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Gohanya Isshin: a diverse menu topped by fries that wax poetic

by J.J. O'Donoghue

Bowl of golden fries
As svelte as supermodels
Tastier than cows

That is a haiku inspired by and in praise of the chips I ate at Gohanya Isshin. You should know that I am always the first among my friends to order chips. These friends sneer at my lowbrow taste, and then eat the chips. I like to think that my fry fixation is more than a habit: It’s a quest. To find the “God Fry.” And I might have.

On a night in April when there were more cherry blossoms on the wind than on the trees, a friend guided me to an izakaya around the corner from the Hilton in Umeda. At the basement door they told us there was no room at the inn. So we ascended to the street and wandered a while like those unhinged cherry blossoms. More than an hour later we returned. A space had opened up; we were seated on a stool around a raised irori (traditional fireplace). While the irori was unlit, the kitchen was on fire.

Isshin is deceptively big, dimly lit and madly busy; but the staff are on their game. More impressive is that the kitchen produces such high-quality fare in such a demanding work environment.

When it came to ordering, my companion did so from memory, I from the menu. We started with a prawn salad with chunks of renkon (lotus root). This came with sesame dressing; I don’t know how the velvety dressing managed to allude to coffee, but it did. Not content with being a great salad, it had umami in the form of bite-size chunks of gelatinous dashi: stoic root versus giddy jelly.

This was followed by duck; this is the second time in as many months that I have eaten duck in Osaka that I want to write home about. Duck is such a different bird than chicken: Where chicken demands to be cooked through, duck can flirt with fire and be glorious. This duck was slow roasted, pink in many places, flavors soaring.

At some stage between tai-meshi (bream in steamed rice, the restaurant’s worthy signature dish); spring cabbage, anchovies and mochi (glutinous rice) in a dashi broth; sasami (chicken breast) stuffed with shiso (perilla) and encased in a delicate tempura batter; and a grilled plump hokke (mackerel) topped with sanshō (pepper), the “fried potato” my companion had ordered arrived.

Note it was he, not I, who ordered — not that I wouldn’t have, but he wanted them even more than I did. Let me tell you why: These frites were supermodel-thin and fried in the oil of something that had moved (according to my friend). A dollop of cream cheese with shredded chives sat on top, but the piece de resistance here was pesto. Put pesto with fried potatoes of this standard accompanied by cream cheese and you might pass out from umami overload. It’s enough to inspire poetry, or bad haikus.

Gohanya Isshin, give yourself a Michelin star. Or 10.

B1F Roman Kurabu BLDG, 2-4-43 Umeda, Osaka; 06-4797-0633; open daily 5:30 p.m. -11:45 p.m.; nearest stations Umeda, Nishi Umeda, Higashi Umeda; smoking OK; dinner around ¥4,000 including drinks; Japanese menu; no English spoken. JJ O’Donoghue is an Irish writer living in Kyoto.