Monday, March 9, 2015

Through the noren

There are places in the city you pass time and time again.  There is something about them that catches your eye each time you go by, and each time you think I should check that out.  Then one day you go in, and your curiosity is rewarded.

There is a little side street between Kawaramachi-dori and Teramachi-dori.  Down that street is a restaurant called Kaneyo in a wonderful old two-story machiya.  It specializes in kabayaki unagi (grilled freshwater eel).  There is a window in the front beyond which stands an old man in a smoke-besmirched white chef's jacket grilling unagi over a bed of hot coals.  It is a stage of sorts and although he is only doing his job turning the eels, sometimes smoking a cigarette, nothing more, he invariably gets a passerby to stop for a minute.

Inside is an open dining room with concrete floors and low tables and stools.  The room is a warm nicotine-and-age stained amber.  There is something about the space that reminds me of Phillippe's in Los Angeles or Katz's in New York - friendly, informal with some real history (Coincidentally they all started around the same time in the early 20th Century).  However Kaneyo is much more modest in size.

Through the sliding glass doors in the back is a narrow rock garden where a bamboo spigot spills water into a little pond.  It is easy to forget you are in the heart of the city sitting there.

I first ate unagi at a sushi joint in Culver City called Karen.  There they serve it nigiri-style wrapped with a thin ribbon of seaweed and painted with a tare sauce.  The grilling is done with a torch.  This type of unagi exists in Kyoto, but it is more commonly served over a bed of rice in a bowl (unadon) or lacquered box (unajū).  The long, butterflied strips of eel are grilled over coals giving it an amazing smoky flavor you don't get with nigiri unagi.

I have discovered over and over that if you have the courage to part the noren curtains, Kyoto will never disappoint you.

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