Although I frequently dine alone while reviewing, I’m rarely alone, in the true sense. Especially at kappō, or counter-style restaurants, where there’s a miscellany of worthwhile distractions and on occasion small talk.
At Kagaman, the tables were turned, sort of. The counter area is small, in an otherwise large restaurant spread over a few floors, one of which contains a traditional tearoom. In any case the counter was booked during a recent lunchtime visit and I was, instead, escorted past the counter by maids in kimono to the back of the restaurant to dine alone. Then, oddly enough, either to hide the fact that I was alone or just insulate me, after placing my order two moveable screens were pushed toward my table forming a cubicle with the two walls. All that was missing was a “Do Not Disturb” sign, not that there was a soul around to bother me.
Chef and owner Hiro Saka opened Kagaman more than 30 years ago. Saka has been in the food business a long time having made the climb from a ship’s galley to opening a string of restaurants in central Osaka. Kagaman, with its Michelin star, is the jewel in the crown. I went with one of the ordinary-priced lunches at just under ¥6,000. Be warned, however, the omakase courses (courses set by the chef) start at ¥15,000 for lunch and ¥20,000 for dinner.
Lunch opened with white sesame tofu with a drizzle of soy sauce, one of Kagaman’s trademark dishes — indeed, a trademark of most kaiseki (multicourse) meals. As good as it was, it comes with a challenge: Can chefs update a dish like this while staying within the canon of Japanese cooking? At Kagaman, tradition holds sway.
The next dish, again simple in its demeanor and preparation, was a few slices of ibodai (Japanese butterfish) served slightly cured. It’s a relatively small fish, but it packs a wonderful fleshy taste and was delicious. This dish is, in essence, Japanese cuisine: high quality ingredients and minimal, but deft, preparation.
Thereafter a shokado bento appeared containing what was to be the bulk of the meal. There were a few wonderful set pieces in the two-tiered box, which alternated between sweet, savory and umami. This included the stone-roasted black cod; broiled chestnut; two dots of satoimo, or taro, with dollops of miso; eggplant, lotus root and pumpkin all boiled in a dashi broth; and a Japanese omelet. The penultimate course contained jako meshi (rice with dried fish), a superb bowl of miso soup and a small selection of tsukemono, (pickled vegetables). Unusually, there was no offer of okawari or extras. Dessert was fruit jelly, a bit on the unimaginative side of simple.
For a ¥6,000 lunch, Kagaman is a bit stingy. Similar establishments give more and often at cheaper prices. The quality of food is irreproachable, but if only I had sat at the counter, I’m sure I could have talked a few more dishes my way.