I still find it amusing that so many chefs at high-end Japanese restaurants wear neckties beneath their white chef uniforms. It seems at odds with the temperature and temperament of a kitchen, but I suppose it’s no more amusing or wondrous than the traditional chef’s hat, that elaborate, elongated white crown worn more for marketing purposes than anything else. In Japan, the chef’s necktie, I think, is for presentation purposes: if you are going to serve fabulous looking food you should look the part.
All the chefs at Aji Fukushima wear ties, but don’t be led astray by their formal wear; they are an inherently welcoming bunch.
This is a relatively new restaurant — opened in 2013 — on a quieter side street in Kyoto’s bustling Gion district. From the outside, Aji Fukushima blends in seamlessly with the beautifully appointed machiya (townhouses) surrounding it. The only sign that this is a restaurant are the noren curtains in the entrance, which are taken down between lunch and dinner. There are a few private dining areas, but the best seats are at the counter in the main dining room. The counter seats no more than six, maybe seven in a pinch, but what a beautiful space it is, finished nearly entirely in Japanese cypress.
The only option for lunch is a prix fixe meal that comes in at just under ¥4,500. It opened with kuruma ebi (tiger prawns) served on two hunks of white asparagus and lightly dressed in a delicious take on Thousand Island dressing — it is more vinegary than the standard and has, in keeping with the season, a hint of ume (plum). The vinegar motif was also evident in the prawns, which had a wonderful smokiness to them.
Next up was a suimono (clear soup) featuring hamo (conger eel), but perhaps “featuring” is the wrong verb to use here. At this time of year hamo is very much the flavor of the moment in Japanese cooking, but the thing about it (and fugu, too) is that, like a runway model, it’s more suited for hanging other things upon. On its own, hamo can be quite vapid. Still, the hints of yuzu gave the soup a refreshing citrus flavor. However, the Meiji maguro (baby bluefin tuna), served tataki — seared on the outside, but still raw on the inside — was a minor feast. Delivered from the kitchen on a skewer, it was then sliced and dressed in a daikon and leek salad. Absolutely delicious. The halfway dish was deliberately local: kamonasu takiawase, Kyoto eggplant simmered beyond recognition, served in a dashi soup and topped with freshly shaved katsuobushi (dried bonito shavings) — a simple dish, rich in contrasting flavors.
The penultimate dish arrived in an ornate basket, and included treats such as chargrilled ayu (sweetfish), sweet potato, simmered octopus and pickled radish. Dessert was simple and refined: compote with cherries.
Gion is hardly short of attractions, but Aji Fukushima is a strong addition to the neighborhood, thanks to the way it creates and presents delicious food in a gorgeous and friendly setting.
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.