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Flavor without the fireworks at Osaka’s Ajikitcho

by J.J. O'Donoghue

Special To The Japan Times

Rene Redzepi, currently Denmark’s second most famous export — behind Lego but ahead of Carlsberg — in an interview with Japan Times food columnist Robbie Swinnerton paid high compliments to the wait staff in Japan calling them “some of the best on Earth.”

I was reminded of this during lunch at Ajikitcho. My server was a peach: attentive, informative, chatty, but not overbearing — she even smiled at one of my unfunny jokes. But, if I were to try and pinpoint exactly what makes the best restaurant staff the best, I think it’s because of their familiarity with, and appreciation for, the food they are serving: It’s not just a dish on a menu, some word soup. Rather, staff, such as the lady at Ajikitcho, know the provenance, the process and the flavors of what they are serving. They do an exemplary duty and, I should add, not for a yen extra in the form of a tip.

The main Michelin-starred Ajikitcho restaurant is located in Honmachi in Osaka, but I went a bit farther downtown, to Shinsaibashi, where they have an outpost on the rooftop of the Daimaru department store. The restaurant looks out on to a Tudor and English rose garden; at this time of year it was dreary and depressing, although I can’t imagine it improves much. As there’s not much to see outside, the focus is directed inward, on the restaurant and its fare — which is resolutely washoku (traditional Japanese cuisine). I was seated in an annex, minimally decorated and cordoned off with blinds made of chain mail.

Ajikitcho has a generous lunch menu, which runs from about ¥3,000 to ¥8,000. I opted for the mid-priced shokado bento; a bento box with four compartments, loaded with variety and color. There was a nod to the New Year’s repertoire with kuromame (black beans) and a variety of kamaboko (fishcakes), the most interesting of which had a wedge of satoimo (taro root) cut into it. The tempura, leeks and prawn, were excellent. The bento serving was rounded off with tsukemono (pickles) and rice.

Before that there were three starters: scallops in a gelatinous dashi with pickled mizuna (a nettle-like plant) and daikon, followed by yellowfin tuna and sea bream sashimi, which gave way to a clear soup anchored by wakame (edible seaweed) and a fish paste ball made with yuba, the gossamer-like skin of tofu. Dessert was matcha (green tea powder) ice cream.

Winter can be a challenge for chefs, and it can be disappointing for diners. What I enjoyed about these sea-themed dishes was they had a starkness that matched the season. The chefs didn’t try to disguise or downplay this.

Ajikitcho at Daimaru doesn’t color outside the lines: This was evident in all of the dishes, but especially the bento box. Food is cooked and prepared to conformity; this doesn’t take away from the flavors, but neither does it imbue dishes with fireworks. I had the feeling that Ajikitcho was going through the stages with lunch, which is a pity, because they have the talent and the ingredients to delve deeper.

1-7-1, Daimaru Shinsaibashi 9F, Shinsaibashi-suji, Chuo-ku, Osaka; 06-6251-1436; www.ajikitcho.jp; nearest station Shinsaibashi; open every day, lunch 11 a.m-3 p.m., dinner 5-10 p.m.; lunch from ¥3,000 to ¥8,000; no smoking; Japanese menu; some English spoken.