At roughly a month into operations, new Japanese-centric lunch joint and mini-grocer Ozu (1708 Lena St., Ste. 101, ozusantafe.com) has already made an impression. The project of couple Jeff Ozawa and Jaimie Lewis, Ozu embraces the Japanese mindset of minimalism and high-quality dishes, both in its concise dining menu of bangers and in its hard-to-find grocery items such as imported rice, specialty rice cookers, condiments, teas and sauces. So quickly and passionately, in fact, did the people in my life who insist upon using the term “foodie” start espousing Ozawa and Lewis’ spot that I chose to ditch my “give ‘em a minute to get settled!” mentality and stop by.
Of course, had it been terrible, I’d probably have moved on and waited. I’m glad I did not. Ozu stands as a delightful addition to Santa Fe’s restaurant-scape—absolutely a business worth patronizing and watching.
The two met during their college years and, post-school, moved to LA for a long stint where they started the Goromando catering company and the Tenzo kitchen and lifestyle online shop (shoptenzo.com). Ozawa, mostly self-taught in the kitchen, had learned recipes from his Japanese father; Lewis, a whiz at business and design, also had skills such as furniture-making (which we’ll get to later).
Foodservice seemed the logical path.
“My dad grew up in Osaka, so he was always cooking the old stuff out of homesickness, and that’s how I got hooked,” Ozawa tells SFR. “As time went by, I got more interested in the old recipes and eventually got to a point where I felt like I had to turn it into a business.”
Tenzo is still going strong online, whereas the catering company fell victim to the COVID lockdowns. Still, it spurred Ozawa and Lewis to finally move to Santa Fe in 2022. Last month, they took over the space on Lena Street that formerly housed The Bread Shop (which continues, thankfully, to serve up great bread and sandwiches right across the street from Ozu).
Ozawa’s menu is ultimately small, but innovative insofar as Santa Fe’s Japanese offerings go—a combination of Japanese items and Japanese-American dishes that embrace the flavors with which Ozawa grew up.
That, frankly, was all I needed to know to get on board. And so, a companion and I visited one recent afternoon and went to town. Immediately, we zeroed in on the bento lunch dish, a well-sized box crammed with Japanese king salmon, a salad of yuzu carrots and beets and cucumber tsukemono (think preserved veggies) served with a bed of fluffy rice ($18). The salmon was lightly cooked, just beyond pan-seared, and free from heavy seasoning. Ozawa’s preparation resulted in tender, flavorful notes, and when eaten in the same bite with the tsukemono, the mouthfeel was both surprising and welcome—a bit of crunch from the veggies giving way to flaky salmon that practically melted in my mouth.
We also ordered the umeboshi onigiri (a rice ball filled with pickled plum; $4) and blue crab sunomono temaki hand roll (with actual crab, not the imitation stuff; $7) and found yet more reasons to frequent Ozu. The contrast of the tart plum complemented the salty-sweet crab and its firmer texture well and, in both cases, the proportions of each item was generous. Admittedly, this was a bit too much food for two, but Ozu’s menu is well-suited for sharing. Its interior, for example, is intimately small. Ozawa says the concept pays homage to the tiny restaurants of Japan that focus on serving a few items well and pack in patrons tightly. Lewis built all the tables, as well as the counter from which customers can order and sit. You’ll find a few small tables outside, too, if the weather permits.
Ozu, Ozawa says, benefited from plenty of help from chefs and home cooks along the way, but his obsession—sourcing the best ingredients and/or items you simply won’t find in Santa Fe, while finding a balance between popular foods and his own tastes—is all his own. Ideally, he says, Ozu could grow down the road. Even now, Ozawa and Lewis can tackle small catering jobs and one-off dinners. For the time being, though—and let me remind you we’re just a month in—they’re happy to keep it simple.
“I’m lucky to have someone who is so multi-talented,” Ozawa says of Lewis. “Also, I have the general impression that what we’re doing might be a little niche...I’m not a traditional restaurant person, but I don’t want it to turn into some huge, bustling restaurant. It’s more about recapturing that feeling of being in some smaller restaurant in Japan, or being at home and having that cozy feeling.”