Takasebune (Kyoto, Japan) – Home Cooking
Where Tokyo fulfilled the promises of Neuromancer or Bladerunner (and these blog reports will return to that world shortly), Kyoto is a city pulled in two directions – its past and probable future. Kyoto was the first major Japanese city to enact restoration reforms in an attempt to preserve its heritage; surprisingly, it was only enacted in the early 90s. Temples and parks are still pervasive across the city but urban sprawl encroaches everywhere. The restored areas of town are incongruous with their past; while they may be historically accurate, their newness, shininess, and cleanliness come off as facsimile. But everywhere one looks, the future and past are vying for attention and control.
The Entrance – the oar, on the very left, is the tell-tale sign that you’ve arrived.
Takasebune was billed as “affordable tempura”, located behind the Takasegawa canal. A quiet, dark alley splinters off and hosts old merchant houses, including Takasebune. One feels as if one has accidentally wandered into a forgotten street lost by city planners. But the future is only a step away in Kyoto. Directly behind and above it all is a giant department store, the hustle and bustle a scant minute away. It is possible to time travel in Kyoto, where a quick turn down an alley can lead to an escape from, or return to, the 21st century. The city has a charm, as well as a history, that is missing in Tokyo.
I read about Takasebune in Diane Durston’s Old Kyoto. This book is highly recommended for any traveler to Kyoto, or anyone that needs extra inspiration to book a ticket to Japan. She tells the stories of the remaining shops and restaurants that are trying to preserve Kyoto’s heritage in the face of rampant consumerism. This book, and the merchants featured within, should be supported since they are a dying breed; as a result, I will not publish the address for Takasebune – buy the book.
Random shot of the inside – quite rustic, lots of wood details, very old, beautifully done
After reading Diane’s book, Takasebune seemed like it would be a nice introduction to Kyoto – a quiet, simpler meal where one could begin to appreciate what Kyoto had to offer. This was a true mom & pop shop – mom did the plating, pop did the cooking, and a waitress helped out w/ the tatami rooms in back. Language was a barrier but I found it easier to communicate with the Japanese than I do the French or Spanish. They have a few set menus; this was the kaiseki option at $70 US/pp. It is clearly not refined (although a lot of care went into the meal); instead, it is a homey introduction to the cuisine and people.
Appetizers – A trio of appetizers were served at the beginning: peppers with shirasu (dried baby fish), Ayu pre-fried and marinated in vinegar, and compressed roe with mayo. The textures of each dish were particularly satisfying.
Sashimi – While the husband cut the fish, the wife spent her time preparing and arranging the tiny flowers on the plate (whose beauty is not captured in this photo.) Care and attention to detail were present in a way that is unfathomable for an American meal at this price point, and highlights the differences of relationships to food. The fish was very good by American standards.
Steamed Hamo (Pike Conger Eel) – Served with plum sauce.
Grilled Ayu – Kaiseki meals are known to be seasonal, sometimes to the day and week. Ayu, a river-fish, is served during the fall. The fish was simply grilled, a nice char on its skin, and a touch of brightness from the yuzu- a simplicity that can make Italian cooking look busy.
Matsutake broth – Conger eel, shrimp, matsutakes, and lime inside.
Grilled Suziki – Takasebune serves fish for many different courses as a tribute to its location along the canal. The suziki, a sea bass, was cut into larger pieces, skin intact, including the head, and grilled with a soy and sugar sauce. The sauce was a touch cloying but it was finger-licking delicious; and it did cut the gelatinous bits well.
Tempura – Eggplant, Shrimp, & Pumpkin – Takesebune originally caught my eye because it was known as a tempura restaurant. I had high expectations for their frying capabilities but this dish was the weakest of the night. After the magical fried abalone at Koju, this just seemed clumsy and heavy-handed.
Miso soup – The requisite miso course, served with rice. Surprisingly, miso soups in Japan are much heartier (and spicier) than America; they hardy resemble their counterparts here. Strings of yuba were served inside to give it texture.
Simple Dessert – A fantastic orange and apple pear.
Toothpick holder – I became somewhat fascinated with these at each meal
It’s certainly not the best meal in Kyoto, nor does it pretend to be, but it’s a honest meal prepared by honest people. While I ate my meal, a local woman drank four 32oz beers to my one. Locals eat here for comfort and nourishment, not for ritualized kaiseki theater. Where Koju was austere, this meal had an accessibility that can help one begin to understand kaiseki and Japanese dining. You can not appreciate one without the other. Takasebune is a warm, friendly place to get your bearings straight, relax, and begin to understand the Kyoto way and its people; a stepping stone to the fancy stuff. No need for a reservation.