Notes from Osaka: Lunch at Kigawa

November 13, 2013


Trying to find the little alley we get lost three times. 

It’s disorienting, this city of Osaka, the way streets turn into bustling covered arcades filled with discount stores, fast food and pachinko parlors, and then morph into tiny ancient little alleyways, too small to be called streets.  Confusing, when someone tells you to turn on the next street, only to stand wondering if this little pathway between buildings – barely 2 feet wide – could properly be called a street.  Finally a bustling little woman takes pity on us and walks us to the door of the restaurant. 

After that it’s easy. 

Chef Osamu Ueno serves the same meal to all of his 12 customers, standing in front of you with his 6 assistants, the entire kitchen visible. Kigawa is credited as the father of the kappo ryori places – a restaurant where you eat in the kitchen, watching the chef slice sashimi, roast fish, arrange plates, and then serve the food directly across the counter.  For those of us who don't speak Japanese, kappo is easy; there's no need to order, and this tiny, friendly restaurant is a great place to discover what it’s all about. 


 The welcome. Bright green, bright flavor: spinach soup with a dashi base. (Notice the helpful translation.) 


Salad: burdock, mibuna stems, spinach in a sesame dressing.


Autumn on a plate: peanut chawan mushi, tofu with persimmon jelly, yama imo, duck, sawara, trout roe. In the front, the tiniest little potatoes, the size of a thumbnail.


Sashimi, painstakingly translated: tuna, spanish mackerel, blackthroat seaperch, barracuda, squid, saba, red snapper.


Soup: daikon, yuba, kinome in turnip broth.


Fried eel, fried taro, crab, shisito pepper.


Simmered daikon, shrimp, onions.


Part of the show: fileting mackerel.


Rosy pork, extraordinarily sweet, with grated taro enhanced with pork jus and a dab of mustard. 


Rice, pickles, miso soup, tea.


Final flavor: green tea, persimmon jellies. 

Kigawa (1-7-7 Dotonbori, Chuo-ku; tel: 06-6211-3030).

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Notes from Japan: RyuGin

November 12, 2013

The more I remember about this restaurant, the more it blows me away.  It was so brilliant, in so many ways.

Thinking about RyuGin, in contrast to Kikunoi in Kyoto (notes on that meal still to come), makes it even more interesting. Because what chef Seiji Yamamoto is doing is, in some ways, so radical.  He situates his restaurant squarely in the kaiseki tradition while reinterpreting each dish in an extremely modern way. The result is breathtaking. 

Of all the meals I've had in Japan, I think this is the one that will linger in my mind.  It's not that it was better – we've had so much fantastic food – but I am fascinated by the way the chef is reimagining what kaiseki food might be.  It's extremely respectful reinterpretation; in the classic restaurants you feel you're tasting history, but this food wants to appeal to modern palates.  

The intentions are clear from the moment you walk in the door.  No kimono-clad women kneel to serve you, there are no tatami rooms, no removal of your shoes. It feels like a statement: if the old ryokans are taking you back to the Japan of long ago, this one is firmly anchored in the present  - and looking forward.

Many patrons stroll in clad in jeans and sneakers, but the restaurant maintains its dignity. Every detail has been carefully considered: just take a look at those beautiful long charcoal-grey napkins. You unfold one and the rectangle floats across your entire lap making you wonder why most napkins are square. But just as you are thinking this the first dish arrives, and you stop thinking about anything but the food.


First dish. 17 different vegetable:  julienned greens, pickled beets, mushrooms… You stir it all into its pinenut dressing and feel the flavors dance into your mouth.

Steamed abalone, which arrives covered by a ludicrously large shell, in an apple jelly vinaigrette, with wakame seaweed. The abalone,  tender and mild, is set off by the sweet sourness of the vinaigrette.


Chawan mushi with milt (shiroko). Soft soft with soft. It's milt season in Japan – we've eaten it everywhere – and it's the food I'll most miss when I leave.  Ttranslated as "children of the clouds,"  it seems more like the cloud itself to me.  We've had it deep-fried, rolled in squid ink, even pureed, but this presentation, on custard, emphasizes texture in a particularly wonderful way.


Matsuba crab from Sanin Bay is in season at the moment, and it should not be missed. What you can't see, hiding beneath that extraordinarily tender crab claw, is a crab dumpling wrapped in cabbage.  The contrast between the matsutake and the crab claw – same shape, similar texture – very eloquently marries the sea and the forest.

The sashimi course, clockwise:

sea bream, tai

raw spiny lobster

squid, so tender

shining silver skin fish

ankimo, with chrysanthemum stem.  The liver itself was smoked until it resembled the world's best liverwurst

smoked spanish mackerel

in the middle, cured strips of squid.


Sea perch, its skin coated in roasted rice and then grilled to crackling crispness on binchotan charcoal. So amazing. The texture is emphasized by being paired with meltingly soft taro brushed with black vinaiger, a nod to the charcoal. 


