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Sato no Ie Hanase: Kyoto-level kaiseki for all seasons

by J.J. O'Donoghue

Contributing Writer

When chef Tsutomu Nakajima, originally from Hyogo Prefecture, decided to strike out on his own more than a decade ago, he was aiming for Kyoto. It would have been a natural fit: He apprenticed in Arima, a famous hot-spring resort town nestled in the mountains of Hyogo, learning the craft of creating elaborate multi-course meals (kaiseki ryōri), and his aim was to open up in Kyoto, the kaiseki capital.

He ended up instead at a halfway point: Osaka. Before I learned Nakajima was from Hyogo, I had pegged him as a local boy. He’s warm, self-deprecating and astute, characteristics usually associated with Osakans, and which make for a hospitable host.

Sato no Ie Hanase occupies the corner of an office building around the corner from Sukunahikona Shrine, which dates back to the ninth century. Once you pass through the noren curtains on the threshold of Nakajima’s restaurant, the first thing you’ll encounter is a painting of a cherry tree in bloom, which fans out across the entire back wall of the kitchen. The best seats, unless you are with a group, are at the counter, facing the tree and Nakajima, who calls it his “year-round-blossoming cherry tree.”

On a recent visit during midweek for lunch I had the counter to myself. The lunchtime o-makase (set meal) is ¥3,800. Dinner courses start at ¥8,000. Lunch is a slightly pared-down kaiseki meal, but it never feels like Nakajima is cutting corners.

The meal kicked off with the hassun course, which in kaiseki cuisine is the seasonal marker. On one plate there were four separate bite-size servings. First, a glistening pile of ikura (salmon roe) atop a slice of aubergine slow-boiled in soy sauce, mirin (sweet rice wine) and dashi. In the dish next to it Nakajima had taken the skin of a hamo (daggertooth conger eel), broiled it and served it with spinach. Alongside a prawn cured in vinegar and dressed with grated ginger, a hexagonal cake of namafu (a soft wheat gluten cake) lay upon a single maple leaf. The namafu was glazed with yellow miso. It was a starter of great tastes and textures.

The sashimi serving was minimal yet intense — a great big emerald-colored plate with just two pieces of fish: shime saba (cured mackerel) and kanpachi (amberjack). It was hard saying goodbye to this plate. They were two contrasting fish, the mackerel meatier and saltier than the amberjack, a more succulent bite. Going back and forth between them was such a brief delight.

Nakajima sticks with the seasons: For the next course, turnip and shimeji mushrooms were folded into a delightful velvety chawan-mushi (savory egg custard). A fillet of kamasu (barracuda) was grilled with salt and served in a puddle of sauce made with gingko nuts.

The penultimate serving of takikomi gohan, a simple rice dish, folded in more seasonal flavors by way of chestnuts and grilled octopus. And what you can’t finish, Nakajima puts in a little box for you to take home. I loved his homemade ice-cream, too, made from sake lees.

Sato no Ie Hanase is a restaurant for all seasons, and Kyoto’s loss is most definitely Osaka’s gain.

Lunch set from ¥3,800; dinner set from ¥8,000; Japanese menu; some English spoken