This might be the year of kappo dining for me. Recently, I have often found myself seated at sparse counters opposite small teams of industrious chefs, synchronized by their movements: cutting, peeling, grating, stirring, broiling, searing, tasting and fielding questions from patrons.
The more I dine in kappo (counter-style restaurants), the more I like it. There is, as I have written previously, the unspoiled view of the kitchen and the relaxing sight of chefs at work. And considering the proximity of Valentine’s Day, there is one other advantage to kappo dining: I’d rather be seated alongside my date, with a team of chefs for distraction, than both of us anchored on either side of a table, which makes me think of playing footsie — so ’80s.
Kappo Yamashita is housed in a machiya (Kyoto’s traditional townhouses), north of Sanjo on a postcard-pretty section of historical Kiyamachi Street. In spring, it’s awash in pink petals and tourists dressed as geikos (the Kyoto term for geishas).
The food in this district is washoku (traditional Japanese cuisine), served kaiseki (a drawn-out multi-course meal). But it doesn’t (and shouldn’t) feel drawn out.
At Kappo Yamashita the atmosphere is a lot less zen-like, contemplative and whispery than at similarly-priced restaurants. Instead, it is relaxed and informal — perhaps due in part to the hundreds of geiko and maiko (apprentice geisha) greeting cards that are plastered along the timber beam running between the patrons and the cooks.
For lunch there is a choice of three kaiseki courses and a tempura course. My companion and I settled on kiku and sakura (the courses take their names from flowers) at ¥6,000 and ¥4,000, respectively. Excluding the tempura course (¥3,500), there are about 10 dishes to each. Kappo Yamashita is respectful to kaiseki, rather than innovative: You work your way through the standard options — sashimi, akadashi (red miso soup), rice — with the season setting the tone. The kiku course comes with a few extra dishes, including kaburamushi (mashed turnip), a firm favorite on menus at this time of year.
Our kickshaw opened with suppon (soft shell turtle), served in a pate-like gelatinous cube. It’s a delicate taste and is purported to promote sexual stamina in men. It’s a very small serving, so I can’t answer to that.
A few dishes later, a big piece of octopus was passed across the counter after simmering for hours. It had that buta no kakuni (braised pork belly) melt-in-your-mouth tenderness — I could have eaten it all.
As well as kaburamushi, the kiku course also featured a dish of rice wrapped in bamboo leaf and the sakura course had a simple salad of pork belly, served with tempura. All in all, though, my mid-priced sakura lunch was the better deal.
At Kappo Yamashita, the chefs are friendly, but there’s no “narrative,” or explainer, to each dish. Don’t be shy to ask — they speak some English and don’t mind answering. But they also have to get on with the day job.
491-3, Kami Korikicho, Nijo Kudaru, Kiyamachi-dori, Nakagyo-ku, Kyoto; 075-256-4506; nearest station; Subway Shiyakusho-mae; open lunch 11:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m., dinner 4 p.m.-10p.m.; closed Monday; Japanese and English menu; English spoken
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.