The Kyoto neighborhood of Gion is small but complicated. Wedged between the hills of Higashiyama and the Kamo River, it contains some of Japan’s most picturesque and well-trodden streets, but there’s also a warren of back-alleys and lanes with bright lights and seedy goings-on.
Ogawa, located down one of these Gion capillaries, is small but uncomplicated: The counter-only restaurant seats six, and the chef Yosuke Ogawa serves wholehearted food in a a light-hearted setting. I have a feeling that when you scratch the formal surface of Kyoto’s traditional chefs, they’re sociable behind the serious manner — depending on their audience.
On a recent visit for lunch during one of the first humid days of summer, the temperature inside the restaurant felt hotter than outside — being seated within reach of the grill didn’t help. However, the prix fixe lunch (I opted for the ¥5,000 menu), opened with a deliciously refreshing riff on a salad: a fruity tomato, stripped of its skin, in a gelatinous vinegar-infused broth studded with junsai (an edible pond weed that grows in a natural gel sac) from Hiroshima. This may sound like a mouthful, but it was literally only a mouthful, with the leaves and stems of the junsai adding a minty quality.
There’s no menu at Ogawa, but typically with multicourse kaiseki meals it’s possible to predict what you will be served. This is, after all, seasonal food, and you can quickly become seasonally adjusted. I was guessing hamo (pike conger eel) would appear, and it did, in a bowl of fragrant dashi. The tōgan (wax gourd) hidden under the eel provided a nice update on the familiar dish.
The tsukuri (a decorative arrangement of sashimi), featured tuna, bream and octopus. What made this stand out were the alternating textures and tastes of the three offerings: The tuna was seared on the outside, while the octopus — an unrecognizable sheer white — was, I suspect, soaked in dashi.
This was followed by another serving of fish, ayu (sweetfish), which was cooked on skewers and served with shishito (green pepper) and a dark olive green sauce made from young ayu. The combined effect was a deep bitter taste, offset by dipping in the line of rock salt.
The bitterness gave way to sweetness with kamonasu, a Kyoto heirloom eggplant simmered in dashi and served in white miso broth. Whereas the previous dish of ayu was an ode to extreme bitterness, the eggplant was a melody to sweetness.
The more expensive course is slightly more drawn out and features grilled eel served on white rice, a traditional Japanese summer dish that’s in danger of disappearing due to stock depletion.
The penultimate dish was a pick-and-mix of rice. Ogawa’s apprentice chef laid out a selection of toppings to go with the white rice that included chirimenjako (dried young sardines), grated gourd, burdock flavored with Kinzanji miso, and chopped raw tuna.
The portions are small, but they want you to eat as much as you like. Lunch finished with melon, and melon ice-cream hidden under a melon mousse.
At Ogawa they’re not afraid to push the flavors in one direction, all for the purpose of pleasure.