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.