Kyoto is well known for its beautiful vegetables, and Kanematsu is known as the gourmet greengrocer in Kyoto's central Nishiki Market, supplying many of the finest restaurants in the nearby Gion district. In 2000 Kanematsu decided to open a little restaurant of their own, occupying a few small rooms above the shop. Called simply "Yaoya no Nikai" (the "Second Floor of the Vegetable Shop"), they serve a lovely vegetable-centered lunch every day from 11am until they run out of food.
Although the main ingredients are all plant-based, the cooking here is more a celebration of vegetable life than an avoidance of meat, and in fact traditional fish-based seasonings like katsuobushi are used in many of the recipes. There's only one item on the menu - the Y2100 set meal - which changes day to day and month to month depending on what's best at the market.
Yaoya's lunch tray includes rice, soup, pickles and four more dishes, followed by your choice of dessert. On a recent visit the meal was built around a very tasty asparagus rice - a bit more pilaf-like than the usual Japanese rice, lightly seasoned with butter, mirin, and soy sauce and filled with chunks of firmly textured asparagus. The fried dish included tofu tempura wrapped in shiso and dotted with tiny bits of crunchy chopped vegetables, plus a tempura-fried shiitake mushroom. No dipping sauce for the tempura, just a dab of salt. The boiled dish showcased some very fresh sansai (mountain vegetables), artistically arranged in a pretty ceramic bowl.
Other dishes featured crisp cucumber slices with daikon oroshi, slightly salty boiled spinach, and great miso soup with thinly sliced daikon. The three types of pickles were excellent, as one would only expect from a Kyoto vegetable seller. The impressive finale included a round scoop of tomato sherbet paired with an equal-sized cold peeled tomato just brimming with old-fashioned tomato flavor. A reminder that there are still vegetables worth traveling across town for.
The decor is simple - a few hanging scrolls, a folding screen - with ten small tables spread across three small rooms. Advance reservations are highly recommended, and vegetarians can order a non-fish-seasoned version of the meal if they call ahead a day or two. Yaoya no Nikai also sells bento lunches to take out, and these too should be reserved in advance to avoid disappointment.
by Robb Satterwhite