Most every little part of Japan has what's called a meibutsu, a regional specialty. Unfortunately, Okayama's main meibutsu are dango, which is a sweet rice cake item that's now pretty much ubiquitous all over Japan. The other one that some people will insist upon is the oysters. Hiroshima really has the market on oysters but the locals in Okayama will tell you that these oysters are just as good, if not better than the ones down the road. Also, being in the midsection of the Kansai and Chugoku region, there's a lot of carryover from Hiroshima, Osaka, Kobe and their specialty items.
If you have reason to be in Okayama, here are some restaurants you might want to check out.
Okayama-Shi, Omotemachi 3-7-10
Many yakitori joints tend to be testosterone dens of drinking salarymen and other mostly male locals, and where the proprietors tend to greet their customers with macho grunts. It might seem a little unfriendly for the unitiated, but Nakamura is a cozy, friendly family-run place that looks kind of like a spanish tapas bar with a number of prepared items resting on the counter. Most of these items will be listed on their daily specials board. Point to anything that looks good and the husband and wife team will dish it up for you, or prepare it. I had my first try of whale meat here. Options were grilled or simmered with mizuna (I chose the latter). Whale is a strange meat (at least in this preparation), a bit chewy, a bit livery, somewhat gamey. I probably should have tried it grilled. Other standout dishes were the katsuo with yuzu, grilled oysters, chicken, tsukune.
Near the Okayama train station (sorry don't have an address)
This place is a no-nonsense sushi place, that doesn't try to put a premium on creating exquisiteness. You can tell that a chef with a deft hand and solid palate is putting together the dishes, but there's something a little rustic about it. The sushi pieces are bigger than normal (without trying to be gimmicky-big). One of the specialties of Ginpachi is the tsun-tsun maki which is a maki roll made with wasabi leaves. Tsun-tsun refers to the effect it has on your head, as the wasabi effect is pretty strong. I had the 2800 yen (roughly $25) set dinner, which consisted of about 10 courses including sushi, sashimi, 3 different cooked fish dishes, crab & octopus sunomono, chawanmushi, pickles, seafood salad, little fried whole shrimp, and a few other small dishes. Course for course, this place served better tasting items than the kaiseki meal I had in Tokyo, and for a third of the price. The sushi was also outstanding. The lightly grilled ootoro was fabulous. The katsuo-tataki was also probably the best I've had (though you'd have to go to Shikoku for this -- it's the meibutsu of the Kochi area).
After surveying some of the ramen in Okayama, the better ones I've had were at these two places:
Okayama-shi, Nakayamashitamachi 2-8-32
A good tonkotsu ramen. I think I was a bit jaded from my superb ramen experiences in Tokyo and thought this lacked in comparison, but this one was the best tonkotsu style ramen I had in Okayama.
Okayama-shi, Shiroshitamachi 1-3-10
Maybe it was because I had a cold, but the house goma-kara ramen they have here seemed like the perfect cold remedy, a tonkotsu-based spicy sesame and hot oil ramen. It certainly tasted great going down, and lifted my spirits on a dreary day.
In a remote neighborhood, several kilometers from the train station. You probably won't find this place without the help of a local (sorry, don't have the address).
This place served some very fine tempura. The way to go is the oo-ebi (giant shrimp that tastes more like lobster) and the anago. Unfortunately, they were out of anago by the time we arrived, but the oo-ebi ten don, or the oo-ebi teishoku was a large helping, and mighty tasty.
A few blocks east of the train station, just off Kencho-dori.
I was drawn by the thought of oyster okonomiyaki here, which is suppose to be one of the specialty items. Although I had very high expectations, I was very pleased with Hontonpei. One of the more interesting items here was the Tonpei-yaki, which is a kind of like an Egg-McMuffin of the okonomiyaki world. Thin slice of pork, fried egg, sandwiched in okonomiyaki batter, topped with a homemade sauce. The okonomiyaki chef had an easy touch with his stuff, and the oyster okonomiyaki didn't disappoint. I think the chef makes his own mayonaise.
Grill Hirose (Yoshoku)
In Kurashiki City (a 20 minute train ride from Okayama).
I was drawn by the report of a great beef tongue stew here. I recently learned that beef tongue stew is a typical dish in a yoshoku restaurant, though not made very well in many places as it takes a lot of time to make. I got the last seat in the house at the front counter at Grill Hirose during the lunch hour. Unfortunately, they only served 3 set course lunches, instead of a la carte off the menu, and no tongue stew. I got a pork and cheese katsu set lunch that contained many interesting flavors and textures. It was very interesting watching the chef work his magic. After seeing him make multiple orders of his omu-rice, I was a bit disappointed that I didn't order it, as it looked like he makes everything from scratch, including his own ketchup. I never had gobo (burdock root) used in western cuisine, and Hirose used it in ways I was quite surprised with. The chef is also a doppelganger for Nobu Matsuhisa (of the famous Nobu and Matsuhisa restaurants in NY, LA, Paris, London, etc.), so he at least looks like a great chef.
Okayama-shi, Omotemachi 1-10-1
This is a no-nonsense tofu restaurant. There's no menu. You sit down at the counter and you get a small plate of pickles, a salad made from tofu curd, nori, and vegetables, and a plate of unadorned block of cold tofu (hiyayakko) garnished with a little grated ginger and sliced scallions, and a bowl of rice. The tofu is all made in house, and it's wonderful. A little soy sauce on the hiyayakko and you have a perfect plate of food. When you're almost done with your first three plates, you then get a bowl of miso soup, and a plate of three pieces of fried tofu. You pour the dashi-soy sauce over the tofu and you get another perfectly simple delicious plate of food. It's an eat-and-run kind of place. I saw someone here finish their entire meal in 5 minutes and leave. It took us more like 15-20 minutes, since I lingered with my tea.
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