Is this even a restaurant?

BEN GROUNDWATER
Last updated 14:33 12/11/2013
Korean BBQ Landscape
Ben Groundwater

UNPRETENTIOUS AND DELICIOUS: Korean barbecue, Kyoto style.

Korean restaurant std
Ben Groundwater
IS IT OR ISN'T IT: A low-key entrance to an authentic dining experience.

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It starts with a question: Is this even a restaurant?

There's a big red lantern out the front, and a curtain covering the door - two standard markers that food and drink are being served inside - but none of the telltale plastic models of food, and no menu that we can see.

So the answer, it seems, is the same as the answer to many questions in this wonderful, baffling country: "maybe". Maybe it's a restaurant. Maybe it's not.

There's only one way to find out. I step up to the curtain like a peeping Tom, part it slightly and peer inside.

My partner raises her eyebrow. Is it a restaurant? Umm, maybe.

The place looks like it's hosting knock-off drinks for the local drycleaners.

The walls are lined with calico suit bags dangling from coat hangers. The old laminate bar-top is playing host to the elbows of a mostly male clientele all dressed in white shirts and paper bibs, hunched over bowls of what looks like food and glasses of what looks like beer.

It's not fancy, not like most of the places we've seen here in Kyoto. No wooden slats line the windows, no beautiful pictures adorn the walls, and no kimono-clad waitresses greet people at the door. It's just functional.

We shrug, and decide to take a chance.

"Irrashaimase!" The traditional Japanese greeting rings out from the chef behind the bar. He's got a towel tied around his head, and a stained chef's coat tucked into black pants.

He's smiling as he points us towards the only two empty chairs at the bar.

Then he looks serious. "I don't have English menu," he says. "But good news - I have English menu inside me!"

The drycleaners around us smile, raising their glasses at the newbies.

Beer and sake is plonked in front of us. The Japanese menu is whisked away and replaced with the smiling face of the chef. "This is Korean barbecue," he says. "Kyoto style! Yakiniku!"

(The exclamation marks are necessary, because he's pretty much yelling this stuff at us.)

"I recommend two meats," he continues. "Meat from the ribs, and meat from the neck!"

We nod, agree, and settle in as a metal plate is set up on the gas burner in front of us and unordered appetisers begin appearing, clattering onto the bar: little green salads, bean sprouts, boiled pork ribs in broth.

We've figured out what the calico bags are for. With meat hissing and spitting in front of every diner, the restaurant is soon engulfed in garlic-and-soy-flavoured smoke.

The salarymen around us have stripped off their jackets and ties and hung them up for protection. The paper bibs are to preserve the fiercely starched shirts.

Soon our chef is back with the rib and neck meat, which he lays delicately on the hot plate, tapping the metal tongs with a ding each time as if he's performing a ritual. Smoke rises. Beer glasses clink.

This isn't a restaurant that's used to catering for foreigners.

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It's only a few blocks from the touristy hotspot of Gion - but it hasn't made the Lonely Planet or the Rough Guide simply because it's so unremarkable, so unexciting.

There's no attempt being made at cheesy authenticity: the decor is shabby and unloved, and the stereo is playing Red Hot Chili Peppers.

But don't be fooled: this is the sort of place you want to be eating in.

It's time to meet the neighbours. The two guys next to us have been getting progressively drunker since we arrived, and progressively keener for a chat.

They're engineers who work for Panasonic, they say. They want us to have a good time in Japan. They'd like to drink to that notion. It's a friendly place.

Meanwhile, meat is burning. The chef plucks the slices of beef off the hot plate and onto the small dishes in front of us. "Dozo!" he yells, pointing at our dinner. We tuck in and it is, of course, delicious.

I won't give this place a label. I won't call it the "real Japan", like it's somehow better than Lonely Planet's choices of eateries.

All I'll say is that this restaurant is my kind of restaurant: a plain, unpretentious little joint where you can feel, for a few hours at least, what it's like to be a normal Kyoto resident having drinks and dinner.

I won't even tell you the restaurant's name, because the point is not that you should eat here when you travel - it's that you should eat somewhere like here.

Somewhere you've stumbled upon. Somewhere you've gambled on. Somewhere that might turn out to be perfect.

After plenty more meat, and beer, and stilted conversation with our neighbours, we decide to call it a night, bowing awkwardly as everyone calls out a farewell.

The guys next to us are still smiling.

"Goodbye," one of them says. "Please buy something from Panasonic."

We laugh. Maybe.

Have you ever stumbled upon an amazing restaurant while travelling? One you came to by accident, rather than planned a visit to? Post your comments below.

- FFX Aus

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