Ajikyu: A tiny izakaya squashed inside a family home

by J.J. O'Donoghue

Special To The Japan Times

Reviewing restaurants is a slippery slope to overindulgence. That’s why opting for lunch can be a safer bet than dinner. Not only are lunch reservations easier to come by and the bills easier on the wallet, but midday meals help to ensure you getting home before sunset, or sunrise. That didn’t happen on a recent visit to Ajikyu, a timeless and homely izakaya (traditional tavern) past Sanjo-dori on the far side of Gion, Kyoto’s nightlife paradise.

Though Sanjo-dori could be considered the northern limit of Gion, the fun doesn’t have to stop there. But, as with a lot of things in Japan, you might need help finding it.

Ajikyu is located on a quiet residential street. The genteel surroundings belie the boisterous and lively atmosphere inside — this is the type of establishment that’s a home away from home for its patrons, and one where intimacy is not optional.

Occupying the ground floor of its owner’s home, the seating area and kitchen are crammed into a tiny space, and even the handwritten daily menu is crowded onto a small blackboard. When deciding what to try, it’s best to follow the whims, directions and recommendations of the unimpeachable matriarch who presides over Ajikyu.

We started with a plate of sashimi chū-toro (medium fatty tuna) and ika (squid). Both had a buttery softness, and unleashed a subtle sweetness as they dissolved. The chef has spent the better part of 50 years cooking — nearly 40 at Ajikyu — all the while forging relationships with local fishmongers who have access to exemplary fish.

But good ingredients alone do not a great feast guarantee — that requires the addition of skill and experience. Nowhere was this more evident than with the buri (yellowtail). When it finally arrived, the skin — which had been salted the previous day — was crackling and alive with flavor. Grilled buri has long been a favorite of mine, but here it was outstanding, a primordial recipe — fish, salt and fire — in the hands of an expert.

The sea bream nabe (hot pot) that followed, containing tofu, spinach and a great sheath of kelp for added umami, was welcome fare on a frigid night.

Ajikyu’s menu is fish-heavy but the chef shows versatility with vegetables. His dengaku nasu (eggplant smeared in red and white miso), in particular, was deliciously simple.

While the only beer on tap is Asahi, there’s plenty in the way of sake and shōchū (distilled spirits).

Ajikyu is the kind of izakaya I have been hoping to stumble across for a while: A simple counter-style restaurant where hospitable hosts serve you great flavors while you’re surrounded by old (and new) acquaintances.

If only they did lunch, I might have gotten home much earlier.