Food & Drink | OSAKA RESTAURANTS

Pancotei: ‘Kushikatsu’ morsels prepared with obsessive care

by J.J. O'Donoghue

Precision. This is the premise on which everything at Pancotei is based, from the angle of the ear of wild asparagus, the volume of the froth on a glass of beer, the suitability of a single Japanese maple leaf as an adornment to a dish, the knot in the master’s tie. Precision, bordering on perfection.

This month, Pancotei, a counter-style restaurant, turns 18. It is the pride and joy of chef and restaurateur Tsukasa Yamashiro, who has spent most of his working life making kushikatsu. Like many things Japanese, kushikatsu is simple in premise; its complexity comes through adornment and tinkering. The existential question for Yamashiro seems to be, “What bite-size ingredients can be pieced together on a skewer before lightly frying them in bread crumbs?”

At Pancotei, the answer is, “A lot.”

My companion and I were the first customers of the evening, and there was a pleasant lull before quickly filling up. We saw a menu briefly and never saw it again. We went with one of the courses (the basic starts at ¥4,500), and each serving came with an explanation from the chef. Who needs menus when you have the guiding hand of the maker? (Believe me, I needed him: Before we ate anything I spoiled my salt by squeezing lemon onto it).

Over the course of 90 minutes my companion and I devoured 20 skewers apiece. To name them all would fill this column and then some, so here’s what stood out: a wonderful and colorful dipping salad, replenished all the way through the evening; a delicate slice of Chateaubriand steak and cheese; kuruma ebi (prawn), followed by hotate (Japanese scallop); a wonderful white truffle, covered in black “bread crumbs”; a hulking stick of Italian asparagus; pancetta and mozzarella; a pause midway; a cheese-like tofu from Kyoto intended to clear the palette. And then on to round two: uni (sea urchin), eel and foie gras.

This was the food of gout, debauchery and Wall Street money men. But Yamashiro never overdoes it. This is where precision matters: He keeps an eye on the progress of each customer so that there is never a lull, but also just enough time to savor the flavor of each miniature dish. But before a customer even sits down, the chef has to work out the rhythm of each course, to thread between the tastes, to carry us forth — and in our case, on and on.

There is a significant wine menu at Pancotei. The master explained a bottle of white to a couple nearby; he was fluent and helpful with his suggestion. Every month he changes about half the dishes on the menu. For comparison, think of redecorating half your house each month, but to an extraordinary standard. I could have probably bowed out after 15 skewers, but I am glad I didn’t. If the Scots have given fried food a bad name, Yamashiro has rescued and redeemed it with his luxurious creations. Bravo!

7-7-8 Fukushima, Fukushima-ku, Osaka; 06-6455-3424; www.pancotei.com; open 5:30 p.m.-10 p.m., closed Sun.; nearest station Fukushima; no smoking; lunch around ¥4,500 (plus drinks); no English menu; no English spoken. J.J. O’Donoghue is an Irish writer living in Kyoto.