Osaka (part 1 of 2)

Posted on December 31, 2006 by Aun

A few weeks ago, S and I made our very first trip to Osaka, Japan. While I’d been to Japan previously and had explored quite a fair bit of the country, I had never been to Osaka. In fact, up until a few years ago, I had never really given visiting Japan’s third largest city much thought. So what happened? Well, over the past few years, at various dinners and other occasions, when the conversation would turn to memorable meals, a good nunber of foodies I know and respect (chefs, restaurant owners, food writers and passionate gourmands) would talk excitedly about Osaka. One restaurant in particular was spoken of with sheer reverence. Many compared it to El Bulli and a few even went so far as to say that they’d rather eat more regularly at Kahala than at Ferran Adria’s famous restaurant. After years of hearing about this and other gastronomic experiences, S and I couldn’t wait to taste Osaka for ourselves.

Kappo Counter Gastronomy

One of the best culinary experiences in Japan is dining in a kappo restaurant. These tiny places usually seat only a handful of patrons at a small counter. Dishes are prepared a la minute and served to hungry diners across the counter. The experience is similar to that of a sushi bar, but in these places, you’ll get beautifully cooked and artfully plated dishes. Having the chef work on your food and serve it to you personally also creates a unique sense of intimacy which heightens the dining experience. Historians tell us that kappo restaurants first became popular in Japan in Osaka in the nineteenth century, so it only made sense for S and me to try 2 of Osaka’s best.

Momen is a wonderful little kappo restaurant in the Shinsaibashi district. Located on a small side alley, this delightfully hidden gem seats just eight patrons at a time. The atmosphere is lovely, slightly dark and suitably zen-like. Take note though, Mr Momen hardly speaks any English, so you will need your hotel to call ahead and make your reservation for you. Dinner here is a seven course affair. The food is excellent. It’s not super-fancy or challenging. But it is delicious and lovingly prepared.

We started our meal with a gorgeous plate of crab sashimi; one of the advantages of visiting Japan in the winter is the availability of all this yummy seasonal seafood.

Our second course was one of the simplest dishes of the night but also my favorite. It was a homemade goma-tofu, breaded with roasted rice and then deep-fried.

The third course was gorgeous. It was a crab dumpling in a subtle crab broth, served in a beautiful laqueur bowl. The inside lid of the bowl was fantastic, with an inlaid landscape picture accented with mother of pearl. The fourth course was a plate of various types of fish roe. S especially enjoyed this. Next was a bowl of slow-cooked daikon with fresh yuzu. The last savory course was a lovely slice of roasted wild salmon marinated with miso. Dessert was a small plate of fresh fruit. Another great thing about Japan is the fruit is ridiculously sweet and fresh. A plate of fruit to end a meal in most other countries would be a let-down. Here it works.

While Momen is relaxed, Kahala is reserved. It’s a small but austere kappo restaurant located on the second floor of a small building in the Kita-shinchi neighborhood. The street Kahala is on, Sonezaki-shinchi, is a crowded strip of restaurants and bars. Kahala accepts diners at two seating times, either 540pm or 840pm. Friends have told me that if you are dining during the former that they usher you out of the door at 830pm on the dot and if you are scheduled for the latter you are not allowed inside early, even if you arrive at 835pm. Kahala is a cult restaurant — made most famous a few years ago when celebrity chef Tetsuya Wakuda raved about it and credited it as a place that inspired him — with suitably cultish prices. Dinner there is a whopping 30,000 yen per person.

Like Momen, there are only 8 seats in Kahala. The restaurant was founded by chef-owner Yoshifumi Mori 35 years ago when he was just 26 years old. The space was originally a steak-house, which accounts for the hot-plates that still flank the counter today (and which are now only used to prepare one single but excellent dish). Mori-san, like many other culinary greats, is self-taught. He admits that his lack of training has pushed him to create a truly innovative cuisine. More than just innovative, Mori-san’s food is pretty darned special because of his commitment to sourcing the very best produce from all over Japan. S and I started our 10 course dinner with a small portion of crabmeat with grass seeds and fried dill, plated on a flattened yuzu, and served with a little chicken comsomme. This was followed by a composed plate of fried pumpkin, Hokkaido oysters, dried herring roe, truffle-dusted lilyroot and a sandwich of turnip and yellowtail. Third was an am amazing portion of grilled “Kacho kabaro” cheese (from the Yoshida farm) with some sauteed turnip and squash. After this we tasted one of Mori-san’s signature dishes, a sharks fin steak with fried coriander leaves, sauteed daikon leaf, and thinly sliced potato seasoned with thyme leaves that had been crystalized with salt.

We also had some buckwheat soba noodles with powdered “karasumi” (sundried mullet roe). This was a yummy, savory course.

