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Oimatsu Kitagawa: A moment of calm in a swirling galaxy of Michelin stars

by

Special To The Japan Times

Toru Kitagawa, the chef and owner of Oimatsu Kitagawa, has a casual air about him that borders on insouciance — an air that belies the imagination, creativity and earnestness of his cooking. Perhaps this equanimity is an Osaka trait, but it could just have easily been cultivated at Gion Sasaki, the award-winning Japanese restaurant in Kyoto where Kitagawa worked for several years. That restaurant’s team of mostly young chefs have the kind of self-assurance that only the young can pull off. Inside, Gion Sasaki is casual and refreshing — a reprieve from the studious silence and contemplation typical of haute cuisine restaurants here.

Having dined at Sasaki and now Oimatsu Kitagawa it’s clear that Kitagawa left Kyoto with a few valuable lessons tucked inside his chef’s apron. This is clearest in his take on the gohan course, the rice dish that is usually the penultimate serving at a kaiseki ryōri (traditional multicourse cuisine) restaurant.

There was a lag in waiting for it — lunch here takes about 90 minutes — but, just as in Sasaki, each customer or group is presented with their own pot of rice. The ingredients were an ode to the season: slivers of gobo (burdock root) threaded together with scallops enfolded in a steaming rice. Despite this weighty combination, the harmony of flavors soared. And as a bonus, you can take home what you can’t finish as an onigiri (rice ball). A simple rice ball may never taste this good again.

Kitagawa opened his restaurant four years ago close to Osaka’s Kitashinchi neighborhood where there is no shortage of competition and enough Michelin stars to form a small galaxy.

The atmosphere inside is austere, and though Kitagawa’s cooking is traditional Japanese kaiseki ryōri at its core, he adds his own style to each course.

The dish that preceded the rice could well have been the standout (choosing one is delightfully difficult). To look at, this ponzu jelly (a combination of soy sauce and citrus juice) was a gelatinous mush with a deep marmalade-like color. Inside was cod milt, shiitake mushrooms and sayori (Japanese half beak), a thin white fish. The flavor of the dish went hither and tither: the smokiness of the mushroom, the milkiness of the milt and the creaminess of the fish, which was almost lost. But Kitagawa managed to tie it all together in the musky ponzu jelly.

The other end of lunch — the start, that is — began with an exquisite combination of sea bream topped with urchin and crowned with wasabi.

Kitagawa seems to take pleasure from piling flavor upon flavor. Yet somehow he still manages to rein them all in.

Another pretty, delicious dish was the cutlet of succulent yellow tail broiled in teriyaki sauce and the juices from slices of kumquat. It was be an expensive lunch, totaling ¥10,000, but worth it to experience kaiseki ryōri taken out of its stuffy history — Kitagawa treats his meal as though he were cooking for friends in his own home.