Sakuya: One of the old capital's best traditional lunches

by J.J. O'Donoghue

Special To The Japan Times

On a mundane street in northern Kyoto is an excellent soba restaurant called Nicolas. Farther down the road, tucked under a nondescript apartment block, is Sakuya, a kappo (counter-style restaurant), which serves a variety of traditional Japanese food. There is no menu to speak of, but I wouldn’t be surprised if soba made an occasional appearance here. Chef Gunji Komura serves whatever happens to be in season or in his kitchen.

While Nicolas is a little ostentatious and takes itself rather seriously (it is named after a Russian landscape painter), Sakuya is plain and austere. As with many kappo restaurants, decorations are few and far between — there are no scrolls, paintings or posters to distract you from your meal. Sakuya has, however, developed a successful way of marketing itself: it offers one of the best lunches you’ll get in Kyoto and for under ¥1,000. The goal, I imagine, is that this affordable lunch will encourage diners to return for dinner when the menu is more varied and the prices are much higher.

Although Sakuya is open until 2 p.m., lunch may end prematurely if the food runs out. Lunch is omakase (chef’s choice), and though some dishes may not suit all palates, nothing is too challenging. Sakuya is not out to shock — tradition is the guide here.

Lunch arrives on a lacquered tray. The main dish, udon (wheat flour noodles) in thick, hot ankake soup, was judicious considering the recent spell of cold weather. Egg yolk and whites as well as morsels of different fish were suspended throughout the glutinous soup, which was thickened with katakuriko (vegetable starch). It was a sweet, comforting dish and one that’s impossible to eat without slurping. Between that and the kaisendon (seafood rice bowl), were a selection of appetizers: spinach served in a light dashi and soy sauce broth, potato salad with chunks of apple and okara (soy pulp), and tofu. The one thing common to all three was lightness. The mayonnaise, like the soy sauce, was used sparingly, but in the case of the okara, I would have liked a little more depth. Rounding out the lunch tray was the seafood rice bowl, with cuts of tuna and red snapper served over slightly warm rice topped with laver.

There are plenty of other restaurants offering lunch sets at similar prices, but not many that will match Sakuya for quality and satisfaction.

For the evening courses there is a much greater range on offer, and Chef Komura is joined by a team of assistant chefs. The drinks menu is also worth exploring, especially the regularly changing sake options.

Between Sakuya and Nicolas, this otherwise unexceptional street, far from the gourmet center of Kyoto, gives diners two worthwhile reasons to venture north.