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Taste of Osaka
The Japanese city famous for its obsessive food culture is the birthplace of kappo, a style of dining that's catching fire among top chefs from Brooklyn to Bangkok.
By TOM DOWNEY
A POPULAR JAPANESE SAYING holds that people from Kyoto will spend all their money on clothes, people from Kobe all their cash on shoes, and people from Osaka will blow everything on food. Despite the city's singular and obsessive devotion to eating, foreign tourists normally head to Tokyo and Kyoto, meaning that Osaka's restaurants must first please a local and regular crowd—a critical requirement for any truly great restaurant. When people from other parts of Japan speak of Osakan food, they usually refer to flour-based snacks—like takoyaki (octopus balls), okonomiyaki (pancakes filled with pork or seafood) or kushi-katsu (deep fried skewers)—served before or after a long beer-drinking session. This popular cuisine fits Osaka's reputation as a prosperous merchant town filled with boisterous, freewheeling libertines. But Osaka is also the birthplace of a little-known Japanese genre of restaurant whose influence is now being felt all over the culinary world.
On a short alleyway not wide enough for a car to pass, just steps off Mido-Suji—Osaka's main shopping thoroughfare—sits Wayoyuzen Nakamura restaurant, a prime example of the city's influential food culture. Inside, behind a blue curtain hanging above the entryway, Masaaki Nakamura, the chef and owner, stands at a modern counter, jovial and busy, surrounded by the tools of his trade (wooden cutting board, sharp knives, copper pots) and ingredients ranging from freshly harvested mushrooms to a foam case full of hammo (conger eel), a summer-only delicacy. The restaurant is what the Japanese call a kappo, one in which the chef—standing behind the counter before a small group of customers—cuts and cooks an elaborate meal right before their eyes.
Although this style of dining originated in Osaka over a hundred years ago, in the last few years high-end cuisine paired with tiny counter service has caught on around the world, from Chef's Table at Brooklyn Fare, Atera, Blanca and Momofuku Ko in New York City to Water Library Thonglor in Bangkok. David Chang's latest venture—an eight-seat counter inside Má Pêche, where the meal is cooked right in front of patrons—is simply called Kappo. Though it's hard to trace the exact origins of the kappo, food experts believe it started in Osaka during the 19th century. The name combines two Japanese words: one meaning "cut," the other, "cook." Scholars posit that the merchant class of Osaka felt more comfortable in the kappo setup, where they sat near the chef, than in the more aristocratic ryotei, commonly found in Tokyo and Kyoto, where diners are sent to elaborately decorated rooms and served by kimono-clad waitresses. Whatever its precise origins, the kappo-style restaurant is now more popular—and more perfected—in Osaka than anywhere else in the world.
Osakans are known for their bonhomie, and although a serene atmosphere prevails in Nakamura, there's an immediate sense of camaraderie as I sit at the 10-seat counter. I watch the owner cooking a gourmet riff on a home-style beef and daikon radish stew. When he catches my eye, he smiles and sends over a spoonful for me to taste. The meal begins with a pomelo, emptied out and refilled with a delicious assortment of vegetables and tofu, followed by a selection of the chef's finest dishes: daikon radish filled with fish paste and then deep-fried, accompanied by a delicate edible basket woven out of seaweed and containing three bright-green gingko nuts. Utilizing all the parts of the cow, he dices a thick piece of Kobe beef tongue, stir-fries two pieces until brown, wraps them in shiso leaves and then serves them with a light vanilla sauce next to a small mound of grated daikon topped with a fried garlic sliver. The intimacy of the space, the easy dynamic between chef and customer and an extensive à la carte menu that changes daily conspire to make this experience entirely different from, and quite possibly superior to, any restaurant I've eaten in. "What's most important in kappo," chef Nakamura says, "is the relationship between the chef and the diners. It should be casual and conversational, even when we are making the most complex cuisine."
Osaka's kappo don't serve only traditional Japanese fare: There are thoughtful global influences in the ingredients, techniques and presentation. Before he ever cooked washoku (Japanese cuisine), Nakamura worked for years at a French restaurant in a grand old hotel in nearby Shima. Most non-Japanese diners would probably consider the offerings at Nakamura Japanese, since the refinements and adaptations of Western techniques are very subtle. When Nakamura returned to Japan after a stint cooking at the Japanese embassy in Sweden, he turned down lucrative offers to work at big hotel restaurants and decided instead to work at Kigawa, a kappo that originated a kind of cuisine called naniwa-kappo, focused on serving the finest seasonal products and local dishes. (Naniwa is an old word for Osaka.) Kigawa is situated on a street called Hozen-ji yokocho, boasting what may be the densest concentration of Michelin stars in the world, with three restaurants on a 50-yard stretch of cobblestone that have all been awarded stars in recent years: Kigawa, where Nakamura trained; Honkogetsu, a revered kaiseki institution; and Wasabi, a gourmet kushi-katsu (fried skewer) restaurant. Kigawa is a seminal institution for the Osaka kappo: Not only did the current chef's father invent the naniwa-kappo, it is also where many of the best chefs in the city trained before branching out on their own.
Nakamura, Kigawa and Osaka's other kappo restaurants offer something almost never found in the restaurants of this type catching on around the world: extensive à la carte menus adapted for new diners every night. Though the current cult of the vaguely authoritarian and all-knowing chef dictates reverence for a menu that offers diners no choice, à la carte in this restaurant format is much more difficult: Managing ingredients to make 100 different dishes, as Kigawa does, requires extensive provisioning and expertise.
I meet Osamu Ueno, Kigawa's chef and owner, early one morning, and we bike to Kuromon market, where he carefully selects his fish every day. As we stroll through the market, Ueno explains a bit more about the ethos of the naniwa-kappo. "Osaka's a merchant city, and that means economy is important," he says. "You can't waste anything. We don't just use the best parts of a fish, we think about how to make the less valuable parts taste as good or better than the best parts. In Kyoto they throw away the bones, because in ancient times, if a diner choked they'd behead the chef."