When Bob Loeb approached Jimmy Ishii about bringing an Asian concept to Overton Square, Ishii considered the prevalence of sushi in the area as well as the proximity of Sekisui Midtown. Ultimately, he decided to add Robata Ramen & Yakitori to his list of restaurants, rather than allow someone else to infringe on his territory or duplicate a saturated concept.
"Authentic" is Ishii's buzzword for his newest venture. He will encourage diners to start with a selection of small communal dishes to share with the table, then progress to more heavily flavored items like the yakitori (skewered meats) and individual bowls of ramen.
"I hate to say this, but right now, sushi, anybody can do, but authentic, nobody can do," Ishii says.
"Robata" translates literally to "as by the fire," or it can refer to a specific kind of restaurant. Ishii will incorporate the charcoal grill but not a robata's usual "use every part" approach, postulating Memphians may not take to eating grilled chicken gizzards and livers.
After grilling, a chef will dip yakitori into a big container of sauce, which they top off, but never throw out, adding flavor night after night.
Ishii's friend has owned a yakitori restaurant in Japan for about a half-century and will ship a portion of the 50-year-old sauce to Robata Ramen.
In addition to ramen and yakitori, Robata will also serve sake and tapas, a combination known as "izakaya" in Japan.
Chef Tetsu Ogasawara will serve food to customers using a wooden paddle, following a centuries-old technique. Japanese fishermen used to spend days in the ocean, cooking their catch at night and passing it to other boats on their oars.
Ishii brought a similar concept to the Humphreys Center more than two decades ago, when Japanese food was still a novelty to the area. He's hoping people will be willing to adapt to a style of dining that's a bit different.
"There's an etiquette to eating noodles: Make noise. But Americans don't want to make noise. You have to suck the noodles with the soup," Ishii says. "Americans want to enjoy the conversation with the meal, but we [Japanese] hurry up to eat because it doesn't taste as good if it's soggy."
Located in the historical Griffin House, Robata Ramen will also offer patio seating and a visible cooking area inside. Scheduled to open in May, the restaurant doesn't have set hours yet, but it will serve a quick lunch featuring ramen, rice bowls, and sushi rolls, in addition to dinner.
The Memphis location of Lost Pizza Co. opened its doors March 21st, the eighth location of a pizza chain high on aesthetics.
Jim Hunter Walsh is director of operations for JJ Brothers, which bought the Memphis franchise rights. He's standing in the East Memphis restaurant pointing over his left shoulder.
"I guess one question is, 'Can you walk in anywhere and see a VW bus mounted on the wall?'" Walsh says.
"[Lost Pizza Co.'s founders] are from the Mississippi Delta, so it's got a real bluesy kind of feel the way they decorate them."
The first Lost Pizza Co. was opened in 2007 in Indianola, Mississippi, and has since expanded into Cleveland, Grenada, and Tupelo.
Featuring pizza choices including Kujo, FatBoy's Bacon Cheeseburger, and Hot Chick, Lost Pizza Co. offers thin or thick crust, both made from scratch. The menu also features similarly branded pastas, salads, and sandwiches.
An individual-sized pizza fills a dinner plate with wide, stubby slices and a thick layer of toppings. For $9.99, patrons can treat themselves to Otis, "the daddy of all meat lovers," which includes bacon, hickory ham, pepperoni, Italian sausage, pork sausage, ground beef, and grilled chicken.
A few elements cut against the grain of a chain restaurant, including the Mississippi Delta Hot Tamales. The original Lost Pizza Co. is in a town of fewer than 15,000 people and employed a man who made tamales for a few area restaurants. He now makes tamales for all of the Lost Pizza Co. locations.
"[On opening weekend] we were making extra, walking around and giving one tamale to each table," Walsh says. "You wouldn't believe the number of people who sat back up and said, 'Hey, we'd like an order of tamales.'"
The Memphis location straddles the line between family-friendly business and full-service bar, the first Lost Pizza Co. to offer the latter. Blues music plays constantly. Antique-looking light fixtures accentuate several disparate old doors, a few of which form a barrier between the bar half of the restaurant and another seating area.
Half of the restaurant's ceiling is covered in tin, and a plywood jigsaw painted in several colors covers the rest.
JJ Brothers (named for owners/brothers Will and Jones McPherson) plans to open a second location in Jackson, Mississippi, and a third location somewhere in the Memphis area.
Lost Pizza Co. is open Sunday to Thursday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., and Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
2855 Poplar (572-1803)