Japanese fusion dishes at Izanami are exquisitely prepared and brought to your table by a professional staff of well-trained servers. But Chef Kiko Rodriguez laughs at the idea that the restaurant at the world-renowned Ten Thousand Waves spa is “fine dining.” Izanami offers Japanese tapas — or izakaya-style food — small plates meant to be shared in an atmosphere of revelry, says Rodriguez, who has been running the back of the house since 2015. (Izanami opened in 2013.)
“Izakaya style is friendly. Our servers don’t wear button-down shirts and ties. We try to make it a restaurant to come for good food and sake. ‘Izakaya’ means [it’s] like a bar.”
Though it’s certainly a refined space, Izanami’s relaxed environment welcomes customers to dine in their spa robes before, after, or in between treatments and soaks. Another indication of Rodriguez’s wish that diners let go and have fun is Izanami’s list of half a dozen Japanese microbrewed beers and 50 artisanal sakes (meant to be sipped cold, never hot). And still another is Rodriguez’s playful melding of traditional Japanese ingredients with cuisines from around the globe, such as sashimi dressed in slivers of jalapeño for a Mexican flare and Italian panna cotta rich with black sesame seeds.
Rodriguez, 33, moved to Santa Fe from Vera Cruz, Mexico, as a teenager and worked in several restaurants, including The Inn of the Anasazi and La Boca. He applied at Izanami with no background in Japanese cooking. He’s never traveled in Japan, nor has he had special training in the cuisine. “It was an opportunity to try new things,” he says. “I really enjoy working with new ingredients and creating new dishes.”
Pasatiempo spoke to Rodriguez about some of the current menu items and flavor profiles.
Pasatiempo: What are some of the most traditional Japanese ingredients that you use at Izanami?
Kiko Rodriguez: For example, we have real wasabi that we bring from Japan. Other Japanese restaurants use fake wasabi — just horseradish powder, which will burn your mouth. [With] real wasabi, you will taste the freshness first and then you’ll get a little heat. It’s not burning-spicy. It comes in a root, and we grate it here. It’s one of the most expensive ingredients that we have in the restaurant. You get a dash because we pay $120 per pound. We get a lot of complaints about it because people ask for an extra side, and we explain how we have to charge them $5 more. We try to teach our guests what is real stuff that they can get here, directly from Japan. We make sure people are going to experience things they’ve never experienced. Another example is the wagyu beef. Also, we get fish once a week directly from Japan.
Pasa: Why is wagyu beef so prized? You have a 32-ounce wagyu steak on the menu for $99.
Rodriguez: It’s the way they treat the animals, [how they] massage them and what they feed them. Because of the special things they do to these animals, wagyu can cost about $100 per pound if it comes straight from Japan. You will definitely see more marble, and a lot of people [who] don’t really know about wagyu might complain that it’s fatty or oily. There is American wagyu now that has less fat — and people enjoy that — but people who have been in Japan and know what it’s about appreciate what we offer here at Izanami.
Pasa: You brought your experience with Spanish tapas at La Boca to Izanami. How does that cooking influence you now?
Rodriguez: In the spices — jalapeños, chiles, cilantro. From the tapas, I use a little bit of wine, chorizo sometimes, and mix it with the food we make here.
Pasa: Is cooking for people who are spending time at a spa different from cooking at regular restaurants? Do they have a lot of special requests?
Rodriguez: People who go to the spa sometimes like a very healthy menu. We ask what their allergies are. About 60 to 70 percent of the menu is gluten-free, and everything we fry is gluten-free. We have some light items that people can come here for before or after going to the spa. They can enjoy the freshness of the food with some sake. The other option will be to leave it up to the chef.
Pasa: Each dish at Izanami has very distinct flavors.
Rodriguez: That’s my goal! The vegetarian bento is a great example. The avocado salad comes with cucumber. It’s light; it’s crunchy. Nice and clean. And then you have a little heavier noodle salad with a sesame dressing. And then you have the stir-fry, with simple seasoning of soy and garlic — all organic vegetables from Romero Farms. Then tofu that is very traditional Japanese.
Pasa: How often do you change your menu?
Rodriguez: We try to keep our menus seasonal and get as much produce as we can locally. We change our main menu four to five times a year — without taking out people’s favorites; otherwise, they get mad. Like our famous pork ribs. They’re braised in soy and then we put them in the smoker for two to three hours. We also have a special menu every week based on what is going on at the farmers’ market and the fish market. ... I meet with the owners every time we’re going to change the menu. They go very often to Japan, and they see a dish that would be a good item for our menu. They send me a link and I get more info, and we try to produce it.
Pasa: Do you do a lot of taste-testing of new dishes as you create them?
Rodriguez: I try to order a few of the items we make here to see the consistency, to see if we have to change it or adjust it.
Pasa: Who are your customers? Do you attract diners who know about Japanese cuisine beyond sushi?
Rodriguez: These days, it’s hard to tell. The pandemic has been a difficult time. Usually, it’s people who come to Santa Fe and visit the spa. I see a lot of local regulars these days. ◀