Japanese Food for Little Gluttons
Two expat Japanophiles show how to find the sunrise country in the middle of Europe, without getting lost along the way
Twelve years ago, we moved from Japan to Austria. It was a tough transition. Even our cat suffered: She hated Austrian cat food. To compensate for the change, we searched for the best restaurants with food from the "land of the rising sun". While still hard to find in the year 2000, today true Japanese cuisine is here to stay. Here are the treasures of our hunt:
Dying for some good sushi one summer day soon after our arrival, we stumbled upon a little restaurant on the Rechte Wienzeile called Kojiro. In the window were plastic models of the food inside – typical Japan! We stuck our heads in the door. A Viennese already eating there noticed our hesitant glances and called out: "Come on in! Don’t be afraid! Try it out. It’s actually really good!" We had a little private giggle about someone tasting raw fish for the first time.
Truth be told, we had already tried sushi at numerous places, always with catastrophic results. In this tiny place (five stools and a short bench), the three chefs were speaking Japanese, wearing red happi (traditional jackets), and there was a free green tea dispenser. Even the menu was written in Japanese. Transported, we weren’t surprised when the sushi was great, even by traditional standards. Even today, the place has remained unchanged, and we can say with confidence that Kojiro serves some of the finest affordable fish in Austria (sushi for two, with a couple of Kirin beers, about €30).
But Japanese food isn’t only about sushi. There is a whole range of home-style cooking that is still unknown to most. At the exit of U4 Kettenbrückengasse on the Linke Wienzeile there’s another tiny diner called Kuishimbo, which translated means "Little Glutton". It is run by the Numatas, a lovely Japanese family from Kyoto. The place is nearly as small as Kojiro, with nine stools along two counters inside and three tables outside. Instead of a menu, the wall is covered with slips of paper tacked up with the various possibilities – most of our favourite dishes! The tiny orchids on the shelf, the hum of the fridge, and the fan running in the background give the restaurant the extra Tokyo-esque touch.
If one wants true insight into the nature of Japanese food, this is the place to go. Even the Japanese expats in town have a hard time resisting. The dishes are well prepared and balanced in taste, subtle yet powerful. The menu moves from small starters like Horenso (spinach-sesame salad, €3.50) and little octopus dumplings called Takoyaki (a particularly special childhood memory, €4.80), to Chikara Mochi Udon ("power" rice dumpling noodle soup, €10.80) or Oyako Don (rice topped with chicken and egg, €9.50). Oyako means "parent and child", a word play on the dish’s ingredients. When leaving, you are given a traditional loud "Thank you!" from the family, your tummy comfortably full.
In a significant change from a decade ago, Japanese cuisine (as well as Asian cuisine in general) is becoming integrated internationally. In Vienna as elsewhere, it has started to play a bigger role in shaping popular tastes: Witness the Asian noodle stands that have mushroomed across the city. Mochi, a new fusion-type sushi bar, is the new hype and easy to find right behind the Sofitel across from Schwedenplatz. Atypically, this restaurant is run by a German and an Israeli. Its slick design and good location give the place a head start.
The dishes are stylishly presented, with a flare that, while based on a traditional style, displays creativity and innovation. Some dishes, like the Spider Roll (€9.50), are beautifully crafted with well-controlled tastes, textures and temperatures, offering an exciting new experience. To our regret, however, some dishes contain far too much sweetened miso-paste, which overshadows their natural tastes completely. For example, Mochi’s Spinach & Goma Sauce (€3.50) is no match for the Horenso at Kuishimbo. And late-evening sashimi is just not as fresh as it was that morning. Nonetheless, we must praise the staff – all very friendly and attentive – and the important step toward redesigning Japanese taste into a Western cuisine. Overall delightful!
P.S.: Today, our cat is surviving happily on canned tuna.
Kojiro, 4., Rechte Wienzeile 9
(01) 58 66 233
Mon.-Fri. 11:00-18:30, Sat. 10:00-14:00
Kuishimbo, 6., Linke Wienzeile 40
0699 171 923 55 (no reservations possible)
Mochi, 2., Praterstrasse 15
(01) 925 13 80, Mon.-Sat. 11:30-22:00