As much as I love eating out in restaurants that run the gamut from high class to low, from holes in the wall, to all-you-can-eat, my heart — or is it my stomach — sings most when I’m in a good, solid izakaya (Japanese pub).
Such places are anything but fussy, utterly friendly without being pretentious, and when the reality lives up to the potential of the menu, everything beyond the door, from fake news to North Korean nuclear arms, takes a back seat.
Chances are I would have stumbled on Shimme eventually. It’s been around since 1934, and judging by the full houses every night, it’s going to stay trucking on for some time. Naotaka Sakatani is the third-generation chef who ferries between the kitchen and the counter. His grandmother is also on duty, and has been there since Shimme’s original inception as a sake shop — the name Shimme is taken from a bottle of sake.
The atmosphere inside feels like 1934 or thereabouts: Electric wires hang from the ceiling and the walls are lined with faded paintings, pots, pans and menus. It’s a long, narrow restaurant, with seating around the counter up front and a long communal table at the back. You’ll definitely need a booking, as it’s busy each night and staff are strict about getting everyone out the door at 9:30 p.m. sharp.
As soon as you sit you’ll be served up a plate of hors d’oeuvre, which changes but is likely to be a small serving of fish, and while they serve much more than seafood, the fish tends to be excellent.
Although I’ve seldom enjoyed whale in Japan, it is quite good here. When Sakatani brought us a plate of whale bacon, the meat was a deep red, saddled up to gleaming white fat, absolutely dripping with umami, drawing the ultimate compliment from my partner: “I wish I could put that in a sandwich.”
If whale isn’t for you, try the firefly squid, served with a zesty citrus ponzu sauce. They’re barely boiled and still retain a little of their iodine to give them a little undercurrent, which, combined with the ponzu dipping sauce, gives off a delicate kick. At Shimme the scallops are generous, quick-fried and served in lemon juice.
I also had buta no kakuni (braised pork belly). This is a dish that should be on every izakaya menu, cooked just as it is at Shimme: melt-in-your-mouth tender.
It would be hard to pick a standout dish in a line up of stars, but the serving of bamboo was outstanding.
It came cooked in the classic Japanese concoction of soy sauce, mirin and sake, lightly seared before serving. The result: luscious bamboo that somehow holds onto its crunchy texture despite being soaked through mildly sweet broth. It may be a good thing that they close at 9:30 p.m., or I would probably still be there ordering. As an experience, Shimme is as charming as it is delicious.
38 Tamaya-cho, Nishigawa, Nakatachiuri Agari, Senbondori, Kamigyo-ku, Kyoto; 075-461-3635; nearest station Nijo; open 5 p.m.-9:30 p.m. closed Sunday; dishes from about ¥1,000; English and Japanese menus; some English spoken; smoking OK