Chef Taka Nishimura’s lively, homey and cozy tachinomiya (standing bar) in central Kyoto, crowded into an alleyway that’s only as wide as a vending machine, is a world apart and a world away from his station at Nobu Milano, Italy, where he worked for 10 years.
Here at Yanagi Koji Taka, the restaurant he opened in 2016 with his wife, Akane, Nishimura is never more than two meters away from his customers. His small team of staff have to shuffle dance when they want to pass by each other inside the counter of the tachinomiya which, with its gloriously fulfilling and satisfying menu, feels closer to a tapas bar.
After the shutter goes up at 1 p.m., and until it comes down, you’re welcome to drop in, no matter the time, and find a spot at the bevelled counter to dig into the food, drink and conversation. Sometimes strangers — neighbors, once they squeeze into Taka’s, as it’s commonly called — have been known to share plates, their noses and appetites getting the better of them. That’s how Nishimura, 50, intended it to be when he returned to Kyoto after nearly 15 years of cooking in Italy, Australia and Denmark.
In Milan, Nishimura was part of a team of international chefs that catered to fashionistas, hipsters and the well-heeled at Nobu Milano, a co-creation between one of the most recognized names in Japanese cuisine, Nobuyuki “Nobu” Matsuhisa, and fashion designer Giorgio Armani.
On a recent visit to Taka before the shutter came up, Akane, who also helps out in-house and behind the scenes, recalls how her husband would be called away to work at the opening of a new Nobu in Monaco, or a fashion event in Dubai.
Attending these events would be Hollywood royalty, such as Tom Cruise or Grammy Award-winner Usher. “Mostly Taka had no idea who these people were,” Akane says, explaining that she had to find out first and then tell him who he had cooked for.
Nishimura, originally from Uji, a famed tea-growing city just outside Kyoto, apprenticed as a kaiseki (traditional multicourse) chef in Kyoto. Making the switch to Nobu Milano gave him the opportunity to spread the tenets of kaiseki ryōri, the elaborate and exquisite multicourse dining especially famous in Kyoto around the world.
“I’ve always thought Japanese food was special and had so much potential. But at that time, French and Italian cuisine were the ones that garnered the most attention,” Nishimura says. “People outside of Japan didn’t generally know much about kaiseki even though it has so much style attached to it, both with the food and the dishes it’s served on. I wanted to spread the greatness of kaiseki, that’s why I went to Nobu.”
Cooking in Italy took quite a bit of adjustment for the kaiseki chef, especially because back in 2002 Japanese food was nowhere near as well-known internationally as it is today.
For starters, Nishimura had to train his staff to recognize the toro (fatty cut) in bluefin tuna and not throw it out. That training extended beyond the restaurant walls to the fish market, where he talked with fishmongers to help them understand how best to prepare tuna after it’s caught.
Nishimura is proud, in that understated Japanese way, of what he achieved in Milan. When he decided to move back to Japan, he already had the kind of atmosphere he wanted to create in mind. A fan of the traditional Italian cafe, where customers typically stand and chew the fat as they knock back an espresso, Nishimura envisioned an intimate and unfussy space where locals and visitors could enjoy some of the staples from the massive, eclectic canon of Japanese food.
If you manage to squeeze into Taka, try everything on the menu; if you’re looking for where to start, ask your neighbor. The skewered chicken livers cooked over the charcoal grill and smothered in a tar-like umami-laden sauce will make you love liver again. The beef tataki (seared) served with scallion and ginger is equally delicious.
But Nishimura is just as capable with vegetarian dishes, such as the grilled manganji green peppers or the baked eggplant with grated ginger. There’s a great drinks menu that includes sake, Italian wine and domestic beer.
“I think we were lucky we found this place,” Nishimura says. “We just walked past and I thought it was the right location.”
We’re the lucky ones. Get in there before Taka spreads his wings again: Surely a chef who can create a space like this will eventually make something bigger. And maybe even better.
Nakanocho 577, Nakagyo-ku, Kyoto 604-8042; 075-708-5791; taka-kyoto-japan.net; open 1-10:30 p.m. (L.O.); closed Tues.; food from ¥200, drinks from ¥500; nearest station Kawaramachi; nonsmoking; cash only; Japanese, English and Italian spoken; English menu
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5