These are tough times for the shōtengai, Japan’s old-school shopping streets. The convenience of online shopping and mega-malls has lured shoppers away from the city’s vintage arcades. However, the uniform glitz of a shopping center or an online store can never replace the buzz of a shōtengai — such as Osaka’s Tengonakazaki-dori, sandwiched between Nakazakicho and Tenma stations — nor its eclectic lineup of stores and owners.
Wa Bistro Tsuna, which celebrated its first anniversary this month, is in good company on Tengonakazaki-dori. Right across the narrow street is a ramen shop that has droves of noodle-lovers lining up around the clock for its clam and miso ramen. Wa Bistro doesn’t have that kind of following yet, but it was packed on a recent visit — no doubt helped by year-end revelers.
The layout inside is eclectic. You can get a seat at the bar downstairs, overlooking the kitchen, or head up the winding stairs to where there are tables and a traditional Japanese-style tatami room with sliding doors. This space may be at odds with the rest of the formulaic bistro-style restaurant, but Wa Bistro is a slightly unorthodox. It’s a marriage of classic European and Japanese cuisines with a playlist that favors Bob Marley and Jimi Hendrix — although in the week before Christmas, Wham!’s “Last Christmas” was on heavy rotation.
Wa’s strength lies in its fish dishes: there are usually about half a dozen daily specials in addition to the items on the menu. Our course kicked off with a delightful sampling of sashimi of buri (amberjack) dressed in ponzu (citrus-based shoyu) and topped with perilla. Staying in the realm of sashimi we went from buri to katsuo tataki, skipjack tuna seared on the outside and served with Italian parsley and a glob of wasabi. Chef and owner Yukio Tsunamoto isn’t prone to innovation or experimentation, he’s more interested in serving up izakaya (tavern) classics in a bistro setting.
The standout dish was the head and tail of a Pacific sea bream slow-cooked in the holy trinity of Japanese condiments: shoyu, sake and mirin (sweetened rice liquor). Sure, the flesh was scarce at best, but the reward for scraping over the cheeks is happening on a succulent bite-size piece of fish with its layers of textured sweetness. It was served with wedges of burdock, a root vegetable that becomes more flavorful as it cooks.
The body of the bream turned up in the tai meshi, which Tsunamoto made by slowly melding rice, white fish, yuzu citrus and shitake mushrooms together in a steamed cauldron. Here, too, Tsunamoto is a conscientious student, but he might have slightly overdone it with the addition of the yuzu — the fish could have been better complemented if the shitake mushrooms were doing more of the work.
The tempura tarako (cod roe) at the end of the meal was a lovely combination of crunchy batter and creamy egg.
Wa Bistro Tsuna joins an eclectic lineup on the Tengonakazaki-dori that includes a freshwater aquarium bar, a tempura joint that is kitted out like a bejeweled bat cave, a public bath, sushi shops and bakeries. Tsunamoto’s bistro is one of the most memorable.