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Karatsu: Bold kaiseki cooking from a devotee to the art

by J.J. O'Donoghue

Contributing Writer

As with most upscale kaiseki ryōri (traditional multicourse meal) restaurants, there is little by the way of decoration in Karatsu to distract.

It’s a new restaurant — just eight months old — but it’s located in a house that’s over 100 years old. Years from now, when the polished floors have worn with age, it will remain as beautifully uncluttered as the day it opened in 2017.

Speaking of history, owner and chef Shosaku Karatsu, originally from Nagasaki Prefecture, trained and worked at Kyoto Kitcho — one of Kyoto’s most famous restaurants — before branching out on his own last year. His eponymous restaurant is quiet and unassuming, much like the owner. But, while his cooking conforms to the rhythm and scope of kaiseki, he’s certainly not afraid to roll out bold, challenging flavors.

From the moment I passed beneath the noren curtains and through the front door, the unmistakable smell of early summer was in the air. In a corner of the kitchen, over an open fire, skewered ayu (sweetfish) were slowly roasting over smoldering coals. Lunch opened with a different summer fish, washi-paper-thin slices of anago (conger eel) served with fresh wasabi and a small platter of salt. When anago is that fresh, its texture is a pleasure above all else, even taste.

In the futamono (lidded soup dish) that followed, Karatsu wedded texture in the form of junsai (watershield) — a gelatinous water-based vegetable that looks (and feels) like it belongs in a pile o’ frog spawn — with the underbelly of a soft-shelled turtle plucked from Lake Biwa in Shiga Prefecture. Despite the soup’s watery appearances, it was anything but weak and the potency of the turtle’s liver meat will test some diners I suspect.

What followed was the main event: the hassun course. The ayu, near-fossilized from the long and slow burn, formed the centerpiece of a course that encapsulated so many tastes and had so much to pick and choose from.

Standouts were often the simplest components of the dish: the buttery candy-tasting wedge of sweetcorn, cooked over the charcoals, and the delicious cleft of octopus, stewed at length in soy sauce, mirin and sake. Going off in the opposite direction was the mozuku, a tendril-like edible seaweed doused in vinegar. Almost hidden were two jellied cubes of conger eel, reminiscent of the turtle soup in terms of the strength of its flavor. Tying them all together, the ayu, crisp and acrid, as it should be.

The Tenshin course (¥5,000) comprises five courses plus a bowl of freshly brewed matcha tea to close the ceremonial meal.

Karatsu has devoted his life to preparing and serving kaiseki. With a dedicated restaurant, at last he can forge his own path, and lay down his mark on this venerable cuisine.

Lunch from ¥5,000, dinner from ¥10,000; Japanese menu; some English spoken