Food & Drink | OSAKA RESTAURANTS

Asai Togei: Traditional 'kaiseki' with an Okinawan twist

by J.J. O'Donoghue

Special To The Japan Times

Kousei Togei, chef and owner of Asai Togei, comes from Yonaguni Island, one of Japan’s most far-flung outposts. On a clear day, the mountainous coast of Taiwan is visible from this Okinawan island. Togei has the laid-back disposition of someone who grew up in eternal sunshine. He left Yonaguni for Osaka after graduating from high school, but his connection to the island endures: decorative textiles made using an Okinawan weaving technique known as hana-ori are on display in the restaurant and Togei, like many other transplants, flavors his food with condiments from his homeland.

Asai Togei is located just off the shopping arcade and tourist mecca that runs through Shinsaibashi. For the most part, Togei’s neighboring businesses are male host clubs and posters of young men with ridiculous hairstyles cover the surrounding walls. Asai Togei is a welcome retreat from the maddening crowd (and coiffures).

The food at Asai is kaiseki ryōri (traditional multi-course meal), which is typically formal and adheres to strict rules, but under Togei’s influence the meal becomes deeply comforting. Perhaps it’s his manner and his humility — the complete lack of stuffiness. Maybe that’s what you get if you take a fish out of Okinawa and land it in Osaka.

For lunch and dinner there are three omakase (“chef’s selection”) set meals. Lunch options run from just under ¥4,000 to ¥8,000; dinner, from under ¥9,000 to just more than ¥16,200. The dining rooms are divided into two floors: a downstairs counter area and a maritime-influenced dining room upstairs.

A good choice for lunch is the Take (¥5,400), which consists of seven courses.

The first dish was a dainty orange bulb stripped of its skin, the stem resting on a triangle of duck pate and served on a long, slender white plate. The bulb was threeleaf arrowhead, which you may come across in New Year’s dishes. It was simmered in stock mixed with mirin, soy sauce and sugar. It would be flavorless without the condiments, and I suspect it’s function was mostly aesthetic.

The soup course was outstanding, and brilliantly colored. The chefs had knotted a string of simmered carrot and daikon together over a ball of surimi (minced fish meat) that was colored orange and green.

The sawara (Spanish mackerel) served in a gloopy dashi and topped with mashed turnip and a prawn was the type of winter dish I could happily eat daily — in any season. The hassun platter, typically is the show stealer in a kaiseki meal, was laden with fish. The oyster in miso butter was blissful, as was the pickled saba (mackerel) served with a basil sauce.

The soba was flavored and colored with bright-green botanbo, a type of fennel, in this case grown by Togei’s parents on Yonaguni. The bitter, perky herb turned up in the dipping sauce, too.

The meal closed with a surprisingly good cheesecake made with leftover sake lees: It was possibly the best slice of cheesecake I have ever met. Good cheesecake is subtly sweet, but Togei’s version, with the addition of the lees, adds umami to the party. A sublime denouement.

If you visit Osaka, there’s a good chance you’ll end up in the tourist mecca of Shinsaibashi. Make it your business to find Asai Togei.