Mamaroneck's Satsuma-Ya: A Tribute
by Marianne Fichtel
(March 2, 2005) Take a ten-minute drive through the middle of Larchmont or Mamaroneck. The landscape will include babies in strollers, candy stores, and high-end real estate. As you might expect from this tableau, this is a place for family-friendly restaurants that can also provide a fine dining experience. Satsuma-Ya on Mamaroneck Avenue across from Columbus Park goes an extra step, inviting your family into its space and making you feel like part of its family as well.
Since 1989, Makio Idesako (“Mike” to his regular customers), has been welcoming local residents to Satsuma-Ya, the Japanese restaurant he owned with his wife Taeko. The most celebrated part of his repertoire was the sushi and sashimi—fresh, superior, meticulously prepared. The traditional Japanese menu, however, bore creative touches that artfully blended Eastern cuisine with Western classics. The endive and blue cheese salad was a favorite of many, and most hot dishes came with a serving of mashed potatoes. Unfortunately, if you didn’t make it there before last Sunday, that particular ship has sailed. After sixteen years, Satsuma-Ya is closing down, and the area is losing an establishment that offered consistently delicious cuisine and a true family experience.
When you entered Satsuma-Ya, you were greeted by either Taeko or Jun Kiyama, a waiter and host who was part of the restaurant for the last fifteen years. If it was your first time there, you might have noticed how comfortable they made you feel: no overly formal show of deference, just beaming smiles and gracious warmth. If you were a repeat customer, you were most likely known by name, treated with a handshake or a hug, and asked about your family. If you were to look over at the sushi bar, you would be hailed by Mike, carving knife in hand, and his sous-chef, Israel Hernandez, a Mamaroneck resident who had worked with Mike since Satsuma-Ya’s opening. At the end of your meal Mike might send an improvised amuse-bouche to your table, free of charge. Over the years Mike(at right) and Taeko’s niece and children joined the staff, getting to know the regular customers.
The restaurant itself was decorated in a homey, lived-in style. The dining room had a cohesive look lent to it by Mike’s personal art collection, dozens of beautiful prints and paintings from Japan and local galleries. But it was also dotted with personal touches added over the years by the multi-talented staff, in the same way that our own houses bear witness to some of our creative outlets. There was always a striking flower arrangement out front, courtesy of Taeko, a student of ike-bana, the Japanese art of flower arranging. An origami teacher all over Westchester, Taeko had also hung her miniature paper sculptures in the front windows of the restaurant, while Kiyama had several of his own paintings hanging in the dining room.
The décor, the food, and the entire concept of the restaurant had roots in Kogoshima Prefecture (formerly called Satsuma), in the far south of Japan, where Mike was raised and began cooking as a nineteen-year-old student. His parents had stopped supporting him, and he needed money. He cooked there for three years, then came to the United States to continue working. Mike held virtually every job in the restaurant industry: waiter, busboy, dishwasher, prep cook, line chef. Finally, in 1974, he and a partner opened Tokubei on the Upper East Side of New York City. He ran that restaurant until 1988, when he came to Westchester—the lease on his space had expired and besides, Westchester is a great place to raise kids, he figured. Maybe it is this devotion to his own family that spilled over into the creation of a larger family, a fusion of community, at Satsuma-Ya (the literal translation is “Satsuma House”...how many more clues do we need?)
The next restaurant to occupy the space will be Italian, Mike revealed. Perhaps another mixture of family and fine dining? As for his plans to move on, Mike said that it comes down to him needing a rest and something new. What that new venture might be, he did not say, but it might be a good idea to be on the lookout for another culinary endeavor. You wouldn’t want to miss him the next time around.
Marianne Fichtel grew up in Larchmont.