Sunday, March 20, 2011

Sakagawa, Kyoto (阪川)

Ahhh, Sakagawa. How do I feel about you? Bruised, perhaps. Not cheated, but worked hard...

Gion at night is absolute magic. You should see it. The cobbled streets, unremitting stretches of old buildings, lanterns marking places you're never going to be allowed in to, and odd twists that leave you confused as soon as you plunge in.

Sakagawa is more confusing than most, being in an alley between two alread-small streets. Here, I've found it, donned my thinking cap, and am girding my loins to do battle. They told us to come at 8, no earlier, and that we might have to wait when we got there.

Which is why it was so surprising that it was dead empty. And still a furious pit of activity, which Sakagawa san (I assume) transmitting orders in his oddly high, soft voice and his many assistants scrambling like miserable slaves to fulfill his whims. Really, the atmosphere was kinda oppressive. And very urgent, all the time. It was hard to relax and enjoy, seeing the constant discomfort of that guy in front of the picture (who will probably be fired now that I've called him out for showing a hint of discomfort. Well, let's assume I was wrong about it. You know how insensitive foreigners are.)

Incidentally, they don't allow picture taking at the counter. It disturbs the other customers. Presumably not the same customers who posted one hundred and fifty pictures on Tabelog. I lifted a few from them. Thanks (especially loropiana, who has a lot of time and money).

Amazingly for such a famous and expensive place, they will happily let you do a la carte ordering. Faced with the long, difficultly-written, no-prices menu, we opted for a course and got started, with only the provisions that we didn't need to eat shirako, and wanted to eat beef.

This doesn't look like much, but it was a hell of a starter. The bamboo shoots in kinome sauce in the back were tons better than the ones we had earlier in the weekend, while the pressed sushi bite was incredible - precisely layered 'halfbeak' fish, sushi rice, and more kinome leaves (these are, as you like 'sansho' or 'prickly ash' or 'Szechuan pepper' tree leaves, and if you dry and grind them, you'll have the sansho that you put on eels and in mapo tofu and such). Even the little whole boiled fish were strangely tasty.

Our sashimi was substantially like this; excellent quality all around, with special mention for the sea urchin, which could convert the most hardened hater.

And our mushimono, or steamed thinger, was much like this too - a dumpling made from grated lily bulb, which is delicious, and even better witht he addition of meat and a thick, flavorful sauce. This picture said the dumpling had eel in it; I would swear ours had bacon. But I would swear just about anything for another serving of many of these courses.

Ahhh, bamboo season. Sometimes you just get perfect pieces, and the juicy, nutty...god, what am I saying? Bamboo doesn't taste like nuts. Fresh bamboo tastes like nothing else, and if all you've had is canned stuff in slimy Chinese good, you should try the real thing. Here, they're boiled it to perfection, then sliced into rounds, made tiny cuts across the surface to make it more tender and absorbent, dipped in soy sauce, grilled on charcoal in front of the customers, and smeared with kinome leaves. That's a hell of a treatment, from the technique to the theater to the taste.

How are you supposed to think of all the things you don't want to eat when they ask if there's anything you don't want to eat? I didn't want to eat turtle; one time was enough. This was just as bubbly and gross as the first time, but if you could stomach the pure fat and collagen it had some good flavor - maybe better than the dry-ish, tough-ish meat (think overcooked chicken dark meat). The ginger in the soup cut through everything nicely. I guess this was pretty good, if I'm honest, but I wouldn't have been able to get past bite one if I was me five years ago.

Bite one for these little fried potatoes ('shochiku', or 'little bamboo', if we heard correctly, and there is such a thing as bamboo potatoes - they're like shrimp potatoes but thinner, longer and straighter)...bite one was immediately followed by bite two, and then threefourfiveDONE. There's a little sliminess in the center, because they're Kyoto potatoes, but if you don't mind (or like) that, these would probably be the best fried potatoes I can imagine. The coating is very light and very salty, in a way that made you think there were magical mystery spices mixed in. Addictive. Crack-tatoes.

One thing's missing here - the little grilled triangle of orange stuff with the odd stringy, mealy texture (I know, how do those go together?) and the actually-quite-delicious (to me) grilled sea-urchin taste. Which I now realize I've seen at Tsukiji lots of times, next to the dried mullet roe. And which was sea slug ovary - I think it was even fresh, as opposed to all the dried ones I've seen previously. Well, nothing to see here, please move along...Oh, I forgot to mention the tiny white fish cooked in a crock with eggs to make a sort of omelette. High quality, but mild and forgettable (see, I told you foreigners weren't sensitive).

After not taking any of the pictures of the courses after the starter (it's odd though, that other people managed to take pictures of exactly what we ate), I was just too moved to resist snapping one of this. One wonders where this beef was from, but it doesn't really matter, because it was incredible. Yay for beef. Insensitive foreigner, me.

Let me leave out the rice and pickles and (red) miso soup and dessert; you've seen them before. That's it, then - izakaya perfection. Make up your own mind about whether it's worth it.

How do I feel now? Done with high-end places. It's sorta like Burgundy - you can find perfection, but it's hit-and-miss, and it's gonna cost you. I can sort of imagine the idea that this is the best izakaya in the world, but it cost over 1.5 Hummings per person (and the beef and potatoes were shared dishes).

You know what I want to do right now? I want to do a Nezu crawl starting at Koyu. Or Morishita for Wakamatsu. Just to see what the two places I previously thought had the best izakaya food in the world are like now.

I'ma check em out. You comin'?


  1. Yeah, I'm in. Or would be, were I there.

    Nice hat.

  2. Ima weight 4 u.
    And next time we go out, ima take ur pitcher with a SICK hat.

  3. Let me know if there is room at the counter for a Little Bird. I've been wanting to go to Koya since I read your review.