What does the word ‘izakaya’ mean to you? For me, it conjures up an image of seedy backstreets, smoke congregating in wisps and billows around blinking street signs, salarymen in beer-stained business suits with cigarette-stained fingers gripping wooden sticks of skewered meat. An izakaya is a haven for the jabbering rabble – a noisy, alcohol-fuelled diner much like the Japanese version of a wild west saloon.
So if I were to connect the word ‘izakaya’ with words like fine dining, relaxed atmosphere, polite table service, soft lighting and undulating classical music, you could be forgiven for feeling a touch confused. However, this bizarre amalgamation of descriptions was very much the scene presented to me at a ‘fancy izakaya’ I recently visited in Kyoto.
Even on holiday, we’re the kind of people who try to look for the best bargain and get a good deal but, sometimes, you’ve just got to bite the bullet and say ‘Okay, let’s splash out and treat ourselves.’ While in Kyoto, we couldn’t resist the chance to try a ‘fancy izakaya’ and went to Kushikura Honten.
Even in expensive places, there are often ways to make your meal cheaper such as ordering a set course rather than getting individual dishes. This also makes it easier for you to try a whole range of ingredients and flavours rather than being stuck with one massive plate of something or other.
At the izakaya, there were four set menus to choose from: the ‘6 Skewers Course’ for 2,500 yen per person, the Oike(御池) Course for 4,000 yen and the Aoi(葵) Course for 5,000 yen per person.. As you can see, not a cheap meal out but certainly worth it for a treat and, of course, the bigger the set, the fuller you’ll be by the end of the meal!
We opted for the second option – the Miyako Course (please note, as of 2017 this is no longer available). Here is what the course included as described on the menu: appetizer, chicken dishes, seasonal dish, rice, pickles, miso soup and 6 skewers – chicken breast with plum sauce, Kyoto style wheat gluten, chicken and leek, ground chicken, small sweet peppers and chicken heart/liver. Obviously used to catering for Western customers (who will more often than not turn pale at the thought of devouring offal) you can substitute this final skewer for quail eggs instead.
The other courses were not greatly dissimilar to this; the cheaper one had fewer extra dishes and only 5 skewers instead of 6, and the more expensive dishes included salads, desserts and the like. For a mid-range price, I think the Miyako Course is certainly the best deal (or perhaps I subconsciously choose it because it was the only course that came without salad…) Let’s take a look at some of the dishes we were served.
This appetizer was delicious. What was it? I have no idea. It was sweet, soft with crunchy bits and delicately flavoured. I had no idea what it was but it was really good.
One of my favourite skewers – the chicken breast with plum sauce and seaweed sprinkled on top. The chicken was perfectly cooked – moist and soft the whole way through, and the sauce was thick, tangy and sharp. A really perfect blend.
The Kyoto style wheat gluten skewers would not be to everyone’s taste, but I thought they were superb. The texture is chewy and glutinous, the flavour heavy and sweet like pumpkin, the sauce a sharp contrast that goes wonderfully with it.
Perfectly cooked chicken with a generous wedge of lemon – what could go wrong?
The chicken and leek skewer and the ground chicken skewer (made into a sort of ‘corn dog’ shape) were both smothered in a sweet sauce which, when being cooked over an open flame, slightly caramelized and gave it a smoky, burnt sugar kind of taste. Delicious.
Not the kind of people to shy away from ‘unusual foods’ (the heart and liver of a chicken being rather tame compared to our usual fare of horse meat sashimi…) I had the chicken liver skewer whereas my partner opted for the heart. Again, expertly cooked and completely sumptuous.
My least favourite of the skewers, the mini green peppers were served with a sprinkling of bonito flakes which wriggle and writhe in the heat of the dish like worms on a hook.
Sometimes, you’ve just got to splash out. Visiting or living in a foreign country is a prime opportunity for trying amazing things and while one must watch the pennies, it’s also important not to be too strict with yourself and let go every once in a while. What a shame it would be to spend a year living somewhere exotic and then to leave feeling like you hadn’t really done everything you wanted to for fear of cost. Our meal at Kushikura Honten was certainly a lot more than what we would usually spend on a meal out (several times over…) but I don’t regret our plush experience at all and would highly recommend it for a fancy evening out. On trip advisor, the restaurant is ranked as 134th out of a list of 12,000 places to eat… not a bad score at all!
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Traditional Japanese bar and grill: Izakaya