I’ve been on a bit of a veggie kick lately. I’ve recently started juicing at home and I’ve always eaten a healthy portion of veggies on my plate for lunch, dinner and even breakfast (I’m a big proponent of spinach in smoothies!) but when I travel, it can be hard to feel like I’m getting my greens. Japan has a lot of food that’s considered healthy (and a fair amount that’s not, don’t be fooled!), but often it can feel like I am overloading on fish and rice and leaving my komatsuna behind.
So when I found Isoya on a now defunct Kyoto-focused foodie website a year or so ago, I knew it would factor into my travels sooner or later. The problem is with its popularity. This place is hoppin‘. And that’s a good thing of course, but when you only have a limited number of nights in town, getting a reservation was always tricky. Luckily, when I went up to Kyoto in April, I met up with friends of mine who called ahead and were able to score a table. And finally, after months of waiting, I was in.
Isoya is like an izakaya, a Japanese bar, except that its main focus is on the veggies, not the alcohol. Best thing about those veggies is their source – they’re all local. There IS a regular printed menu with some standard dishes – free range chicken from nearby Shiga prefecture, for example – but what you really want is what’s chalked on the board above the open kitchen. This lists (in Japanese only, so take a friend or a dictionary) the veggies of the moment – whatever is in season that day or week – and how they are dressed. Each vegetable is prepared one specific way – renkon with a creamy sea urchin topping (delicious!!), asparagus with parmesan cheese crumbles, rape blossom with garlic butter, or tomato with a basil sauce. There were a few non-veggie options on the menu, like the aforementioned chicken and some seasonal firefly squid that were surprisingly good (I’ve never been a squid fan).
We sat at a table but you can also sit at the bar and watch the chefs prepare everything right in front of you. You might be able to customize some dishes, I’ve heard (rare in Japan), but we were satisfied with what was on offer. Despite the chill of the night, the plastic curtained front of the restaurant managed to keep the warmth in … though it also held in the smoke from both grilling and clientele.
So how do you get a table here? If you can’t get a reservation, show up right at 8pm. And I mean promptly. Many Japanese go out after work for a 2 hour stretch of eating and drinking and once the 6pm “happy hour” was over, the place cleared out at practically 8pm on the dot. If you don’t mind a late dinner, that’s your best window to snag a seat.
Isoya is right down the street from the Royal Hotel near the Kyoto City Hall area (tons of other good restaurants around there as well). There website is here but it’s only in Japanese – google translate might be able to help.