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How These Chefs Opened Restaurants on the Other Side of the World in the Middle of a Pandemic

As Ace Hotel expands to Kyoto, it brings some serious culinary talent with it.

pork belly taco Photo: courtesy Gorta Yuuki

Video conference calls and prayers. That’s what Philadelphia chef Marc Vetri credits with pulling off one of the most logistically complicated restaurant openings of his career.

In June, Vetri, along with LA chef Wes Avila, opened the doors to their new restaurants in the Ace Hotel Kyoto, Japan—even though they were grounded in the US because of the pandemic. While their restaurants had been in the works far earlier than the quarantine start date, the international travel ban meant they were unable to be hands-on in the months leading up to their soft openings inside the Ace’s first hotel in Asia.

Instead, they relied on chef “Moto” Motonobu Nishimura, the executive chef of the hotel, to keep his eyes on their projects: Vetri’s Italian restaurant, Mr. Maurice’s Italian, and Avila’s taco lounge, PIOPIKO.

“[Chef Moto had] stayed a couple weeks with me in Philadelphia to really watch and learn the food,” Vetri said. “I’m also lucky to have Zach Kelberman as a member of Mr. Maurice’s kitchen team. Zach’s been a cook with me at Vetri for the last three years, and he wanted to expand his experience by moving to Japan to help open the restaurant. He really knows the food. It’s been lots of video conference calls, lots of recording training videos and lots of praying. All of this combined made it much easier to get everything dialed in.”

At Mr. Maurice’s, the James Beard Award-winning chef has exported his Italian-American expertise to Kyoto. Named for Vetri’s grandfather, the osteria’s menu is inspired by the chef’s upbringing, training in Italy and frequent trips to Rome. It includes some Vetri specialties like sweet onion crêpes, plus local Japanese ingredients. 


Vetri's bucatini all'amatriciana.

Vetri’s bucatini all’amatriciana.  Photo: courtesy Gorta Yuuki

There are imported Italian cheeses and salumi, hand-made pastas and breads and wood-fired pizzas. Expect dishes like sardine bruschetta with citrus-seaweed butter, margherita pizza, rigatoni with chicken liver, jumbo shrimp alla plancha, and chocolate polenta soufflé.

Vetri says they had to make very few concessions due to the pandemic and the reception has been “amazing. We’re much busier than we thought we would be at the start, and everyone seems to be loving it.

“I feel people in Japan truly appreciate different cultures and love to explore cultures through food,” he continued. “At Mr. Maurice’s we’re serving up an Italian-American menu, which is different from the more regional Italian food that’s common in Japan. Hopefully, something new and different will be a welcome addition to the city’s dining scene.”

Mr. Maurice’s is lined with oak paneling and has black and white tiled floor, silkscreened moving panels by American artist Kori Girard, custom seating and tables by Mashiko sculptor Hideki Takayama and woven copper lanterns by Kyoto-based designers Kanaami-Tsuji. Its 170 seats are split between the dining room and a rooftop bar. 

Avila's braised lamb taco

Avila’s braised lamb taco.  Photo: courtesy Gorta Yuuki

To open PIOPIKO, Avila, the chef behind LA’s beloved Guerrilla Tacos, also relied heavily on video conference calls with chef Moto to interpret his Mexican-American food, Alta California cuisine, with the world. Avila says the reception has been “fantastic,” even after factoring in that they’re operating at 50 percent capacity for safety reasons.

“Japanese people have been very welcoming to Los Angeles culture, and I see PIOPIKO as an opportunity to share some flavors of LA with them,” Avila said. “People are digging the tacos.”

Named for the elementary school Avila attended outside LA (with a slight spelling variation), PIOPIKO has plenty of tacos, plus tortillas made in house from heirloom masa imported from Mexico. Expect dishes like octopus quesadillas; ahi tuna tostadas with white miso, yuzu kosho and furikake; fried white fish tacos with togarashi; and churros and hazelnut hot chocolate with amaretto cream. There are also build-your-own takoraisu (taco rice) bowls.

“You can also build a meal like you might progressively do a kaiseki meal,” he said. “You can start with something raw like our scallop tostada, then move onto one of our veggie tacos, followed by our brisket taquitos or pork belly taco and finish with churros for dessert. You can have a taste of everything and really make the experience what you want.”

The restaurant has 82 seats across two levels, a DJ booth, a private karaoke room, ceramic pottery by artist Kazunori Hamana, woven light fixtures by Kanaami-Tsuji, and a redwood-dyed art deco bar by American artist Ido Yoshimoto.

“The restaurant vision is beyond what I imagined. It’s a great, beautiful space with an amazing vibe,” Avila said.

Seared duck breast naomi Pomeroy

Seared duck breast by Pomeroy.  Photo: courtesy Gorta Yuuki

The two restaurants will have their grand openings this fall.

Also this fall, Portland, Oregon, chef Naomi Pomeroy and her partner, Kyle Linden Webster, will open an all-day restaurant and adjoining garden space at the hotel. Pomeroy recently worked with the Toshiba Foundation to promote Japanese ingredients in the US; in Japan, she will continue her education, incorporating Japanese ingredients into her refined style of American cuisine. Expect dishes like eggs benedict topped with smoked wagyu pastrami for breakfast; an avocado and crab cocktail with ramp Thousand Island cocktail sauce for lunch; and for dessert, a honey rooibos pavlova with pomegranate sorbet. 

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