Rosemary’s Tokyo is located on the sixth floor of NEWoMan, an approximately 82,000-square foot shopping mall in the city’s frenetic Shinjuku neighborhood that goes as heavy on the female-oriented retail as the name would suggest. At 3 p.m. on the day after its grand opening, I waited about 10 minutes before even gaining access to the building, which, for safety reasons, had been temporarily closed for entry by a small army of uniformed security guards.
Once inside, you dodge meandering shoppers to take a series of escalators (elevators are reserved for the disabled), cross a vast terrace and take yet another escalator to the dining room. There is very little in the way of signage, though helpful employees will point the way if you ask, "Rosemary?" All of this may sounds like a business-crushing nightmare for a New York restaurant, but not in Tokyo, where restaurants thrive while stacked several stories above street level. Throughout March 25, opening day, every table in the Rosemary’s Tokyo dining room was full, with more than a dozen people waiting on a bench outside. (The Japanese are vastly more patient than New Yorkers about waiting in lines.)
"From the minute we opened at 11 am to 11 at night, there was a line to get in," said owner Carlos Suarez. He was first approached more than two year ago by retail development company Lumine, which had already begun to build the NEWoMan mall, with plans for a rooftop garden. They sought a restaurant partner with a New York feel, and ideally one that could make use of the garden. Rosemary’s Tokyo is operated under a licensing agreement by Café Company, which runs about 80 other food service operations in Tokyo and other parts of Japan. "In our business, you’re nose to the grindstone the whole time, and there isn’t a whole lot of time to get away," said Suarez. "The chance for me and my team to travel to Japan, and the unique opportunity with a roof garden, and our shared values and aspirations with Café Company—it felt like a really exciting and very positive development."
Rosemary’s Tokyo bears many similarities to the West Village original. There’s the garden, which will eventually be planted with herbs and vegetables to supplement produce deliveries from nearby farms. Most of Rosemary’s interior design elements have been faithfully re-created, down to the chairs, the lighting fixtures, the linens and the menu font (though the menus feature full-page color photos of select dishes, a common touch in Japanese restaurants of many types). There are fresh-squeezed juices and there are wines, though many fewer of the latter, and they’re grouped into user-friendly (if somewhat incongruous) categories like "bold & hard" (which includes both a California Chardonnay and a Washington State Riesling) and "soft & casual" (Chianti riserva and a Cotes du Rhone).
"That way of labeling doesn’t really translate for us," said Suarez, "but this isn’t really a sophisticated wine-drinking crowd, and our partners feel that this type of language is what they need to understand the choices." As for the food, Rosemary’s Tokyo operates with a smaller menu than in New York, but the signature dishes—octopus salame, celery Caesar salad, orecchiette with sausage and broccoli rabe, focaccia—are all there, if not all exactly identical to their New York counterparts. Lacking an electric slicer, the kitchen staff is slicing the octopus salame by hand, giving it a chewier texture; pasta extruding equipment, however, has been pressed into the service of making superbly rendered orecchiette (albeit served, on opening night, with regular broccoli, not broccoli rabe). The Caesar salad is made with a single Japanese green that’s somewhere between Romaine and kale, and the dressing, crackling with garlic and anchovy in New York, is surprisingly mild in Tokyo, especially given the Japanese affinity for strong fish flavors.
"The focaccia isn’t where we want it to be yet."
"The focaccia isn’t where we want it to be yet," said Suarez. Executive chef Wade Moises, who spent several weeks training the Tokyo staff via translator, concurred, saying, "It tastes good, but it’s not focaccia. It’s more like Texas toast, really." The bread does double duty as the base of a few French toast dessert variations, wildly popular in sweets-obsessed Japan, and markedly different from the more modest Italian desserts on offer in New York. There are differences, too, in the service model, which is generally far more hands-off in Japan. On Rosemary’s opening weekend, you were in no jeopardy of being aggressively (or even meekly) upsold, nor having the menu mechanics exhaustively explained to you, nor hustled out the door in the name of quickly turning a table; all of this was refreshing, and attributable, perhaps, to the complete lack of tipping culture in Japan, and the aforementioned patience for waiting in lines.
On the flip side, said Suarez, "there was zero urgency to clear plates—it was crazy! We had some honest conversations, though, and saw a huge improvement right away. There are some cultural differences in service style that we need to adapt to." Overall, he is optimistic. "We’re really excited, and if this first location is successful, we’ll look into growing with [Café Company]."
This was my first experience in an overseas iteration of an American restaurant, meant largely for a native customer base that, in all likelihood, has no context against which to assess how well the spinoff stands up to the original. Does it matter to Japanese diners that the focaccia in its current state is a soft, light, Japanese milk bread-like affair, as long as it tastes good (which it does)? In the age of the well-traveled diner, questions about authenticity swirl around nearly every type of restaurant in New York (save perhaps for burger and pizza joints); observing the unwitting Japanese touches that have crept into this Italian-American export without diminishing the quality of the end result lends further credence to the idea that slavish authenticity is but one path to a satisfying restaurant experience.