Category Archives: Kyo-yasai

Tokyo Izakaya: Kan, Ikejiri-Ohashi – KAN, 池尻大橋

Tokyo in summer is a challenge for even the most robust constitutions. Tokyo in a summer heatwave is down-right insufferable. The air is so thick with humidity that walking through the congested streets of Shibuya is akin to wadding through human soup. Thankfully, there is respite one stop away in the rarified streets that parallel the Meguro river, in Ikejiri-Ohashi. The balmy breeze and chi-chi environs are a welcome reprieve from the ‘heat island’ conditions of Center Gai, and our evening stroll along the river proved to be the perfect way to soothe the senses and restore lethargic appetites. 

There are many well-appointed eateries to indulge in within this leafy borough, but I had one destination clearly in my cross-hairs: KAN, a shop that has been at the top of my wish list since spying a favourable review in Kateigaho. It had continually been nixed due to latent concerns that it was too おしゃれ (stylish), which invariably means that the focus is on the surroundings and not on the plate. As tonight was a 久しぶり meal with the stylist, Big West, the question de jour was: Is it possible to have style and substance? Yes. Yes it is – on both counts. 

Like moths to the flame we were drawn to the light that glowed invitingly from KAN’s striking glass frontage. Within the interior is a study in minimalist elegance; sparse stone and granite tiles juxtaposed with liner wooden accents. A long cedar counter, which seats 14, faces the kitchen and, in the rear, a U-shaped counter provides an adjacent dining area for a further 10. According to our host, the U-shaped counter was also the inspiration for the shop’s name: 凵 – as it is written in kanji; an open box that encloses. While the interior is sparse, subtle lighting, comfortable seating and simple decorative displays of ceramics give the space a feeling of warmth rather than austerity. The ambience is cool and laid back, as are the diners; bright-young-creative-types, who call this neighbourhood home.  

Seated at the main counter, the kitchen was the focus of our attention, and what a sight it was to behold. The three chefs, who look as though they were selected from a music video casting call rather than culinary school, work their designated stations with focus and precision, producing traditional izakaya fare with a contemporary and creative riff – all without putting a hair of their slick quiffs out of place. Watching them turn out plate after plate of stunning dishes, there was little doubt we would be dining well tonight.

Time to re-hydrate. Saisho nama birus were quickly ordered from the comprehensive drinks menu, which offers a range of premium wines, shochu and nihonshu. The sake list is not the longest or the best value, but someone knows their stuff here and the dozen or so brands on offer are of good grade and providence. 

The menu, which comes in the form of a long washi scroll written in attractive cursive kanji text, is a thoughtful tribute to the seasons. Attention to seasonality is such that KAN changes the menu every 15 days to ensure that the quality of ingredients is at an optimum. As it was summer, organic vegetables and katsuo had starring roles on the evenings specials list, along with a tempting array of grilled fish, roasted meat, and aromatic simmered dishes.

First up, our otooshi; a warm broth of tai (snapper), bamboo shoots and new season enoki mushroom, accompanied with a small dish of its grilled skin dressed with a sweet miso dressing. A fine start to the proceedings.

Prepared before us with aplomb by the head chef, Tsuyoshi Yoshida, the sashimi moriawase arrived resplendent on elegant yakimono and featured early season sanma (Pacific saury), skin seared tai, mizu tako (fresh octopus), shime saba (cured mackerel), and katsuo (bonito). All excellent; a testament to the chef’s fish selection and dexterity with a knife. 

The clean and lightly fragranced Hakurakusei (伯楽星) junmaiginjou, served in elegant pewter ware, proved to be the perfect accompaniment.

With the mercury in the high 30’s inside and out, Big West seemed to be testing my internal thermal regulation with the next dish; a piping hot ceramic teapot of matsutake mushroom and hamo chabin soup. The rich and aromatic broth was poured into small chawan, to be supped as we picked the delicately simmered goodies from within the pot. While the flavours were sublime, the warmth of the soup pushed my body temperature to a level I haven’t experienced since the jimjil bangs (sauna houses) of Seoul. 

In a misguided attempt to cool down I pretty much sculled the Hitakami tenjiku junmaiginjou aoyama(日高見天竺純米吟醸 愛山), also from Miyagi, which was served to us in super fine usuhari glassware. I dispatched it so quickly, in fact, that I have neither photos or tasting notes to refer to, but it can be safe to assume that it was, errr… easy to drink. Here’s a photo and some notes pinched from the web.

