counter, and a man at the end of the counter in this austere longer than wide spot. The seating was at the bar that ran almost the entire length of the restaurant. It was cozy and seemed more like being in an intimate home kitchen than in a restaurant. Every tool and ingredient needed to make food were right on the other side of the bar.
Turns out that Naoko-san, the owner, was testing new recipes as they were changing over from winter to the spring menu. Technically she was open, but not really. She had one friend helping her, a man named Machida-san, who had been stationed in Oklahoma (?!) many years ago for work. He spoke English, which helped greatly as Naoko-san and I had A LOT to talk about. She was very cute, with an Anna Wintour-like bob and a passion for mushrooms.
Since the menu was in transition, there wasn’t much from which to make dinner. Naoko-san guides me to gnocchi with a strong earthy spinach-broccoli pesto with red peppercorns and peanuts. She makes everything before my eyes! On the side were vegetable gyoza with a coriander ginger sauce and a kelp, seaweed, shiitake, and dried tofu in dashi. Oh So Good with a glass of vegan wine.
Through the course, we discussed mushrooms for deepening flavor and miso for replacing hard cheese in Italian dishes. Naoko-san is a mushroom expert. Did she grow them? Somehow I came away with that impression yet the language barrier did prevent me from getting an answer I am confident in. But she did have a vast library of reference books and shared her favorite one, pic below.
Wonderful food and wonderful conversation. When the language didn’t work, it was more about laughing than crying.
In the year since Naoko-san found a new home and changed the name to Slow Food and Wine KiboKo.