Shalom Japan (310 S. 4th St.) has been serving South Williamsburg a fusion of Jewish and Japanese cuisine for the past nine years. The restaurant is owned by husband and wife duo Okochi Sawako, known as Sawa, and Aaron Israel, who are not only the owners but the chefs of this unique mashup of their cultures. 

When Greenpointers spoke with Israel about his restaurant, he joked that he is the one doing the interview because his wife is in Japan with their kids. He is going to meet them there in a few weeks when the restaurant takes its summer holiday break. “We like to give the staff time off, and we decided to all close together,” explained Israel. “It’s something we all look forward to.”

But before vacation, Israel spoke with Greenpointers about Shalom Japan, the restaurant’s origins, and his family’s favorite spots in North Brooklyn. 

Greenpointers:  Tell us a little bit about you and your wife and how the two of you came up with the concept for a Jewish and Japanese restaurant.

Chef Aaron Israel:  Sawa and I met in 2011 while we were both working as chefs. We got set up and started dating. The restaurant grew out of this life we started building together.


Sawa was born in Tokyo and grew up in Hiroshima. She has lived in the U.S. since 1996. She went to college in North Texas and then moved to New York in 2000. I, on the other hand, was born in Bayside and raised on Long Island.

When we started dating, we shared and experienced each other’s cultures over food. She introduced me to a lot about her culture, and I did the same. I introduced her to the Jewish delis in New York. We started looking for similar things in our cultures. I had wanted to open a Jewish restaurant, but we were not dead set on opening a restaurant together.

The idea for the restaurant started at the Brooklyn Library when I pulled a guidebook from 1983. It was a walking tour of the Jewish Lower East Side, and I was interested in the books’s food recommendations. One of the restaurants was called Shalom Japan. The description was ridiculous and hilarious. It was run by a Japanese women who was Jewish and partnered with a rabbi. Shalom Japan was also part night club, and sometimes the Japanese owner would get up and tell jokes. So Sawa and I joked that if we were to open a restaurant, we would call it Shalom Japan. The joke stuck with us.

We moved in together and became more serious. We helped each other on events, and filled in shifts, but never fully worked together. We were different kinds of chefs and different kinds of people. But, we trusted each other. So, we decided to just go for it, and we opened the restaurant together.

The interior of Shalom Japan. Photo: John Keon

Greenpointers:  Tell me about Shalom Japan and the restaurant’s unique menu.

Chef Israel:  The restaurant’s menu defines the experience Sawa and I have had together. It’s a collaboration we embarked on. Like I said, the restaurant grew out of this life we built together.

We have things on the menu at Shalom Japan that we don’t change. They are staples. The first example is the Lox Bowl. It has sushi rice, salmon caviar, avocado, Japanese pickles, fried capers, and chili mayo. We cure the lox in restaurant traditionally with salt, sugar and herbs. We add bonito flakes to give the Lox Bowl extra flavor. It’s a mashup because we add things you find in Japan like Japanese pickles and mix them with Jewish things you eat here like fried capers.

A second example of a menu staple is the Matzoh Ball Ramen. Over the years I’ve worked on my own version of it where I would try to make it a full meal. At first, I would put egg noodles in it. I was always looking for the right noodle for the dish. There are so many great noodles out there, and I started to question which noodle I wanted to use. When I made it for Sawa, she immediately suggested ramen. My head exploded, and we have used ramen noddles ever since. That’s a perfect example of the kind of collaboration we do.

A third great collaborative menu item is the Wagyu Pastrami Sando. It’s a house-smoked Waygu brisket pastrami sandwich on caraway rye Japanese milk bread.

Greenpointers:  All three dishes sound spectacular! What is the most popular menu item?

Chef Israel:  The Matzoh Ball Ramen is definitely the most popular. The Lox Bowl comes in second.

The Matzoh Ball Ramen. Photo: John Keon

Greenpointers:  You mentioned you have menu staples. Do you switch up the other menu items?

Chef Israel:  Yes! There are certain items we always have and a lot of others that we rotate, plus we have seasonal specials. About half of the menu stays the same and the other half is seasonal or what we can find at the farmer’s market. The weather also impacts it. For example, in winter we do a nice baked scallop dish.

Also, we have added items over the years. When we first opened, we didn’t offer the Matzoh Ball Ramen. We rotated noodle dishes. But, then we added it and when we didn’t have it, people would ask for it. 

The pastrami sandwich was added only a couple of years ago, and it didn’t come off the menu because people loved it. At one point, we had teriyaki duck wings, but we swapped it with Sawa’s mom’s karaage fried chicken.

Greenpointers:  Shalom Japan has been in Williamsburg for almost a decade. How have you seen the neighborhood change in the past nine years?

Chef Israel:  We’ve been here since 2013. I remember back in 2000 when there nothing was near the water. Our area, just north of Broadway, has changed, but also sort of stayed the same. I’ve noticed more young people in our area and more transient neighbors. There are also more kids, maybe because we are close to a school. Plus, the Puerto Rican and Dominican communities are still here and vibrant.

Here’s a story: Before he passed away a year and a half ago, my grandma’s boyfriend lived in our Williamsburg neighborhood since the 1920’s and had stories from growing up here in the 1930’s. He said there used to be a trolley over the Williamsburg Bridge, and if he was feeling fancy, he would take the trolley, but if not, he would walk. 

Greenpointers:  Do you and your family live in Williamsburg?

Chef Israel:  Yes! Sawa, our kids, and I live in Williamsburg. We used to live above the restaurant, but the landlord sold the building, and now we live about a ten-minute walk from the restaurant. 

Greenpointers:  When you’re not at Shalom Japan, where do you eat in North Brooklyn?

Chef Israel:  We go to Montesacro a lot. The food is consistently good. They make really light and crispy pizzas that we love. They use good quality Italian ingredients. Montesacro also has a nice backyard garden. It’s got a great vibe. It’s a good place to go with family, either older parents or younger kids. I love Italian food because I worked in a lot of Italian restaurants.

There is also Mexico 2000, which has a restaurant and a bodega. The bodega has amazing Mexican food like tamales and quesadillas. It feels like my Mexican abuela is cooking for me. 

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