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Okudohan: Fresh ingredients would be on the menu if there was one

by J.J. O'Donoghue

In the hierarchy of Kyo ryōri, or Kyoto cuisine, obansai is at the bottom. Essentially it is home cooking that has wound its way from the homestead to the restaurant. At Okudohan it remains uncomplicated and comforting — as it should be.

Okudohan is housed in an old machiya, those curious wooden city dwellings that are to Kyoto what the shotgun house is to New Orleans, an endemic and endangered reminder of the past. In a pleasant unorthodoxy the menu is a choreographed still life on the street; kabocha squashes, eggplants, onions, daikon and rice are arranged in baskets by the door waiting to be eaten, painted or Instagrammed.

Inside, while you take off your shoes (in keeping with tradition when entering a Japanese home), be sure to ask the staff for a look inside the old-style wood-burning rice cookers (the doku or odokuhan, as they are called in Kyoto) from which the restaurant gets its name. The rice and how it is cooked is one of Okudohan’s selling points.

Obansai is not unlike tapas: Dishes are varied and the portions are bite-size. Unlike the Spanish concoction, during lunch at Okudohan, everything arrives at once on an elevated tray. Filled with nine dishes, the tray couldn’t hold much more but air. There’s no menu to accompany the lunch, and the staff, while friendly, are harried, so figuring out what you’re eating is half the fun/challenge. But be warned: Some of the dishes are very Japanese, and perhaps too much so for first-timers.

I started with sashimi — not strictly obansai — which consisted of two stock-cube-like pieces of tuna and two slivers of yellowtail; delicate, fresh and delicious. I like my wasabi with a kick to it, but this could have started a flat battery. Elsewhere on the tray of plenty, fish was in good supply: flounder in tempura batter; and a parcel of herring wrapped in konbu seaweed, which was a delicious piece of poetry laden with umami. The only meat dish, broiled chicken in a miso glaze accompanied by a gnomic, damp new potato, was disappointing. Tofu was plentiful, but not dominating; a chunk of atsuagedōfu and koyadōfu, invented by monks, which is so soggy it’s a bit like biting into a sea anemone. The chawanmushi, a custard-like dish with the kitchen sink thrown in, is something you’ll either love or politely decline. The miso soup had a mini reef of wakame seaweed, which probably accounted for its saltiness. And not to forget the rice: Starched white and fluffed up like a kid’s conception of a cloud, it was as good as I’d had in a while and in plentiful supply, so don’t be shy about asking for seconds.

The restaurant is divided between Japanese-style floor seating and chairs; it’s all a bit higgledy-piggledy, but that’s part of its charm. For a good-value introduction to Kyoto ryōri, Okudohan is a good place to find yourself.

Ebiya-cho, Sanjo Sagaru, Gokomachi-dori, Sanjo-dori, Kyoto; 075-231-2219; www.the-la-mart.com/shop/okudohan01.html; open lunch and dinner daily; nearest stations Kawaramachi, Kyoto Shiyakusho-Mae; lunch set around ¥1,300, dinner set around ¥3,000 (including tea or coffee); smoking at dinner only; English menu available at dinner; no English spoken. JJ O’Donoghue is an Irish writer living in Kyoto.