Kansai eateries offer new flavors for 2012

by John Ashburne

Special To The Japan Times

Businesses in cities around Japan seem to open and close at an alarming rate — and a new year inevitably means new restaurants. Here’s a guide to some dragonly new and recent arrivals in the Kansai strongholds of Kyoto and Osaka.

Nijo Tsubaki, Kyoto

Tempura and wine

Set in an century-old machiya townhouse that has been converted to resemble an ochashitsu tea-ceremony room, newly opened wine and tempura specialist Nijo Tsubaki will surely be an instant hit in 2012.

Though it is the sister branch of the lauded kaiseki course specialist Gokomachi-Tsubaki, Nijo Tsubaki has its own clear identity, serving top-notch cuisine in a sophisticated, mellow and very Kyoto-esque atmosphere.

Beautifully crafted tempura with well-chosen wine is a match made in heaven, and Nijo Tsubaki doesn’t disappoint. The key is in its choice of the freshest ingredients and the very highest quality of oil for the tempura, which it sources from 200-year old local specialist Yamanaka Aburaten.

We highly recommend the uni kaibashira sea-urchin and scallop norimaki tempura; the wagyū beef; the satsumaimo (sweet potato) and ebi imo (shrimp potato); and, oh yes, those moreish deep-fried olives.

The non-tempura items on the menu are excellent too, not least the fugu smelt clear soup with local vegetables. Accompany your meal with a chilled glass of bubbly, from the 100-plus wine selection.

“Come here to enjoy yōbanashi (‘talking into the night’) over good food and drink,” encourages manager-sommelier Mitsunobu Komine, “or drop by during the day. We keep long hours, so there’s no rush.” Indeed there isn’t: Nijo Tsubaki serves as a cafe by day and restaurant-bar by night, its a la carte menu allowing you to sip and nibble without breaking the bank.

(075) 256-2882. For a full evening’s dining, budget around ¥7,000, or ¥10,500 for the full omakase course.

Chi-Fu, Osaka

Chinese

Tucked away down a small side-street in Osaka’s Nishi-Tenma district, Chi-Fu is an oasis of culinary exploration and adventure in an otherwise unremarkable city suburb. This swish new eatery specializing in Chinese fusion cuisine boasts an interesting history: Its original Tokyo incarnation was once a favorite of postwar novelist Shotaro Ikenami, but lay dormant for 20 years until owner-chef Koji Azuma resurrected the restaurant and culinary philosophy in Osaka at the end of last year.

“We started by imagining a Chinese restaurant where the chefs are all French and a French restaurant where the chefs are all Chinese,” says Koji Azuma, without a flicker of a smile, deadly serious about his cross-cultural culinary experimentation. “Our aim was to re-create traditional Chinese dishes, incorporating Western ingredients such as caviar and foie gras, and locally sourced elements such as wagyū beef, combined with the rigorous attention to detail you can expect from the Japanese kitchen.”

It could have turned out so wrong, but it works. Don’t miss Chi-Fu’s signature Lion’s Mask, a traditional Shanghai nikudango meatball that combines wild boar meat and fermented black soy beans, coated with sherry vinegar. Put preconceptions aside; it is a delight: flavorsome, unexpectedly delicate and, like Chi-Fu itself, not only a little stylish.

Chi-Fu offers more than 300 wines to accompany your meal, and Azuma, also a sommelier, is happy to advise.

(06) 6940-0317. Lunch courses are from ¥3,500; evening from ¥7,000. English spoken; reservations recommended.

Le Comptoir de Benoit, Osaka

French

Sitting atop the Breeze Breeze skyscraper in Umeda, this Michelin-starred venue “where Osaka terroir meets French bistro” is already a hit among Osaka’s Francophile foodies, who may now look forward to the arrival of a new young tyro superchef. Soushi Ueno, a 34-year-old native of Kumamoto who takes the reigns as executive chef from Jan. 16, has been prized away from Beige in Ginza under the approving gaze of his mentor, none other than a certain Alain Ducasse.

(06) 6345-4388; www.comptoirbenoit-osaka.com. Lunch is ¥1,800-4,500, dinner ¥5,000-12,000.

Jam Hostel+Sake Bar+Cafe, Kyoto

Sake bar and cafe

“My purpose in life is to drink Japanese sake!” announces Niigata Prefecture-born Aiko Ikeda, irrepressible owner and sake sommelier at this traveler’s lodge cum sake bar newly opened on Kawabata-dori, just north of the Shijo Ohashi Bridge in central Kyoto. Ikeda and husband Michinori are passionate about their nihonshu, and have chosen a dazzling array of different examples from across the country.

Aiko’s Echigo home turf, with its distinctive smooth, dry sakes, and mellower sweeter examples of Michinori’s Kyoto are both well represented. If you want something a little different, try the high-octane, strangely complex Asahi Wakamatsu muroka nama genshu, an unfiltered raw sake from Tokushima Prefecture. The Ikedas are happy to offer recommendations (in English, too), and the bar is open 5 p.m. till midnight.

(075) 201-3374; www.sakebar.jp. Sakes are priced ¥400-900.

Morpho Cafe/Cafe Matsuontoko, Kyoto

Vegan/vegetarian

For a city filled with Buddhist temples and tofu specialists, Kyoto can be a frustratingly difficult place to find truly vegetarian fare, not least if your principles forbid you from partaking of the ever-present konbu-katsuo kelp and fish broth. These two vegan-friendly options are welcome additions to the veggie fold.

Morpho Cafe is a pleasant, airy space on Horikawa-dori, close to the splendid Seimei Jinja Shrine. Its menu isn’t exclusively vegan, but the friendly staff are happy to advise and, where possible, tailor meals to specific needs. The lunch set features half a dozen items, the homemade tofu a favorite.

Newly opened Cafe Matsuontoko offers its quirky vegan burgers in a cool renovated old building in central downtown Kyoto, just off the Shinkyogoku arcade. You can choose burgers made with soy meat or with the chef’s original specialty: konyaku (devil’s-tongue jelly)! One regular customer describes Matsuontoko’s homemade onion rings as “nothing short of awesome.” Open till 11 p.m.

Morpho Cafe: (075) 432-5017; morphocafe.noor.jp. Lunch set is ¥950, dinner ¥1,200. Cafe Matsuontoko: (075) 251-1876. Burgers from ¥880.