The first time I went looking for Taiyo, I couldn’t find it. But I could smell it. Quite a few people had recommended that I check it out, especially as I have a crater-sized soft spot for curry. And so there I was in Saiin, an unpretentious neighborhood in the west of Kyoto, with the distinct aroma of curry in the air leading me astray.
As it turned out, I was in the wrong stairwell in the right building. All I had to do was go to the front of the building, right on Shijo-dori, where I found myself at the end of a crowd of people lined up to get their curry fix.
Once you finally get up the stairs and in the door of Taiyo there’s an annex where Yumi Seto — one half of the team that runs Taiyo — is on hand to take your order. The little alcove is filled with autographs and portraits of TV stars and showbiz personalities who’ve all made the pilgrimage to Taiyo. As to why? When your curry comes it’s not hard to discern.
Spoiler alert: Chef Akihiro Seto makes the most fragrant and punchy Japanese curry in Kansai, dressed with a soaring combination of vegetables and delivering a symphony of taste.
Taiyo is open only for lunch, Monday through Saturday, and feels more like a cafe than a restaurant, one that wears its love for France especially loud. I recently sat down with Seto, who does all the cooking by himself, and seemingly never breaks a sweat.
He’s a dapper dresser, usually outfitted in a waistcoat bearing a emblem of a bunch of grapes, signaling his love of wine; most years he makes a pilgrimage to the vineyards of Burgundy. The result at Taiyo is a beautiful marriage between well-chosen French and Italian wines and his home-cooked Japanese curry.
Seto, 58, is a local boy and a renaissance man, although he’d likely swat away the latter description. His father ran a clothing boutique in the same building where Taiyo stands. Seto took over the business after graduating from university and kept at it for 10 years, but when he felt it was losing momentum he shifted gears and decided to open an izakaya restaurant instead. Along the way he also became a certified sommelier.
“My mother was initially against the izakaya but she said, ‘If that’s where your heart is, then try it,'” Seto recalls.
The izakaya years were tough — especially as Seto was a novice to the food business. Much of his time was spent on the operational side, managing staff and supplies. But it was during this time that he started experimenting with curry.
As Seto tells it, his mission to make an original curry dish was both a philosophical and existential project.
“I wanted to express myself by focusing on just one dish, but it had to be something original and it had to satisfy customers.”
He also wanted to show the younger staff at the izakaya — many of whom were going on to start their own ventures — that he had what it takes to make something authentic and delicious, as well as survive in the notoriously difficult restaurant business.
Seto did his homework: He made reconnaissance trips around Kansai sampling as much curry as he could, but he never found exactly what he was looking for. Maybe, that was a good thing — because what he created instead is original.
Encouraged by his wife, Yumi, Seto decided to close the izakaya and open Taiyo (which means sun in Japanese). So, on Nov. 11, 2013 at 11:11 a.m., with little in the way of fanfare, Taiyo came to life.
Naturally, when I ask Seto the secret to his curry’s roux, he doesn’t tell me.
“There’s no secret recipe,” he says, smiling. “Rather it’s about creating balance. What I strive for is that the ingredients create harmony.”
Curry is a quotidian and unfussy dish. What Seto does is take that sense of familiarity and enhance it. Seto combines layers, or “waves,” that are in turn sweet, savory and spicy. It’s luxurious yet inexpensive curry. If you can handle it, you can also request his off-menu extra-spicy curry, but be warned: This curry has serious kick.
The final piece in Seto’s curry rice jigsaw is the vegetables, many of which are procured from Ohara district just outside the city. On a recent visit he served kakushidama, a deliciously sweet onion from Awaji Island, along with a marinade of radish and red turnip held together with fresh lemon juice.
In 2019, Taiyo was included in Tabelog’s top 100 curry restaurants in western Japan and the media requests have flooded in since. But Seto says he wants to cut back so he can focus on what he enjoys most — working in the kitchen cooking up some of the best curry in Japan.