Tsugu is located a few corners from Shijo Karasuma, the main intersection in downtown Kyoto. That said, even when a digital map is just a tap away, finding it through the side streets may prove a little difficult, so look for a statue of a tanuki, the raccoon dog that graces so many stores and restaurants around the country. The giant tanuki outside the door of Tsugu, next to the noren curtains, is nestled between a few potted Japanese maples. It’s a nice bucolic setting, on a pretty and narrow laneway filled with eateries. However, the verdant theme stops at the front door and, once inside, Tsugu is sleek and dimly lit, with seating split between the counter, which looks on to the kitchen, and a bank of low tables also facing the counter.
Tsugu is in many ways like any other upmarket izakaya (Japanese pub) you’ll find across the country: The food menu is wide and varied, and complemented by a strong showing of sake, but there’s a few subtleties in decor that make it memorable. One is the wood floor, beveled by a chisel, literally giving it a groovy surface. It’s a little thing, but it’s well considered. Another more noticeable element is that all the staff — the waiting staff and chefs — are male. The serving staff, all dressed in black, could pass as hipsters, but thankfully don’t create an ironic or insouciant air. In fact, they are downright helpful, ferrying questions back and forth to the kitchen.
With a menu that stretches as long as Tsugu’s, your best option is to select dishes you recognize — or you could try pot luck, or bend the waiter’s ear. We went with all three.
It’s a bit past the season of hotaru-ika (firefly squid) but it’s a dish I enjoy for its smallness and texture. At Tsugu they don’t deviate from the standard way of cooking these tiny yet wholesome creatures, submerging them briefly in hot water and serving them with a dab of karashi sumiso (white miso mixed with vinegar and mustard powder) that is crowned by daikon radish and a glob of wasabi.
Another daikon dish, this time chosen at random, was a tangy salad of mostly radish, julienned and mixed with greens and topped with mozuku, a slimy greenish brown seaweed harvested in Okinawa. Unfortunately, it sounds better than it tastes. The tempura dish of shishito peppers and slices of matsutake mushroom was one of the highlights of the night. It’s a simple dish, and the light batter adds another layer of taste.
A dish that came recommended but didn’t entirely work out was the broiled iwashi (sardine), not because of the sardine but the accompanying nuka, a kind of a bran biscuit that looks, smells and tastes like it belongs in a dog’s feeding bowl. Much better was the plate of sashimi with baby tuna (yokowa), seared scallops, squid and octopus. Also worth trying is the beef tataki, small slices of wagyu that have been seared.
Tsugu is a great little spot worth rooting out. Just look for the man-sized tanuki.
468 Kannondo-cho, Nakagyo-ku, Kyoto; 050-5872-2344; www.e-sou.jp/index.html; nearest station Shijo Kawaramachi; open daily 5:30 p.m.-1 a.m. (L.O. 12 a.m.); dinner including drinks costs about ¥5,000 per person; smoking and nonsmoking areas; Japanese and English menus; some English spoken