Lunch at Ristorante t.v.b is a measured and timely affair. While it wasn’t as long as an opera, it was lengthy, stretching to nearly two hours. This is slow food; I mean that in the flattering and not the pejorative sense. Good food takes time.
You could call this formal dining; the waiting staff and maitre d’ were certainly better dressed than me, but the atmosphere isn’t stuffy or overbearing. Ristorante t.v.b (I will get to what the initials mean) is on one of Gion’s townhouse-packed streets that could double as a period-movie setting, except the extras are hordes of snap-happy geisha-chasing tourists. Inside it’s serene; you pass the kitchen, behind a glass partition, on the way to tables spread between two stark yet comforting dining rooms.
The overarching influence is Italian cooking, border-hopping to France, but most dishes have a Japanese stamp on their passport — specifically Kyoto.
Take the pasta. The spaghettini in tomato sauce with black olives and spinach was a delicate (and delicious) union. And the touch of Kyoto? Smelt from Lake Biwa, just over the hills. Soup, the opening dish on this prix-fixe menu (¥3,500), was another winner: a tricolor of white, green and purple cauliflower submerged under Parmesan shavings. En route to the main dish there was an artful and innovative daikon dish, which had all the posturing of dessert but remained loyal to the root vegetable’s crisp, stark nature. This cleaned the pallet for a fillet of sautéed guinea-fowl from France, skin encrusted, with tender meat and oozing garlic-infused juice. It was served with sautéed vegetables, kabu and kintoki carrot, a vivacious heirloom in the Kyoto vegetable repertoire.
Not every dish soared. The terrine was flat, and not just in the literal sense. Its “smallness” was camouflaged under a salad, though a glutinous dish like this lends itself to gluttony, not austerity.
With all courses there was a sense of presentation and assembly. This was especially true of dessert: Mine arrived on a chocolate-colored tile. Aboard were chocolate squares lined up in domino formation. The Earl Grey ice cream was exquisite. The wine list leans heavily but not exclusively on Italian offerings. I went with a Tuscan red; it had depth in flavor and price.
With a two-hour lunch, the eye wanders, and what I noticed was incredibly alert and attentive staff. At a table close by a diner had left her napkin on the chair while away; when she returned it was folded on the table. There were times too when I didn’t even notice my empty dishes disappear. And service doesn’t end when the bill is paid; outside the staff wait patiently as you set off down the road after a long meal that was worth every minute. As for the meaning of t.v.b? I deferred to an Italian friend. “Ti voglio bene.” Somewhat embarrassed, he explained it means something like “I care for you.” Maybe it was better left unsaid.
Gion Machi, Minamigawa, Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto; 050-5868-6954; www.ristorante-tvb.com; open lunch and dinner, closed Sun.; nearest stations Gion Shijo, Kawaramachi, Keihan Sanjo; no smoking; lunch ¥3,500-10,000, dinner ¥10,000-15,000 (plus drinks); no English menu; No English spoken. JJ O’Donoghue is an Irish writer living in Kyoto.