Category Archives: Kyoto

Posts about izakaya, restaurants and bars in Kyoto, written by Rebekah Wilson-Lye for Ichi for the Michi.

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