Chef Atsushi Nakahigashi welcomes us with smiling eyes, and what I imagine to be an actual smile hidden under his dove grey and white striped mask. One that matches his canvas apron perfectly. Driven by his passion for food, Chef Atsushi was raised in a storied culinary family in Kyoto. Honing his skills from the age of 12 in the kitchen of his father’s Soujiki Nakahigashi, one of the most famous kaiseki (a traditionally elegant multi-course meal) restaurants in Kyoto.
He explains to us the Japanese-only menu in English with a slight American twang. After all, he worked in New York for six years at acclaimed shojin (traditional Buddhist vegetarian cooking) restaurant, Kajitsu, where he rose to the position of sous chef and general manager, subsequently leaving to set up his own gastronomy business, One Rice One Soup Inc., based in both Kyoto and New York.
‘We have a daily menu, monthly menu and yearly menu,’ he says, gesturing to a backboard filled with kanji (a system of Japanese writing using Chinese characters) and numbers. ‘Round daikon - a Kyoto special - kabocha salad, panko-fried yellowtail, aged mackerel,’ he continues, the list sounding more delicious with every word, ‘goma dofu, fried chicken, shio koji salmon, chestnut and black edamame - grilled - and aged beef and pork, wrapped in yuba, then fried. But first, what drink?’ Alex, my husband, chooses a beer. Three bottles are produced, the labels featuring illustrated snowy peaks and stern-looking monkeys, from Rydeen Beer, a craft brewery in Niigata. Alex chooses the IPA. Chef Atsushi produces three glasses, explaining how each highlights subtle differences in the flavours and carbonation of the beer...
I opt for a sake recommendation.
‘Do you like dry, or more sweet?’
After the sake is settled upon, the dishes start to emerge from the kitchen. First the goma-dofu (sesame tofu). Chef Atsushi explains that this crispy-looking little cube isn’t actually real tofu, rather a mixture of sesame puree, kombu (kelp) dashi, and arrowroot starch, grilled on the charcoal fire to produce a wonderfully semi-charred exterior, smothered in a sauce made from sesame and silken tofu. Delicious. Next up, the kabocha (Japanese pumpkin) salad. ‘The kabocha is from Kyoto. We work with a number of farmers in the Ohara and Kamigamo areas to get the majority of our vegetables. It’s important to us to use the best local produce.’ Chef Atsushi says. And why shouldn’t they? In a place such as Kyoto where the quality of the vegetables is almost as famous as the city’s many shrines and temples, it would be foolish not to capitalise on the abundant produce on their doorstep.
By this point the first round of drinks has run dry and Chef Atsushi recommends their house sake, produced exclusively for him (and his father’s restaurant) by Yamamoto Honke, a brewery in the Fushimi district of Kyoto City. It comes in a green bottle sans label. Alex is a distiller with a discerning palate, so I ask him to talk me through the subtle flavours in his glass. ‘On the nose, slightly acidic. Soft and fruity. Lightly melon…. Ripe melon - the inner part, next to the seeds.’ He takes a sip. ‘Acidity is low on entry, a lot of sweetness, which builds and passes. Then the acidity builds. Rich. Good body.’ He turns to me. ‘It’s a pretty tasty, fruity number.’ Praise indeed. And perfect timing to accompany the next few courses that land at our counter space in quick succession. Meaty, panko (Japanese breadcrumb) fried yellowtail comes first, served with a side of home-made Worcester sauce. Crisp. Juicy. Tangy. Presented in the most beautiful black, ceramic bowls, ‘they’re from New York. A friend of mine makes them, Minami-san, she’s Japanese living in the city’, Chef Atsushi says. Another home-made dipping sauce appears - kuromame (black bean) miso and kurozu, brown rice vinegar aged in a clay pot. It accompanies the rolls stuffed with spiced, aged beef and pork mince. ‘This is thicker than usual yuba, we ask for it specially made this way from our supplier. It makes the best rolls’, Chef Atsushi tells us.
The most interesting dish of the night is up next. Two year aged mackerel. The fish is pressed in rice bran, a small sample of which is presented on the plate to taste alongside the star of the show. ‘Wrap the fish in the sliced red daikon, then follow it with the mikan [an orange citrus fruit, around the size of a tangerine]’, Chef Atsushi advises. A welcome addition to refresh lips pursed by the super-rich umami of the fish, which is almost jerky like in consistency. The malt from the rice bran is present too, adding an almost Kalamata black olive characteristic.
A scent of roasted green tea fills the air, a customer at the end of the counter receives a steaming cup of something sapid, I can only guess as to which of the numerous tea canisters at the end of the counter the sweet-smelling leaves came from. Chef Atsushi comes back to check-in, ‘how was everything? Are you still hungry?’ Alex asks if there’s anything else we should try. ‘The onigiri [a Japanese staple food of rice formed into balls or triangles and sometimes filled with meat, fish or vegetables]. They’re our speciality, but it’s a 30 minute wait, is that OK?’
When the food is this delicious, we don’t mind the wait.
Rachel E T Davies
Rachel E T Davies