Tan: One table, washoku and experiments in communal dining

by J.J. O'Donoghue

Special To The Japan Times

At its most elemental, cooking is experimentation: a bit of this, some of that, hey presto. In Japan, the experimentation is mostly confined to the kitchen. It’s unlikely restaurants such as London’s Dans le Noir, where diners eat in darkness sans phones, would take off here.

Fortunately at Tan, a new restaurant opened by Yuko Kuwamura, the doyenne of Kyoto cooking, the experimentation extends from the kitchen to the dining room, where there’s only one table and patrons share plates. In one sense it’s a small step, but to borrow a phrase, it’s also a giant leap.

Tan takes its name from the Tango Peninsula on the Sea of Japan, where Kuwamura hails from. It’s an area rich in agriculture and Kuwamura makes great use of the region’s produce, not just at Tan, but also in her Michelin-starred Wakuden restaurants. At Tan, the menu is washoku, Japanese home-cooking. Chef Yasunori Kitajima, who apprenticed at Wakuden, runs the show at Tan, and thankfully doubles, when he’s done cooking, as the conversation starter.

Unusually for a Japanese restaurant, Tan is open for breakfast, though I went recently for lunch. The table was full: it seats 10, and at lunch there are servings at noon, 1 and 2 p.m. Downstairs is the main dining room and kitchen, while upstairs there’s a communal space, where you’re left to relax over tea or coffee. It’s a beautiful and simply appointed restaurant — wood dominates, with the front walls torn down to make way for glass panels that invite in the light, as well as views of the willow-lined canal out front.

Once seated our group was presented with large platters of steamed vegetables, bowls of sardines cooked in soy sauce and gobo (burdock root) dressed in a rich, creamy sesame dressing. These dishes are for the table, to be passed around, and all three were excellent. None of them, however, could break the ice and prod our table into communal conversation. Perhaps that’s too much to ask of any food for a Japanese clientele. The group consisted of pairs, and until Kitajima joined us, there was no breaking out of them.

My lunch partner and I had the kisetsu course (¥3,000). As well as the shared plates, there were individual dishes that included a velvet green and slightly bitter soup of nanohana (rapeseed), at the bottom of which an oyster lay hidden. The kasu jiru, soup made of sake lees with yellowtail and an assortment of vegetables, was outstanding. The rice is also sourced from Tango, and second helpings are encouraged.

As lunch wound down, Kitajima joined us while he prepped for the next sitting. Thanks to his charm and good humor conversation finally kicked off, which I’m guessing is what restaurateur Kuwamura intended with Tan. It was a tough crowd that day, but Kitajima’s food more than compensated.

Closed Monday; Japanese menu; Japanese spoken.

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