IN 2005, TAKA WAS AN IMPORTANT EARLY PART OF ASBURY PARK’S REVIVAL. HOW THE UPSCALE EATERY CONTINUES TO SHINE, AND IN A NEW LOCATION
BY JESSICA JONES GORMAN • PHOTOS BY AMESSÉ PHOTOGRAPHY
When Bill Kessler and David Martocci opened Taka, a posh, New York City style sushi joint on Mattison Avenue in Asbury Park in 2005, food critics and area residents thought the successful caterers and longtime New Jersey residents had lost their minds. Yes, it was the neighborhood known for Springsteen and some historic boardwalk rides, but at the time, Asbury was still suffering from neglect, largely boarded up, and populated in part by the homeless.
“There were basically no other businesses here,” noted Taka Hirai, the restaurant’s namesake and executive chef. “Maybe two other eateries spaced very far apart, and a little bistro. But Billy and Dave opened this beautiful restaurant and started serving sushi, which at the time did not have a huge following in New Jersey.”
Maybe customers were driven by curiosity, or perhaps Kessler and Martocci anticipated Asbury’s coming boom. Whatever the reason, Taka created a buzz.
“The New York Times reviewed us in 2009 and referred to Taka as a major part of the city’s downtown revival,” Hirai said. “We were doing well already, but after that article, business really started to take off.”
The restaurant’s design was a big part of the draw: Floor to ceiling windows offered beautiful views of the old shore town, and a lengthy mural featuring kitschy cartoon geishas and samurai warriors was artfully illuminated by dozens of Japanese lanterns (which Kessler had purchased at Ikea).
“We put them together ourselves,” Hirai laughed. “But Billy has a way of making anything work. These inexpensive lanterns lit up the entire dining room. It looked wonderful as soon as you walked in.”
And, of course, there was Hirai. Dubbed “Mr. Charming” in that same Times review, the vivacious chef with a habit of hobnobbing with diners, maintains this sort of brilliance in the kitchen, flawlessly crafting a fusion of food while preparing everything from braised short ribs to barbecued salmon. His personal story, however, is a lot less glamorous than his dishes.
“I studied economics in college and was working this high pressure job in Tokyo that I just wanted to escape,” Hirai recalled. “I couldn’t go back to my hometown, so I came up with this idea of moving to Los Angeles. I had a backpack, $1,500, and zero knowledge of the English language.”
But he found friends, rented a cheap house, got a part time job, and spent two years living in one of the city’s small Japanese communities.
Still, “I felt like nothing had improved,” he said. “I was a college graduate and was just scraping by. A friend told me I needed to move to a place where I couldn’t rely on the kindness of others. Someplace where I would really be on my own.”
So, Hirai packed up what little he had and moved once again, this time to Miami. “I knew there was no Japanese community there and that I would be forced to learn English and make it on my own,” Hirai said. “This time I only had the clothes I was wearing no backpack and less than $1,000 to my name. There was no one to help me. I was homeless for a time and went hungry occasionally.”
But when he stumbled on a Japanese restaurant, they gave him more than food. They offered him a dishwashing job.
“Of course I took it, but I only washed dishes for one day,” said the chef. “On my second day, the owner came into the kitchen and asked why I was doing the dishes. He asked me, ‘Why not learn how to cook?’ ”
Hirai started prepping dishes, soaking up every bit of knowledge he could from the restaurant’s talented minds. He worked from 3 p.m. to 3 a.m., seven days a week, earning $40 a day.
“I realize now it wasn’t great, but after being homeless, I was happy,” he said. There was dissension among staff members, however, because they weren’t being adequately paid. They staged a walkout, though respected Hirai’s decision to stay. What they also did was supply him with all of their recipes before they left. “This wasn’t a small restaurant,” he said.
“There was seating for 200 and we were in the center of Miami—Paul Newman used to eat there regularly. That first night, I think I cooked every meal myself [laughs]. It was a huge challenge, but somehow every dish made it out.”
The chef worked there for another year before moving to Nantucket, Massachusetts. He returned to Miami for the winter when his seasonal Nantucket restaurant closed. He visited the restaurant where he got his start, and was asked to fill in. That winter, he met Martocci and Kessler, who were both vacationing in Miami.
“They asked me to move back up north and work for their catering company,” Hirai said. “And that’s exactly what I did when the winter was over.” He prepared sushi for Kessler’s Catering, a high end full service firm that supplied gourmet dishes and staffing for large events.
Impressed and inspired by his culinary skills, Martocci and Kessler decided to open a Japanese restaurant where the young chef could really shine. Taka, which launched in 2005, became so popular that the restaurant moved to a larger space on Cookman Avenue in 2014.
“Workshop APD in Manhattan designed the new space,” Hirai said. “But we kept the mural.” Those Ikea lanterns were replaced, however, with others that were custom made by a 300 year old Japanese company.
The floor to ceiling window concept was also kept, along with the bulk of the menu.
“Our best selling entree is still the short ribs,” Hirai said. “People always ask, ‘Why short ribs in a Japanese restaurant?’ But they’re marinated in saki and soy sauce, so the dish is still very authentic.”
There are traditional rolls and a la carte sashimi, too, plus a Pat LaFrieda pork chop and a New York boneless strip served with a miso butter glaze.
But perhaps the biggest draw of this Japanese restaurant is its Asbury Park surroundings.
“Almost 14 years later and this town is so different,” Hirai concluded. “This is a wonderful place, and I’m very happy to call it home.”
660 Cookman Avenue, Asbury Park
732.775.1020 / takaasbury.com