A dish I was a tad squeamish about was Mori-san’s shirako soup. I’ve never been a huge fan of shirako, which to the uninitiated is also known as “cod’s milk” or “cod’s sperm”, but this soup was outstanding. After this was the highlight of the meal and the dish that has made Kahala a must-visit for many of my friends. Mori-san’s “millefeuille of beef” is a gorgeous dish composed of 5 thin slices of Iga beef from the Mie prefecture. Each portion is sauteed quickly on both sides; the top and bottom layers are cooked but the middle layers are served raw. This is served with “Nozawa” turnip, yellow Inca potato and “ebi-imo” (Japanese yam). The only downside to this dish is that each person is only given 4 portions; I could easily have eaten another 4 or 5 more. After this, we were offered a delicious bowl of fugu (blowfish) rice. To round off the meal, we were given two desserts. The first would have thrilled Alice Waters, who so famously served her patrons an unadorned peach as dessert. The famous founder of Chez Panisse said, “The perfect dessert after a rich and satisfying meal is a perfect piece of fruit.” Well, that’s exactly what Mori-san served us, 2 slices of the most uniquely dense, syrupy and sweet apple, harvested he proudly told us from a small farm in the Yamagata prefecture. When Mori-san served us the fruit, he showed us a whole one and then held it up to a light over his counter. Amazingly, the apple turned translucent and the light shone through it. The final course was a creme caramel with sweet, white Azuki beans and a coffee syrup. S loved this and is trying to recreate it for our own dinner parties.

All in all, Kahala was a pretty unique experience. Was it worth the price? Given the size of the restaurant and the quality of the produce, yah, I’d say the splurge was worth it. It’s definitely a once-in-a-lifetime experience. But the restaurant both S and I look forward to returning to is Momen. We both enjoyed the restaurant’s modest atmosphere and slightly simpler cuisine. Of course, it didn’t hurt that Momen was one-third the price.

About Aun Koh

Aun has always loved food and travel, passions passed down to him from his parents. This foundation, plus a background in media, pushed him to start Chubby Hubby in 2005. He loves that this site allows him to write about the things he adores--food, style, travel, his wife and his bouncing baby boy!

What Others Are Saying

  1. Anne December 31, 2006 at 9:46 am

    OMG… it looks soooo good.

  2. Anonymous December 31, 2006 at 9:49 am

    woooow me wanna go kappo!

    look at this life you lead, you two. the jetsetting foodies. how blessed can you be =)

    well, happy new year, aun and su! the holidays have been extra hectic – i can see from the posts it’s been hectic for both of you as well. will holler (and mail that mag i promised) in a couple of days, when the rush is through.

    meeting you two was definitely a highlight of 2006 for me =)

    all the best,
    margaux

  3. Pammie January 1, 2007 at 6:45 am

    Hello Chubby Hubby, love your website and your photos are fantastic, very well lit! Congratulations on doing so well.

  4. IceCold January 1, 2007 at 2:15 pm

    If you already know Japan then you probably don’t need this sort of tip, but in Kyoto there’s a little place called Sumi Tora in the Punta-cho district; a few tables in the front, space for 6 back at the counter. My beautiful companion and I lucked out and were the only ones back at the counter. The personal service and interaction with the chef and his assistant added to the wonderful food made this a top all-time dining experience.

    I had several other great experiences in Japanese restaurants as small or smaller. I absolutely loved almost every place we ate, and the small intimate scale was often an ingredient.

    We were briefly in Osaka but focused on the urban energy and low-brow local specialties. That, and the food court at the Hankyu dept. store, where the free samples amounted to a multi-course gourmet meal.

    So many small Japanese restaurants to explore, so little time ….

  5. Fiber January 1, 2007 at 9:26 pm

    Seriously, this is one of the most gorgeous posts I’ve seen on a food blog in a long time. The meal looks absolutely incredible, and the photography is just as stunning.

    Have a very happy New Year!

  6. Mina January 2, 2007 at 4:58 am

    I’ve been to Japan many times but not to Osaka — although according to my mom I’ve been there when I was like 3 months old — that so doesn’t count! It’s definitely my next trip. We went to a couple of Kappo in Hokkaido. I admit, I was a little skeptical about the quality considering the location (in some back alley) and the tiny size of the restaurant. But looks are deceiving as the food was excellent. You can’t get any fresher seafood. If you haven’t been out to Hokkaido, I highly recommend Hakodate, a small village at the south tip of Hokkaido.

  7. cucina testa rossa January 2, 2007 at 6:41 am

    Happy New Year! Bonne Annee! Hope the room stopped spinning long enough to ring in the new year! :) Laura

  8. Stephanie January 2, 2007 at 10:16 am

    I’m intoxicated by your description of eating out in Osaka. I had planned to get to Kyoto for the first time this year, but might have to think about adding Osaka to the itinerary. And great pics.

