Eclectic Midtown Japanese restaurant closing for reboot to Gulf Coast oyster bar-casual seafood spot
A Midtown restaurant is trading ramen and soup dumplings for gumbo and po’ boys. Japanese restaurant Izakaya will soon transform into a new Gulf Coast restaurant called Josephine’s.
Izakaya will close no later than April 30, depending on its food inventory. Josephine’s is expected to follow in June after renovations to the interior and the patio.
Opened in 2015, Izakaya offers an eclectic menu of Japanese-inspired small plates plus Chinese-style dumplings and a sophisticated cocktail program. While the concept is closing for now, owners Yun Cheng and Sammy Saket intend to find a new home for the Japanese restaurant in another location that will allow them to add sushi to the menu.
“We’re not closing forever,” Cheng said in a statement. “We’re making the move now because we’ve established the right team for the new concept, and we’re actively searching for an Inner Loop spot for Izakaya. Our current lease doesn’t allow us to serve sushi, and we feel sushi is a key component to the Izakaya concept.”
That right team starts with executive chef Lucas McKinney and general manager Joseph Ramirez. McKinney is a Mississippi native whose resume includes time there with James Beard Award winner Vishwesh Bhatt at Snackbar in Oxford and multiple roles for Houston’s Underbelly Hospitality, including sous chef at Hay Merchant and chef de cuisine at GJ Tavern. Ramirez is a veteran of Izakaya owner the Azuma Group, including time as general manager at Kata Robata.
McKinney tells CultureMap he initially intended to consult for Josephine’s but soon realized he wanted a more permanent role. “It represents where I’m from and what I grew up eating,” he says. “It felt like an opportunity I should take.”
Named for McKinney’s grandmother (and a famous shipwreck), Josephine’s will serve a menu built around Gulf Coast seafood in a casual atmosphere. Dishes will consist of both raw items, including an oyster bar, and shareable plates. At lunch, the restaurant will serve po’ boys, one of which is a crabmeat melt inspired by the Vancleave Special from Rosetti’s Café in Biloxi.
“I want it to be a neighborhood situation but at the same time somewhere you can treat yourself if you want to,” McKinney says. “I’ve always dreamed of owning an old, divey oyster bar. It’ll have some of those nuances, but it will have some really fun raw bar dishes and small plates. If you want to get a po’ boy and a cup of gumbo, you can.”
Having the raw bar means that those looking to treat themselves may do so with a seafood tower. McKinney also plans to take inspiration from more recent waves of immigration to the Gulf Coast with dishes that nod to both Croatian and Vietnamese cuisines.
“When you go to other classic Gulf Coast restaurants, it can be super heavy. I want some lighter entrees, not necessarily stuff you’re going to fill up on,” he says. “I don’t want someone to come in and get etouffee-smothered catfish and that’s the only thing they get..”
Design firm Nest Interiors will transform Izakaya into Josephine’s. Changes include replacing the dumpling bar with an oyster bar and swapping out the colorful, Japanese-inspired murals for Southern-inspired painted tin ceilings and comfortable banquettes.
“Our goal is for Josephine’s to be a place to decompress, recharge, and let the gratitude of Southern hospitality take over,” Ramirez added.
Josephine’s isn’t the Azuma Group’s only new restaurant. It’s also working on opening Katami, a sushi restaurant led by Kata Robata chef Manabu Horiuchi, in the former Vincent’s space in Montrose. Expect to see a lot more about both restaurants as their openings draw closer.