I must admit I was very apprehensive about the next dish, roasted Kyoto vegetables with an uni bagna cauda sauce, for two reasons: uni; and bagna cauda. Uni and I don’t have a fond relationship, and bagna cauda on menu’s in Tokyo has become a something of a cliche; overworked, overrated and often bearing no relation to the Piedmont peasant dish that gave it its name. This dish, while not an authentic rendition, was, however, an inspired 和風 (Japanese style) interpretation. My hautey distain was shortlived, and I was soon scrapping out the last morsels of goodness from the shell. Yum!

The grilled Tairagai (Japanese razor clam, which is similar in taste and appearance to a scallop), scallions and wakame, garnished with soy butter, was ordered after seeing it presented to the couple to our left, and, in a domino effect, was immediately requested by the diners to our right. A crowd pleaser for good reason: it was a fresh, juicy and delicious. 

Seeing the chef cut perfect slivers of karasumi (salted, dried mullet roe) from across the counter, I decided to indulge my inner 親父 and ordered up a plate of Karasumi Daikon to enjoy with our Dassai 50 junmai ginjou (獺祭 純米大吟醸50). The golden disks of fishy goodness were lightly fried before serving. Umami heaven!

At around ¥7,000 per head, Kan is definitely in the mid-upper price range of izakayas, but given the superior quality of the food and service, it’s well worth it.

With the conversation picking up and our glasses draining it was time for a change in venue. As we were warmly farewelled by the staff into the night, I caught a glimpse of the grill chef preparing taiyaki and matcha as the finale of the course menu: my favourite treat. That sealed it for me. Kan was back at the top of my list of ‘places to go’, and this time there would be no procrastinating. Highly recommended.


Kyoto Food: Isoya, Kyoto – 五十家 京都

April 28th, 2010.
I was keen to balance our days of historical places and traditional culture in Kyoto, with nights at casual eateries where we could enjoy modern interpretations of Kyo-ryori. Sadly, a recently purchased copy of Ota-san’s 太田和彦の居酒屋味酒覧—精選173 wasn’t going to be of much use to me, but after hours scouring the pages of tabelog, I settled on Isoya.
Specialising in grilled Kyoto vegetables, Isoya is located north of Sanjo-dori and slightly west of Pontochō, in an area brimming with casual restaurants (as opposed to geisha teahouses), which are popular with young Kyotoites. Unusually for Japan, where al fresco dining is something of a rarity, Isoya opens out onto the street, which would make it the perfect spot to enjoy a meal during Kyoto’s sweltering summers.

We were greeted boisterously by the staff and given prime seats at the counter in front of the master of ceremonies, the grill chef. It was a good thing we arrived early for our reservation, as by 7pm the restaurant was completely full and they were turning away hungry customers by the dozen.

Along the counter top, large platters of the day’s vegetables were displayed in their raw form: lotus root, takenoko (baby bamboo shoots), new season’s asparagus and Matsutake mushrooms, were among the temptations. But, after a long day of sightseeing, the first order of the night was something sweet and hydrating. A Wakayama Umeshu (plum wine) soda was the unanimous decision. After a brief run down on the day’s special and explanation of how to order; choose a vegetable and the style you would like it cooked (fresh, grilled or oven roasted), an order of yaki sora-mame (broad beans grilled in their pod) and shiitake mushrooms was placed and just as quickly served – then devoured. At ¥500 per plate, it’s easy to see why the place is so popular.

The sake list was a fairly standard – Hakkaisan and Dassai being among the half dozen brands available . A quick survey of the room revealed that most diners were happily imbibing shochu in its various forms (vegetable-shochu cocktails being a house speciality), or mediocre wines by the bottle – poor fools. As we were in Kansai, Biwa no Choju Junmaiginjou from Shiga-ken seemed the logical choice. It’s fruity fragrance and balanced flavour stood up well against the rich offerings from the grill.

The blackboard above the grill listed a variety of protein options, from which we ordered the tuna capaccio (¥700) and grilled hokke (¥600). The tuna was served with aromatic herbs and a light drizzling of chili oil dressing, and was deemed delicious by Boo-Boo.

Having lived in Izu-Hanto for several years, I like to think that I am a bit of a connoisseur when it comes to himono (sun-dried fish). So colour me surprised when our hokke arrived, still bubbling after its short spell under the grill. Moist, unctuous and fleshy, (forgive me Shizuoka) it was by far one of the best specimen I have had the pleasure of consuming.

Our day of pavement pounding had left us ravenous and all of the dishes were quickly picked bare, so after a consultation with the chef, tomato was ordered – slow roasted in Italian marinade. Served in a pristine white ceramic bowl, the primary red orb of tomato glowed from within – creating a Hinomaru effect, if you will. The taste? Divine. Silence descended as Boo-Boo and I savoured each heavenly mouthful. Who would have thought the humble tomato could inspire a hallelujah moment.