  9. Anonymous January 2, 2007 at 12:33 pm

    Your pictures sure gives me a gastronomic effect.Can’t wait to go to Japan to try out these delicious food.
    Gourmet food eater.

  10. Lil January 3, 2007 at 7:47 am

    i need to replace my keyboard – too much drooling while reading your blog entries…

    happy new year!

  11. McAuliflower January 3, 2007 at 2:45 pm

    KUIDAORE!

    We ended our Japan trip in Osaka, which has me now feeling I would like to begin one there.

    yum- thanks for the memories

  12. joanet January 3, 2007 at 4:23 pm

    Very nice blog Chubby Hubby!
    Greetings from Barcelona

  13. krista January 3, 2007 at 9:05 pm

    Very nice post, it looks yummy!

  14. Homesick Texan January 3, 2007 at 9:42 pm

    I love that drop of water in the goma-tofu photo.

  15. Melting Wok January 4, 2007 at 5:05 pm

    hi chubbyS’, admire what you been doing :) If you get a chance, do drop by Shibuya, a nice quaint town w/great personal touch :) Btw, they specialized in “tempuras” of all sorts :)Cheers !:)

  16. Anonymous January 10, 2007 at 4:34 pm

    What a great food blog! as a professional chef I frequently seek new ideas and inspiration from food blogs around the world. Yours is truly outstanding! excellent food, great reporting, beautifully composed pictures. Next week we’ll be “testing” your donuts and coffee recipes. Thank you for many happy reading moments and Happy New Year! Greetings from California. CH-D

  17. Anonymous January 24, 2007 at 5:39 pm

    can you tell us how to book kahala? any phone number?

  18. Chubby Hubby January 24, 2007 at 5:43 pm

    Kahala’s phone number is +81 6 6345 6778. Good luck!

  19. FY March 27, 2007 at 10:20 pm

    Hi,
    Do you have the phon number & address of Momen? Thanks!

  20. Lung April 29, 2007 at 6:53 am

    My wife and I were in Osaka 3 weeks ago and went to both Momen and Kahala (based on your recommendation). The experience was truely exceptional. The food was great.. the atmosphere delightful. Apparently BT food writer Geoff Eu was at Kahala the night before us and Chef Mori started whipping up aritcles written by Geoff to show us.
    The classic line though was At Momen, chef asked… “You know Chubby Hubby?”

  21. Helen Lim October 31, 2007 at 2:44 pm

    I was in Kahala in Feb, truly an unforgettable meal. Mori san even gave me two beautiful special potatoes which can be eaten raw. I’ve booked to go to Momen this Dec. Can you post a map and direction/address for me? Really appreciate that because we nearly got lost going to Kahala last time. Thanks a lot.

  22. Chubby Hubby October 31, 2007 at 3:30 pm

    Helen: Please ask your concierge to help you with the directions. That’s what I did. I don’t think I could adequately help you on that. If you want a copy of the business card though, I can send that to you. Please email me directly.

  23. wendy Ng November 16, 2007 at 6:51 pm

    Hi Can I trouble you to send me a copy of the business card for Kahala and Momen. Just saw your reviews on them and would like to make reservations to go try during my trip in Dec to Osaka and Tokyo. Many thanks, wendy

  24. susie November 18, 2007 at 3:28 pm

    lovely photos! can you let me have Momen’s number? I will be in Osaka in Dec and would like to make reservations. Thanks!

  25. W April 23, 2008 at 2:13 pm

    Hello

    Can you please give me the address or URL to Momen and Endo Sushi? ThX

  26. Georges July 2, 2008 at 12:53 pm

    I think Momen is a very reasonable japanese Kappo-Restaurant , but Kahala is very expensive, many habitants in Osaka do not use this restaurant.

    Please look on my sight!

  27. piqrt March 25, 2009 at 3:16 pm

    Finally got a confirmed reservation at Kahala. Though I tend to give shark’s fin a miss is theirs worth the experience? Enjoy all your ramblings!!

  28. BB September 6, 2010 at 5:06 pm

    Will be going to Osaka/Kobe for a visit, can some one post Momen’s URL or number please, I am having trouble finding it online :(
    Thank you so much!

  29. Jane July 18, 2012 at 12:14 am

    Hi Aun-
    This is a really great post! It’s my first time on Chubby Hubby (though I’ve been eating the B&J ice cream of the same name for years) and I’ll be back for sure. Great photos, great writing, great blog!
    Jane

  30. Aun July 18, 2012 at 9:47 am

    Thanks Jane. You should check out all of our other travel stories.

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