Hold the fries, please

A kappo-style meal gets to the true heart of Osakan cui­sine

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - The Global Gourmet Issue - MICHELLE ROWE

OSAMU Ueno has a bee in his bon­net. To un­der­stand Osakan cui­sine, the Miche­lin-starred chef in­sists, as he drops an­other dainty morsel on to my plate, one must see past the ubiq­ui­tous fried food for which Ja­pan’s third­largest city is fa­mous.

The takoy­aki (oc­to­pus dumplings), kushi­age (fried meat and veg­etable skew­ers) and okonomiyaki (savoury pan­cakes) that can be found on vir­tu­ally ev­ery street are not the re­gion’s only culi­nary achieve­ments, he says. There is a del­i­cacy and sub­tlety to be found be­neath Osaka’s crisply bat­tered ex­te­rior, if only one looks in the right places.

Osaka, in the Kan­sai re­gion of Ja­pan’s main is­land of Hon­shu, is com­monly re­garded as the coun­try’s culi­nary cap­i­tal. As the gate­way to cities such as Ky­oto and Kobe, this former mer­chant town, with easy ac­cess to some of Ja­pan’s best pro­duce, has built a rep­u­ta­tion for thrifty chefs with the cre­ative skills to en­sure ev­ery scrap of food is used. And with so many in­ter­na­tional traders pass­ing through over the years, Osakan cooks have can­nily added in­ter­na­tional ideas and flavours to their reper­toire.

In the city’s cen­tre lies Do­ton­bori. This loud and brash din­ing and en­ter­tain­ment precinct, lined with take­away food stalls, restau­rants, shops and pachinko par­lours, with gi­ant plas­tic repli­cas of sushi and me­chan­i­cal crabs hang­ing over­head, is like a Dis­ney­land for the taste­buds.

Ueno’s com­pact Naniwa Kappo Ki­gawa restau­rant, hid­den down a small al­ley just off Do­ton­bori’s main drag, sits in­con­gru­ously amid the glitz and glam­our, its un­der­stated en­trance and spar­tan in­te­ri­ors be­ly­ing the culi­nary ex­trav­a­gance to come.

The well-re­garded chef and his small team de­liver a se­ries of ex­quis­ite plates that puts Osaka’s thrifty ethos into prac­tice. A sin­gle in­gre­di­ent is pre­sented in myr­iad ways (del­i­cate slices of flat­head are fol­lowed by the fish’s crisp, fried bones; pike conger eel ap­pears in the form of mar­i­nated roe served with a dashi stock jelly in one dish, its flesh pre­sented as sashimi in an­other, and then grilled and served with a dol­lop of shrimp paste in a third).

Ki­gawa, opened by Ueno’s fa­ther, food writer and chef Shuzo Ueno, has held a Miche­lin star for each of the five years Miche­lin has been send­ing its scouts to Ja­pan. Ueno is non­plussed. How, he asks, can the guide’s staff based in France award stars for a cui­sine they barely un­der­stand?

At Ki­gawa, we are eat­ing kappo style, a less for­mal ver­sion of tra­di­tional kaiseki din­ing. In­stead of sit­ting in a sep­a­rate din­ing room and hav­ing each course de­liv­ered by wait­staff who then re­treat, the Osakan way has guests sit­ting at a counter, sushi style, with dishes pre­pared in front of them, fos­ter­ing a rap­port be­tween chef and diner.

I find it a far more re­laxed way to en­joy th­ese some­times marathon multi-course meals, and it’s a great

PIC­TURES: MICHELLE ROWE op­por­tu­nity to watch the go­ings-on in Ki­gawa’s small but or­derly kitchen.

Ueno chats to fel­low din­ers (there are 12 of us perched at the L-shaped wooden bar) as if they are old friends while course af­ter course is de­liv­ered. Chilled snow pea soup, sashimi in mul­ti­ple guises (Akashi oc­to­pus, cut­tle­fish, tuna), seared tile­fish with plum sauce, sea bass with lemon and salt, horse mack­erel with yuzu pep­per . . .

As a treat for the only for­eigner in the din­ing room, Ueno presents a sur­prise dish: soft-shelled tur­tle soup with a large corn dumpling. I find it con­fronting but don’t want to em­bar­rass my host. I tuck in with some trep­i­da­tion and, like the pre­ced­ing dishes, it is de­li­cious — as are the abalone and shi­itake mush­rooms with abalone liver sauce and the grilled pike conger eel with baby shrimp paste that fol­low.

It’s a con­vivial evening, with my din­ing com­pan­ion valiantly trans­lat­ing for Ueno through­out the meal. At first ret­i­cent, the chef is a ver­i­ta­ble chat­ter­box by night’s end, ea­ger to en­sure this vis­i­tor goes home with the right im­pres­sion of Osakan food.

Myfriend and I scrape clean our fi­nal dish — a lus­cious peach and gin­ger ice cream with plum sauce — and make our way back into the thump­ing, neon-lit other­world of Do­ton­bori. We stride past the bat­tered oc­to­pus balls and the deep-fried skew­ers, those pre­tenders to the throne. The true heart of Osakan cui­sine has a beat all of its own.

above Chef Osamu Ueno, left, at his Naniwa Kappo Ki­gawa restau­rant be­low Lo­tus root salad

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