Osaka restaurant presents modern kushiage fare

by Robb Satterwhite

Kushiage (skewers of breaded and deep-fried seafood, meat and vegetables) is a popular specialty of the Osaka region, and the typical kushiage joint usually involves old-fashioned wooden counters, multiple rounds of beer and a smoky, after-work izakaya vibe. So A, a stylish little restaurant in Osaka’s skyscraper district of Umeda, was a pleasant surprise.

Far from the usual grotty atmosphere, the feeling here is hip and contemporary, with smartly dressed young staff and music you might actually listen to at home — mostly R&B and jazz. The decor is engagingly exotic, with Indian-looking relief carvings and latticework, terra-cotta-colored walls, dark-gray concrete floors and accents of bamboo and rattan. Best of all, the food is excellent, with a well-chosen drinks list to match.

Because kushiage is so simple, the quality of the ingredients is essential. This is one area where this oddly named eatery (it’s pronounced “ah”) stands out. Next to the dining room is a separate sushi bar, so sushi-quality fish and shellfish are the norm in the kushiage served. Some highlights were the plump shrimp wrapped in shiso (beefsteak plant) leaf; kisu (sillago fish); prawns; and wonderfully juicy kaibashira (scallop valves) that delivered a burst of flavorful hot liquid on biting through the crisp shell of breading around them.

The menu offers several set meals made up of different numbers of skewers with or without sushi. There’s also an “omakase course,” in which they serve skewer after skewer of whatever is recommended that day until you tell them to stop. It’s a good idea to notify them within four or five skewers of being full, in case they are saving the best for last. The surprise element adds some fun, and memorable bites included a big, crunchy spear of asparagus, curry-flavored lotus root, dark-meat chicken, duck and okra stuffed with cheese. The final item was Camembert cheese wrapped in bacon — a bit over the top but very tasty, and certainly worth the extra 20 minutes at the gym the next day.

While beer is always a safe bet with kushiage, it’s nice to have other options. Umeshu (plum liquor) is one drink that can stand up to deep-fried foods, and the drinks list offers several varieties, including a potent one made with rum-like brown-sugar shochu. There are also several sake choices from the bolder end of the flavor spectrum, including the rather funky Yamahai from Tedorigawa in Ishikawa Prefecture. There’s even wine, by the glass or half-bottle, and premium shochu of every sort.

Set menus start at ¥2,000 for 10 skewers, and an 18-skewer adventure with a few drinks might set you back around ¥5,200 per person. The best seating is of course at the counter, where you can watch the chefs at work, but there are also several tables if you’re so inclined.

A, E-ma B2F, 1-12-6 Umeda, Kita-ku, Osaka; (06) 4795-7594. Open daily 11 a.m.-10 p.m. (last order). Robb Satterwhite edits Bento.com, an online and mobile guide to restaurants in Osaka and elsewhere in Japan.