Taihou is the kind of place where everybody gets to know your name. On a recent visit for Sunday lunch I stayed well past last orders, past dessert, past an impromptu cheese course, only leaving before chef Kouki Watanabe and his staff sat down for their meal and a power nap before gearing up for the evening dinner rush.
Kouki’s father started Taihou in 1974, and while he’s still involved, it’s the younger Watanabe who wears the toque (which he does). Besides being a family-run restaurant, Taihou feels like a family restaurant: It’s busy, informal and home to some of the best Sichuan cuisine in Kyoto, which explains the line of people, round the clock.
Watanabe has assembled a great team. There aren’t many family-run restaurants with a sommelier, but Misa Nakamura — who spent half the meal speaking Italian with my guest — introduced us to a sweet Chinese rice wine, and we nearly started on a bottle of Bulgarian red wine. Assisting Kouki in the kitchen is Irish chef Joshua Plunkett, who came from New York at the start of 2017 to join the team.
We bypassed the a la carte menu in favor of the chef’s selection and the dishes kept rolling out for nearly two hours. It became hard to find bare patches of table, but amid the torrent of dishes a few stood out.
We started with two gorgeous side plates of fish and chicken, both served cold. The chiayu (sweetfish) had a layer of tangy bitterness folded into its chocolate color courtesy of the black vinegar and rice vinegar mixed into the doubanjiang sauce. The shredded chicken, on the other hand, was defiantly spicy, subsumed beneath a sauce of sesame seeds, roasted peanuts, tōgarashi peppers, dried toasted soy beans, chili oil and Sichuan pepper oil.
The soft-shell turtle pulled from Lake Biwa, braised and left to brine in its own cooking juice before a quick dip in the frying vat, was a bit gamey, however.
Here are a few other dishes well worth considering: the spare ribs, which come slathered in a rich chocolate-colored doubanjiang sauce. Watanabe tones down the richness of the doubanjiang with cumin, tōgarashi and sesame oil. By the time it arrives, the pork is ready to fall off the rib in this utterly delicious mess.
Taihou make their own doubanjiang, and it shows up in plenty of their dishes. Also, Taihou’s mapo dofu raises the bar: Watanabe uses wagyu and then layers in the piquant flavors. Also, be sure to get a few servings of Taihou’s shoronpo (soup dumplings). They are as delicate as Faberge eggs, and wonderfully rewarding in a sensory way.
The meal ended in something of a non-sequitur, a cheese plate from Okayama in the company of chef Watanabe. Taihou is just that kind of place, an absolute joy.
Nearest station Nijo (subway and JR); lunch from ¥1,000, dinner ¥3,000; Japanese menu; English and Italian spoken
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.