All the fun of the fare
Osaka is a real foodie find, from fine dining to street specials
Business-centric Osaka might only seem worth a stopover enroute from Kansai airport to the heritage treasures of Kyoto and Nara. But for me, Osaka is a repeat pleasure. This hyperactive city is Japan at its neon-flashing, freewheeling best.
Best of all, Osaka’s food scene is fantastic. You can get hot dogs from a vending machine and rarefied fish slivers from top-rated chefs. Its food outlets are mind-bogglingly competitive in price and quality, with eateries crammed into every city block, office tower and railway basement. The food hall of fancy Takashimaya department store, below Namba station, is alone a marvel. It has an entire floor of fresh produce, from strawberries arranged like gemstones to marbled Kobe beef. Another floor is devoted to prepared foods, with choices to make your head swim - a thousand bento boxes, plump dumplings, French pastries, cherries embedded in jellied sweets. You haven’t done Osaka until you devour a hotelroom picnic from such quality pickings.
I’m staying at Swissotel Nankai Osaka, right above Namba station and a walk to Dotonbori, the epicentre of Osaka’s nightlife and casual dining scene. Pachinko parlours howl, giant neon signs explode, Barbie lookalikes and Goths strut. Replica food gleams in restaurant windows, giant plastic crabs and pouting blowfish loom like Godzillas. It’s an evening carnival complete with cartoonish characters and food on sticks.
Chief among the latter are fried octopus balls (takoyaki) hot as molten lava. Slightly more sophisticated are omelette-like pancakes (okonomiyaki) filled with shrimp, pickles or cheese, then squirted with mayonnaise and barbecue sauce, eaten in diners so small that I rub thighs with the person beside me, and wipe oil from the griddle off my spectacles.
These are everyday, working-class snacks without pretension. The city is also mad for udon; the wheat noodles are served in a golden broth flavoured with kelp, light soy sauce and bonito (shaved, dried tuna). Variety comes from extras such as shiitake mushrooms, fried tofu or eel. When I want to linger longer, I head to the ubiquitous grilled chicken (yakitori) bars. They’re part
Cafe by Aman, open for lunch and dinner, has launched at the glam Aman Tokyo, the capital’s most talked-about new hotel. The space is on the ground floor of Otemachi Tower and offers indoor and outdoor seating plus next-to-nature views through a 3600 square-metre expanse of greenery at the skyscraper’s base; the focus is on Mediterranean fare as well as the expected Japanese cuisine, including signature afternoon tea presented in traditional bento boxes. Cafe by Aman is the only restaurant in Tokyo serving vat-poured Masumi seasonal and sparkling sake wines. More: amanresorts.com. pub, part fast-food joint, but in the Japanese way that makes me feel special. A yakitori-ya has a dozen seats, and food is cooked to order over charcoal. Office workers unwind over beer, sake and skewers of chicken, smoky with flavour.
Kazunori Tanaka, an executive assistant from the Swissotel, has recommended Sumibi Yakatori Enya. It’s on his Friday afternoon guided walk from the hotel into the back alleys of Dotonbori, which is complimentary for hotel guests. “The yakitori here has a very special sauce, really good but, of course, a secret recipe,’’ he says. I return later for asparagus wrapped in bacon, marinated chicken and Asahi beer. The young chefs have no English, but a sense of humour and Google Translate carries us along in a sociable glow.
Next door is Kitaro Sushi, where two sushi cost JPY250 ($2.60), prepared in front of me with fish just out of the ocean. Chef Yuya, I discover, studied English in Vancouver and can slice radish paper-thin with a knife as large as a samurai sword. I should go around the corner, he says when I’m sushi sated, to Miyoshiya for udon noodles, because they’ll warm my heart.
This is the way to eat in Osaka, hopping about as you would in the tapas bars of Spain. The Dotonbori area doesn’t stop until 5am. Hardly anything is in the guidebooks and, if it were, you’d never be able to find it anyway, though the Swissotel has provided me with a hand-drawn map of its Friday walk locations. Menus are indecipherable, so you’d better hope other diners have just ordered something you fancy.
This cheap, casual food scene is one side to Osaka, city of travelling salesmen (it’s nearly always men). But as one of Japan’s economic powerhouses, Osaka has plenty of upscale dining too. Its intimate, almost cramped kappo-style restaurants provide elaborate meals prepared on the spot and served from behind a counter by the chef, who chats and interacts with patrons. I might get a light soup with deep-fried sea bream, sesame tofu and white melon; then sashimi with wasabi just freshly grated; followed by grilled river fish (ayu) with bitter greens. Everything is as pretty as cherry blossom; Japanese plating skills leave MasterChef for dead.
I try not to miss out on a kaiseki meal, an expensive but memorable experience in which small, delicate dishes that emphasise natural flavours and seasonality are served one after the other. This form of haute cuisine emerged 500 years ago as an accompaniment to tea ceremonies. Everything about it creates atmosphere, including the arrangement of the food, its aroma, its symbolism and the often custom-made bowls in which courses are served. And so I slip through a gateway under a cherry tree, where a kimonoclad hostess ushers me into a private dining room decorated with a low table, calligraphy scroll and rustic pot from which leans a twig of purple blossoms. My hostess Nao floats across the tatami mats. It is so quiet that the poured sake wine gurgles like a mountain stream.
Kashiwaya restaurant, tucked modestly into suburban Osaka, has one of the best kaiseki experiences in the city. It’s a member of the prestigious Relais & Chateaux group, and serves top-notch cuisine. It doesn’t have an à la carte menu; choose the number of courses (up to 12) when booking. There’s a western-style dining room if you find tatami seating uncomfortable and owner Hideaki Matsuo – who gave up theoretical physics for the kitchen – is a Michelin three-star chef. During my mid-May visit, he’s inspired by the many shades of green on the hillsides, and his menu is themed on the seasonal change from spring to summer.
My first course of summer hamo fish is decorated with a sword-shaped shobu leaf. “The sword symbolically cuts from one season to another. And shobu is also the word for samurai sword fighting, and a symbol of our festival for boys in early May,’’ explains hostess Nao in good English.
The meal is a parade of delicate flavours: prawn with sea-urchin roe in a sweet egg sauce; tofu with eggplant and sea cucumber; fish with grated radish, black pepper and citrus vinegar; noodles with Chinese yam in a clam soup. There’s a rather untraditional crab-meat souffle. The final sweets are inspired by Matsuo’s visits to France, where he liked seeing diners chatting over petits-fours at the close of a meal. The ingredients, though, are very Japanese - seaweed, pea and mugwort, accompanied by the frothy, whisked green tea used in tea ceremonies.
Nao kneels gracefully on the tatami as I depart. The service has been outstandingly attentive and charming. There’s a meditative quality to kaiseki meals, a far cry from the raucous conviviality of Osaka’s yakitori and noodle bars. Yet the departure is always the same. “Honoured to have you here,’’ say the staff when, really, the pleasures have been all mine. • swissotel.com • relaischateaux.com/kashiwaya
Brian Johnston was a guest of Swissôtel Nankai Osaka and Relais & Chateaux.
Serving takoyaki in Dotonbori district, Osaka, left; elegant presentation at Kashiwaya; below left