Prawn dumpling and turnip soup with yuzu citrus flavor. I'm not sure there's any way to explain how truly delicious this was. Imagine the most ethereal quenelle, made of seafood instead of fish, floating in the lightest turnip broth. Stunning!

Grass-fed wagyu beef with a deep fried, soft-boiled egg. Texture, temperature, richness….


Chicken rice.  Pickles, but so lightly done, they're almost fresh.  And miso soup made with prawn broth that still, this late in this large meal, managed to make me stop and pay my respects. Miso soup tends to be shy and retiring, but this one shouts out loud. It was the best  I've ever had.  

Moelcular kaiseki: a candy apple that explodes!  Crack open the hard candy shell and there's powdered apple inside . Next to it, a warm compote of apples.  Playful but serious, it's another little waltz of  temperature and texture. And also a nod to the apple vinegar jelly that was the second dish in the meal (this is the second to last).

Cold sake: soft serve ice cream.

Hot sake: a dense little souffle. 

An exuberant end to an extremely delicious and thought-provoking meal. 








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Notes from Japan: Hyotei

November 11, 2013

When I think about Kyoto, it's Hyotei I'll remember best. The 400 year old restaurant is famous for its kaiseki dinners, but we went early in the morning for asagayu, a stunningly perfect breakfast.  Served in complete serenity, it's the most fitting way to begin a day in this city of temples. A moment not to be missed. 

The meal begins with a cup of warm, rosy ume tea. Such a welcoming flavor.


Then this little still life appears, held out by women in kimono: two tiny, tasty fish, a perfect chestnut, one gorgeously boiled egg, its yolk halfway between solid and liquid, two pristine pieces of seaweed-wrapped sushi and ginger.

Next a stack of ceramics arrives. Take them apart and you discover that each holds a different range of flavors. 

 Mibuna and  shimeji mushrooms.


Muzuku, daikon, crab.


 Yuba, kinome, and a wonderful substance that tasted to me like tofu laced with tiny roe. 

Then there is miso soup, a warm up to the main event.  All this has just been a prelude to the most exquisitely cooked rice porridge.


This is subtle food. The rice is soft but entirely intact,  served with a thick, slightly sweet, slightly salty syrup that tasted to me like  excellent soy sauce mixed with dashi.  Sprinkled with pickled turnip and tiny fish, this food forces you to eat slowly, thoughtfully, with concentration.  You look out at the garden, take another bite.  Sip some green tea.

As we were leaving….


…chef Yoshihiro Takahashi, the 15th-generation of his family to run Hyotei (which started as a tea house of the Nanzenji temple ) came out to feed the koi…


…who came rushing toward him. 

And who can blame them?

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Notes from Japan: Miyamasou

November 10, 2013


The drive to Miyamasou is gorgeous. And harrowing. We twist our way up a misty mountain road, through fields, forests and Buddhist shrines.  As we rise higher the road narrows to a single lane, and we drive more and more slowly, peering into the mirrors at the curves to try to see what's coming toward us.

The sounds: waterfalls, babbling brooks, wind in the trees. The leaves are changing, becoming deeper red as we climb higher into the hills.

And then we are at the ryokan. The quiet is intense. A man dabbles in a small stone pond, netting fish. The entire staff rushes out to greet us, ushering us into the small, spare inn. Shoes are removed, tea is brought, and suddenly the entire world as we have known it drops away.  We are in another world, another time. 

The bath is spare, soothing, with a view to the trees and the brook running across the rocks just outside.  We wrap ourselves in robes, put on wooden sandals and make our way up the path to dinner. 

There are seven of us, seated around the chef who stands in the middle, cooking. The food goes from his hands to ours.  Each dish feels like a gift.


First flavor. (Note the lovely mioga.)


Ginko nuts in gingered miso, roasted in a leaf. 


Matsutake mushrooms.


 Shrimp, peanuts, ginko: and hidden away, deep in the back, a single bright red egg yolk.



There are many, many more courses. And then desert:


Persimmon. Grape sorbet. And a single, huge, glazed grape.

Across the road, to another bath, and big fluffy futons.


We wake to rain, which makes the ryokan even more otherworldly than the sunshine. A bath. And then what might be the world's best breakfast.





The trip down the mountain is even more harrowing in the rain. Half an hour down the road big trucks start rumbling toward us, and by the time we reach Kyoto, we're prepared for civilization.  But it's nice to know that Miyamasou is up there on the mountain, waiting.


Notes from Tokyo: Hachibei Yakitori

November 9, 2013


You know the minute you walk into this elegant little yakitori shop that you're going to eat well. Owner Katsunori Yashima is SERIOUS about his yakitori, and no matter how many meals you've already eaten when you walk in the door, near midnight, you're instantly hungry. It smells like chicken, like meat, like charcoal and like sake, which is what creates the steam.




The chicken is fantastic – every part is here – along with vegetables, velvety beef tongue, and pork belly that slides easily down the throat. (There's also a wide variety of other dishes: sushi, even dessert. But it's the yakitori that you come for.)

Yakitori Hachibei is also a great place to go when you're craving a break from sake: the wine list is long.



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