I once had the pleasure of working with Ray McVinnie, an esteemed New Zealand chef and contributing editor of the culinary bible, Cuisine, during the halcyon days of Metropole restaurant. His mantra of “Keep it stupid”, are words which have informed my philosophy towards food. Isoya appears to have the same approach; seasonal, simply prepared fare, which allows you to enjoy the integrity of the ingredients. So simple, yet so satisfying.
As we left the restaurant, all the seats were full with a young, creative type crowd, even though it still early on a Wednesday evening. It seems that others have cottoned on to the notion that keeping it simple is not so stupid.


Kyoto Food: Giro-Giro, Kyoto 枝魯枝魯 ひとしな 京都店

April 29th, 2010

No stay in Kyoto would be compete without a kaiseki-ryori meal. However, my previous encounters of this highly esteemed cuisine have been disappointing to say the least. Thus far my experience has been beautifully plated morsels of luke warm, micromanaged fare, served in impersonal and overly formal environs. Other than an expense account – am I missing something? The morning we arrived in Kyoto, my reticence was weakened on the strength of a NY Times review of Giro-Giro, and I promptly made a reservation for BooBoo and I the next evening – at ¥3,600 for a 7 course meal, we could afford to take the risk.
Later the same evening, as we wandered down the canal that stretches from Pontocho down to Shichi-dori, on route to our accommodation, I spied a brightly lit machiya, which was brimming with activity. This walk is part of my regular routine when in Kyoto (this being my 11th trip), and I had often taken note of this establishment – then immediately forgotten about it. On closer inspection, I could just make out the name from across the canal, ‘Giro-Giro’ – Shazam! How is that for synchronicity?

The next night, after asking the hotel staff to call and confirm that one of the guests would not be eating red meat or chicken (yours truly), and that counter seats were reserved, we arrived at Giro-Giro’s doors at our appointed time.
The restaurant is a converted traditional Kyoto townhouse, which has had its back wall replaced with glass panels to provide a pleasing view of the sleepy canal below. The open kitchen on the first floor, is surrounded by a U-shaped counter, and the second floor is available for larger groups – or the poor sods who couldn’t secure a seat downstairs. The rooms have a modern wabi-sabi charm, and the motley-crew of chefs, with their day-glo mohawks (punk kaiseki?) create a hip vibe, which no doubt makes it popular with a younger demographic.

Greeted and seated, it was time to get some drinks ordered. I quickly dispensed with the English menu I was offered, when I realized, as so often the case is, that the Japanese menu had a more comprehensive sake list. In due course a tokkuri of Biwa-no-chouju Junmaiginjou (琵琶の長寿 純米吟醸), appeared before us, and was dispatched with gusto.

The 7 course meal started with a sampler plate of shirasu sushi, smoked salmon, butter grilled scallop, yamamomo, and some other pleasing tidbits.

Followed by a morsel of tempura hamo (pike) – which was served at that dread luke-warm temperature I despise. It quickly found its way to Boo-Boo, who must have thought all of her picnic baskets had come at once.

The third course revealed itself to be a moreish edamame soup with poached hamo (again) for me, and poached chicken, for the meat-eaters.The fresh wasabi at the bottom of the bowl provided a pleasant kick.

Our chokko were replenished with Dassai junmaiginjou, just as the the sashimi course arrived. Is it me, the booze, or are they serving the food out of order?

By now, I was losing track of the courses, as the chefs had enlisted me to translate the dishes to the other foreigners around us. My photos tell me it was grilled snapper with miso sauce and momiji-oroshi (grated daikon and chili), garnished with mushroom and lemon peel.

A small respite then followed in the form of a biwa (loquat) sorbet.

By the penultimate course of takenoko gohan and tsukemono (dashi was poured over the rice to make ochazuke), the counter was buzzing, as guests bantered with their neighbours and regaled each other with their Lost in Translation moments.

There was a little head-scratching between the chef and myself over the ingredients of the dessert, but we finally settled on the translation of banana sorbet, pannacotta, わらびもち Japanese bracken jelly and toasted soybean flour and a caramel macaroon on a banana foam. Phew!

We rolled out of Giro Giro into a balmy spring evening, sated and well pleased with our experience. While this was not Michelin standard kaiseki, the food was a creative and fun interpretation of a traditional cuisine. Giro Giro may well find itself on the itinerary for a 12th visit to my favourite place on Earth.

They have shops in Paris and Hawaii, too.

Giro Giro Hiroshina