Last week, I swooned over Tokyo’s never-endingness. This week I want to tell you about tiny things.
On a rainy night in Kyoto, we got lost looking for a restaurant recommended by my guidebook. (Silly me and my seven-year-old book!) We came to a lovely street, less bustling and generic than the downtown boulevard we’d been following and bisected by a canal, the yellow light of intimate restaurants illuminating the water. We poked around a few restaurants there, though the ground-floor ones seemed to cater to executives on expense accounts, and one that required taking an elevator gave off an unsettling-is-this-a-restaurant-or-not vibe, so we turned off this very-pretty-but-inaccessible street, onto an alley.We were tired, hungry, and wet.
This is the first place we found:
The restaurant was down a set of stairs and a sign above the stairway said “We have Yuba Food here!” J explained the yuba is tofu skin. A bearded man in a corduroy blazer rounded the corner, saw us deliberating outside, and smiled wide, encouraging us to go on in, so we took him up on it, descending the staircase and following a narrow cellar hallway to the front door. J peaked in the window. “It looks cozy,” he said.
It was, indeed, a tiny place, with one counter and one wooden table, which could seat about eight and at which sat two men just finishing their meal. The man in the picture (above), wearing a lab coat and a pink bowtie, greeted us and seated us at the table, telling the men already there to recommend dishes to us. We learned they were from Osaka, but regulars here. They asked if we like oysters (we do), but then went on to recommend a seasonal specialty, baby bamboo tempura.
Before the food came out, the woman of the picture above, in a red headscarf and looking eerily like a Japanese version of my paternal grandmother, brought out three little ceramic dishes – an amuse-bouche of tiny raw fish in a ponzu sauce, topped with grated radish and hot sauce. The fish were not so tiny that you could not see their tiny eyes. Their silvery skin was translucent, beneath which ran a dark line from head to tail. Reader, I’m sorry that we were squeamish. The only thing to do was eat the tiny fish. J had a lot of practice with this, having lived in Japan as long as he did. We all took a big gulp of cold beer and downed the tiny raw fish with their tiny eyes and tiny intestinal lines. It couldn’t be done in one bite, of course. There were lots of tiny fish in our tiny ceramic bowls. Actually, the dish was quite delicious (texture aside — an acquired taste, I’m sure!). I got through about half. J got through about half. But M? M was resolved to eat all his many tiny fish. And eat he did! Which led to a discussion on the origin of the phrase “mad props”.
We ate crab wrapped in yuba and a tomato-cheese-in-a-skillet-thing, but by the far the most delectable dish was the spring vegetable tempura, which included asparagus, a “spring flower”, a “tree root” (which I think was actually an exceptionally refined piece of broccoli), and the tender baby bamboo, crown jewel of the spring vegetables. Which just goes to show, always ask a local for a recommendation.
Food aside, this was a neat little place. The stucco walls and the basement location made it feel like a cave whose walls had been whitewashed. A mask made of a coconut shell sat on a side table by the door and one wall was adorned with a motherboard. The music jumped from African to traditional Japanese (the koto, I think), to jazz. I felt like we were just hanging out at someone’s house.