What does austerity look and feel like? Well, it depends on whom you ask. I imagine for Greeks it’s a sort of endless despair engendering cynicism, but here in Japan, austerity — or, rather, restraint — can engender a sense of luxury, subtlety and even sensuality. Austerity has a long and rich history here, and many Japanese have an innate feeling for expressing it. Shintaro Katayama, the chef at Rakushin, who runs the restaurant with his sommelier wife, are masters of restraint and surprise.
On a recent lunch visit, there were two sensuous surprises that arrived either side of the meal. The first was a visual treat in the form of a hidden window display, and the latter was a savory one, Katayama’s spectacularly subtle multicourse kaiseki-ryo¯ri meal.
Rakushin is housed in what was once a tailor’s workshop, retrofitted as a machiya (a traditional wooden townhouse) in a back alley of Fukushima, a must-visit food neighborhood in Osaka. Inside, the restaurant is deliberately foreboding, it has the emptiness of a prison cell awaiting an occupant. But not long after I sat down at the counter and ordered a drink (the food menu is fixed), one of the younger chefs pulled back the shoji (wooden screen) behind the counter revealing a massive pane of glass and a window display that wouldn’t have been out of place at a high-end department store, or even a museum. The display changes seasonally: while I was there, deep green bamboo stalks reached skyward, and a moss garden in a corner collected rain and sunshine.
Katayama is not as restrained with his food as he is with his interior design. Different flavors combine in single servings — as with the ayu nanban (sweet fish soaked in a sweet vinegar sauce) and the asparagus topped with red miso beans — and he likes to decorate with momiji (maple leaves), perhaps too much, but this is a minor quibble. Lunch and dinner follow the centuries-old multicourse kaiseki-ryo¯ri template, a cooking tradition guided by the seasons. But, like the best cooks, Katayama is a little catholic in his tastes and his interpretation, especially with dessert.
The kamonasu takiawase (a Kyoto heirloom eggplant simmered in dashi) was served with sukiyaki-thin pork, and melded together in a lemon sauce. The futamono (covered dish) was a clear soup containing fish paste studded with sweet corn and Hokkaido scallop — a delicate combination of sweetness and texture. Also worth singling out was the chirimenjako (semi-dried sardine) sandwich. OK purists, it was not exactly a sandwich, rather, the sardines were deep fried, molded into two wafer-thin strips and, rather like an obi, were used to tie a piece of snapper coated with a layer of yuzu sauce. It was as inventive as it was delicious. Lunch ended with black bean ice cream: Katayama managed to deliver a sweet taste, similar to that of porter beer, from this auspicious bean. Rakushin is full of promise and surprise. and the Katayama husband-and-wife team give austerity a deserved following.
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