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Kyokabutoya: Informal Japanese cuisine in an old wooden townhouse

by J.J. O'Donoghue

Special To The Japan Times

Yasumasu Ikeda, chef and owner of Kyokabutoya, moved to the Kansai region from Hokkaido more than 15 years ago. After almost a decade of cutting his teeth in the kitchens of Osaka and Kyoto, he opened a Japanese restaurant around 2010. Kyokabutoya is housed in a machiya (traditional wooden townhouse), which is located a stone’s throw from a buzzing centuries-old food market in the center of Kyoto.

One thing that quickly becomes apparent while dining at Kyokabutoya is the informal atmosphere — and that’s not to slight the lunch I had there. Kyokabutoya matches other Kyoto establishments in taste, quality, variety (and high prices), but chef Ikeda has made the space feel more like a cozy bar than a stiff haute cuisine restaurant.

The main dining room, which includes the kitchen and counter seating, is bookended by a Japanese garden from which natural light pours in during the day. The beautiful plush green counter seats — with space for nine, in addition to a few separate tables — reinforce the impression of being in a bar.

For lunch you can choose between the basic Fuchidaka (¥3,000) and Tofu Steak Courses (¥3,800), and two seasonal multicourse kaiseki menus priced at ¥5,000 and ¥8,000. I settled on the basic kaiseki course, which seemed to have larger portions than the lower-priced lunch my neighbors ordered. Cheaper options may be better if you don’t feel like splurging or are pressed for time.

Lunch opened with a late-summer vegetable concoction: A dainty collection of sweet corn kernels, okra, edamame and diced tomato held together with jellied dashi. The combination was a swan song to summer. This was a followed by another single-bite dish, a delicious serving of katsuotadaki (seared bonito) that came on a cushion of sweet ponzu (citrus soy sauce) jelly that was so delicate it was difficult to steer toward my mouth. The third dish was slightly warm hamo (pike conger) served on a bed of crushed ice, under which were hidden two slices of mizu-nasu, a “water aubergine” and a specialty of Kyoto. Try to find one before summer ends — they are about the only aubergine you can eat raw. Next was the futamono (lidded dish, or soup) course, typical in kaiseki cuisine, which contained a tofu-like square of sweet corn reduction and junsai (water shield), a seasonal water plant that looks like a tadpole, which is used more for its texture than flavor.

The main dish, served on a simple lacquered tray, had great variety of seafood, meat and vegetables, but the kurage (jellyfish) stood out — it was delightful and intriguing with a texture and sweetness unusually reminiscent of rhubarb.

Kyokabutoya excels at providing an unhurried, relaxing environment to enjoy Japanese cuisine.