Food & Drink | KYOTO RESTAURANTS

Shokudo Marushin: Light, flavorful teishoku meals

by J.J. O'Donoghue

Contributing Writer

Shokudo Marushin is Shintaro Nakamura’s second act. Now 50, the rake-thin chef’s story has alternated between cooking and music. From sushi and punk to power pop and teishoku (set menu cuisine) to be precise.

Nakamura opened Marushin, a bijou neighborhood restaurant, with his wife Kei around six months ago. The restaurant — and the food — is as unpretentious as the pair.

In 2018, Nakamura, who’s been working at teishoku restaurants since his early 20s, decided the time had come to set up his own restaurant.

“I was turning 50 and it was finally time to make the dream of running my own place come true,” Nakamura says from behind the counter as the lunch rush is winding down.

For a long time that goal was deferred. Instead, his love for music pulled him in a different direction: Nakamura was one of the founding members and a vocalist with First Alert, a legendary Kyoto punk band that gained recognition across Japan and toured Europe.

When First Alert disbanded in the early 2000s, it was a few years before Nakamura put together his current band, the four-piece power punk outfit Back to Basics with some friends from the Kansai region. In between he worked at Fukei, a long established down-home teishoku restaurant in the center of Kyoto.

Simple yet satisfying: The classic teishoku (set meal) template includes rice, miso soup, vegetables, and either meat or fish. | J.J. O'DONOGHUE
Simple yet satisfying: The classic teishoku (set meal) template includes rice, miso soup, vegetables, and either meat or fish. | J.J. O’DONOGHUE

With Shokudo Marushin, Nakamura has gone back to the family profession. Nakamura says he was especially influenced to take up cooking by his father, who was once a sushi chef at Osushi Marushin, also in Kyoto.

Although the restaurant closed while Nakamura was in junior high school, he’s kept its legacy alive by taking a part of its name, “Marushin,” for his new venture.

While there are plenty of actors and musicians who have crossed over into the culinary world — actor Mark Wahlberg partnered with his brothers to open a burger chain, Jay-Z has a share in a chain of sports bars called The 40/40 Club and, somewhat inevitably, Jimmy Buffett opened a restaurant chain called Margaritaville — none of these luminaries are in the kitchen or behind the counter full time.

Nakamura is all in, six days a week. And while it leaves him a lot less time for music, cooking still allows him to “do something creative and interesting.”

“There are similarities between cooking and making music,” says Nakamura. “With both I can imagine the essence of what makes a good dish or what makes a good song.”

With Marushin, Nakamura wants to keep things simple. By cooking teishoku, Nakamura has a well established template to follow. But he also has form, with his years of experience preparing the meal at other restaurants.

For the most part, Nakamura has stayed faithful to his template — after all, teishoku is a meal that satisfies millions of workers and students across the country day after day — and his menu includes the classic combination of rice, miso soup, vegetables, and a main dish of meat or fish. But, as Nakamura says, “I want to keep the focus on ‘assari‘ — making the dishes light and healthy.”

To that end, Nakamura doesn’t overload the tray, but neither does he skimp on flavor: the side dishes, which constantly change, could be kinpira gobō (julienned burdock root) or carrot, lightly seasoned with soy sauce, brown sugar and sesame seeds, or chunks of steamed eggplant.

Where possible, Nakamura gets his vegetables from suppliers in nearby Kamigamo. His meat comes from a butcher around the corner.

Even with typically oily staples such as karaage (fried chicken), Nakamura manages to keep the emphasis on making the dishes feel light, while not withholding on flavor.

Marushin has quickly fitted into the community. Close by is the Kyoto University campus, and the university hospital is on the other side of the street. Students, hospital staff and office workers stream in during lunch time, but in the evenings the atmosphere is more relaxed, more like an izakaya tavern.

Having found a rhythm, Nakamura plans to include more fish on the menu. Again, he plans to stick with classic dishes such as grilled salmon or the flavorsome nanbanzuke (fried fish served in a vinegar sauce with vegetables).

“The past year was a tough one,” Nakamura recounts. “It took me five months to find this place, and then six months to convert it from a bicycle shop into a restaurant. But from behind the counter I can see customers eating, and that makes me happy.”

Set lunch ¥850; some English spoken