Restaurants open and close all the time in Japan’s ever-changing dining landscape. Here’s a selection of a few noteworthy new places in Kyoto and Osaka.
Pinyo Shokudo, Kyoto
In Japanese his name is rendered Zen Shoichi, but the 30-something owner prefers it in the Korean, Chun Chang Il. “Sounds more English!” he adds with a laugh. Chun and his wife Sakiko run this newly-opened cozy, bright “Korean Soup Canteen” just a few minutes’ walk up Kawabata-dori from Sanjo Keihan Station.
Chun’s paternal grandfather was born in Korea but moved to Sendai, Miyagi Prefecture, bringing the family’s culinary heritage — which Chun reproduces with his simple, inexpensive and excellent set dishes.
There are five items to choose from: sundubu, a boiling-hot soup with melting tofu, pork and clams; kongbijijjiage, a stew made of ground soybeans, kimchee and pork; doganitang, a stew of ox shank and tendon; seolleontang, a soup of back beef and braising steak; and sukejang, a spicy beef soup with fern bracken and beansprouts.
The soups are served with pickles, kimchee and rice, and cost ¥800-1,200.
Pinyo Shokudo’s food is authentic and not at all heavy, making it a popular spot with women. Pinyo means “ornamental hairpin,” Chun explains with a laugh. “We chose it because it sounds cute.”
Magobashi-cho 18-3, Sakyo-ku, Kyoto; (075) 746-2444; www.facebook.com/Pinyoshokudou
Udon Museum, Kyoto
Udon Museum is not a dust-covered collection of ancient foodstuffs arranged in glass cases and labeled in longhand by bearded academics. Rather it’s a veritable cornucopia of all that is udon, Japan’s chunkiest, chewiest white noodle.
Nationwide, there are at least 45 different types of udon dish, varying from region to region and differing greatly in ingredients, preparation and serving. Udon central is clearly Gunma Prefecture, which boasts six of the specialties represented at this hugely popular “museum,” actually a beautifully restored postwar machiya townhouse in the heart of the downtown Gion district.
Udon lovers line up well before the first noodles hit the bowl at 11 a.m. to sample such delights as Akita Prefecture’s inaniwa udon, Ise udon from neighboring Mie Prefecture, and dangojiru from Oita Prefecture in Kyushu. You may choose a single bowl of any type (¥1,300), or opt for the tabekurabe (comparative tasting) option with two smaller bowls, three for the famished (¥760 each).
Topping the museum’s udon hit parade is the Japanese equivalent of Puglia’s Orecchiette: mimi udon, the unique ear-shaped noodles made in Sano in Tochigi Prefecture, slightly chewier than usual and served with chicken and crab in a salty broth. Running second is the wide, flat himokawa udon from my own former stamping ground, the udon mecca that is Kiryu in Gunma.
The udon museum is fun and inexpensive, and its staff cheerful and welcoming. The real noodle-heads out there, however, will want to sample these local delicacies at source, and I should know — I’ve had 24 out of the 45 to date.
Gion-Machi Kitagawa 238-2, Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto; (075) 531-0888; www.udon.mu
Baron Steak House, Osaka
The walls are painted blood red, and the dame in the corner looks tougher than a coffin lid. Then the guy in the pinstripe suit comes over to my table, and makes me an offer I can’t refuse. “How about the Eggs Benedict, sir? They are part of our ¥1,000 lunch menu.”
Had Bogie and Bacall ever felt peckish en route to Casablanca from Hollywood via Osaka’s Sonezakishinchi district, they would have made a beeline for Baron Steak House. Inspired by a New York steak house and filled with photographs of 1920-50 Brooklyn collected by the Americophile owner, this intimate place is great for a quick but substantial lunch or a full-on evening splurge.
The name of the game here is beef, specifically high-quality kuroge-wagyū (Japanese black beef), succulent, marbled and melt-in-the mouth superb. “All of our beef is graded at A5, the highest ranking for quality,” says besuited manager Katsuhiro Hayakawa, with obvious pride, “and it is oven-roast with utmost care.”
All the usual high-end suspects are on the menu, including sirloin (¥9,000/300 g) and Chateaubriand (¥10,000/170 g), but most popular with the Osaka locals is the relatively inexpensive but wholly delicious torotan roast tongue (¥3,200).
Mitsuki Kousan Bldg. 9F, 1-5-21 Sonezakishinchi, Kita-ku, Osaka; (06) 6344-6860; www.baronsteakhouse.com
Nihon Ryori Nakanoshima, Osaka
Discreet modern chic is the vibe at this “water and light”-themed Japanese restaurant, the latest addition to Osaka’s sky-high dining options, located on the 30th floor of the Rihga Royal Hotel, 110 meters above the Nakanoshima district.
Chef Norimoto Hirano serves up classic kaiseki-style fare, starting at ¥4,043 at lunch and ¥5,775-17,325 at dinner.
Nihon Ryori Nakanoshima’s arty open spaces and fantastic night views make it the hippest high-rise dining destination in the city. For now, anyway — it’ll be interesting to see how it will fare when the Intercontinental opens in June.
Nakanoshima 5-3-68, Kita-ku, Osaka; (06) 6448-1121; www.rihga.co.jp