A Kyoto restaurant find
Outside of the large western-style hotels, there are few restaurants in Japan that openly cater to the tourist trade with bilingual menus. Fortunately for those of us rendered instantly illiterate in a world of kanji, hiragana, and katakana (Japan’s three writing systems), many moderately-priced restaurants have window displays of plaster models of the dishes they serve. Waitresses are used to gaijin (foreigners) dragging them outside to point at what they want for lunch.
But these gaijin-friendly eateries only scratch the surface of the culinary delights available in Japan. Because of the language barrier, many restaurants are essentially closed to anyone who cannot read and speak Japanese. Unless you have a Japanese friend (or are willing to engage in elaborate charades and risk making a total ass of yourself) you will never discover some of the best eating in Japan.
So it is with some trepidation that I tell you about Hitoiro, a small, stylish nighborhood restaurant in Kyoto, where no English is spoken. Had it not been for my wife’s Japanese friends, we never would have known of its existence. Had we passed by it accidentally, we might not even have recognized the sleek exterior as a restaurant. And even if we had, we almost certainly wouldn’t have worked up the courage to enter without assistance.
Hitoiro, which means “one color,” I was told, specializes in tofu dishes. In fact, the family that owns it is quite prominent in the local tofu trade. I know what you’re thinking, so let me hasten to add that the tofu served here has no resemblance whatsoever to the rubbery chunks of bean curd you may have seen lurking underwater in Oriental grocery stores Stateside.
It was, in fact, a revelation to me how richly sensuous this Japanese staple can be when prepared with art and love, and how many guises it can assume in the hands of a talented chef. We sampled a half dozen or so tofu dishes, from something that our Japanese friends translated as “tofu hamburger” to tofu pudding, and no two dishes tasted alike. It’s not entirely vegetarian, either; one dish we sampled was Inari sushi, wrapped in fried tofu skin. All of it was superb.
The restaurant is small and simple. There is a low counter with a dozen or so seats and a just a few tables in the hori kotatsu style, which means you sit on cushions on the floor with your feet in a sort of pit below the table. A circular opening in the rear wall leads to a “room” that is just large enough to accommodate a hori kotatsu for eight. The decor is smashing — colorful and ultra-modern, but with a simplicity that evokes the style of ancient calligraphy. Even the tiny loo is a design delight, done up like a country garden with a floor of stream-polished black stones and wooden steps that lead to the commode.
On top of everything else, the prices are surprisingly reasonable. I managed to snare the check (quite a feat in itself when dining out with Japanese friends) and was pleasantly surprised to discover that the bill for our party of five came to just 10,550 yen (about $90 at the then rate of exchange).
Hitoiro is in the Sakyo section of Northeastern Kyoto, not too far from Kyoto University. If you speak Japanese, have a Japanese friend who can serve as interpreter, or just want to try your luck, here’s the information I have on this very special restaurant, as transcribed from its business card by my Japanese friend:
Sakyo-ku, Kyoto 606
Phone: (075) 723-0389
Hours: 5:30 to midnight
No credit cards