Style and Substance: Kisuke

For having lived in Japan for nearly 14 years now, it is remarkable how little traditional Japanese food that I eat. Well, okay, maybe that’s not true. What I mean to say is, for all my knowledge of the gastronomic scene in Hiroshima, I know surprisingly few places where you can get traditional Japanese washoku cuisine, and I frequent even less of them. Chalk it up to the idea that restaurants serving washoku tend to be more expensive and, let’s be honest, intimidating to venture into without some sort of prior introduction. My prior introduction to Kisuke came in an unconventional way: their business card.

I was immediately struck by the bold red-orange (shu-iro) and indigo blue (ai-iro) color palette and the choice of a thicker, textured paper. The retro, yet still modern logo design is paired with a striking gyotaku (traditional method of fish printing) illustration in the background, all carefully and artfully arranged in a lovely balance. I would later learn that the visual identity for Kisuke was the work of French designer and long-time Hiroshima resident, Judith Cotelle. You can read more about the meanings and process behind the incredible visuals present throughout Kisuke here.

Needless to say, my curiosity was piqued. I don’t want to make any blanket statements here, but I will: when you find places with unconventional business cards (unique shapes, heavier papers, bold colors, what-have-you), it’s usually a sign that the place is good. Venturing into Yagen-bori, part of Hiroshima’s glittering entertainment district, I found Kisuke on the second floor of a very retro brick building off the main road.

The illuminated sign for the place was the same vivid red-orange and indigo as their card, making it stand out among the white-with-black-lettering signs that dominate the district.

Kisuke is full of warm, welcoming colors: bright wood, off-whites, and soft golden lighting. The counter gives way to a small open kitchen where chef Yoshihiko Kihara, a formally trained Japanese chef with more than 20 years of experience in kaiseki-ryōri (considered to be the most refined form of Japanese cuisine), prepares an astounding number of dishes with an easy grace. From the counter, the restaurant opens into a raised dining nook above a lower tatami room, allowing even large groups of people to feel a sense of cozy privacy tucked away in this unique setting.

The other half of Kisuke’s two-man team is Gaku Hirosawa. Often seen emerging from behind the signature red-orange noren curtain that separates the kitchen from the back, Hirosawa is friendly and engaging, with over 15 years of restaurant and bar experience under his belt. He takes care of the customers, making drinks, telling stories, and most importantly, allowing Kihara to focus in the kitchen.

The menu is impressive: the first page is filled from top to bottom with the daily specials, handwritten by Kihara in a beautiful hand, and covering the basics of washoku, from fresh sashimi offerings to crisp tempura, grilled fish, tender braised fish and meats, kobachi (a variety of small dishes), and more, all using seasonal domestic ingredients. A handful of recommended daily specials are featured every day on their Instagram with pictures from prep work to final product, and a short description of the ingredients. Daily specials and recommended specials are constantly changing, so if you find something you want to try, cancel your dinner plans and head to Kisuke, because chances are, it won’t be there the next time you go.

Their standard menu also contains a diverse range of dishes, including izakaya favorites like edamame and dashi-maki tamago (traditional Japanese rolled omelette), but with a decidedly Kisuke twist. The edamame are punctuated by just the right amount of wasabi, and the dashi-maki is tender, bursting with flavorful homemade dashi stock made with famed Hidaka kombu, Rishiri kombu, and high-grade katsuobushi. Combined with an extensive alcohol menu of sake (what better to enjoy with high Japanese cuisine?), shōchū, sours, and more, it’s easy to see why Kisuke keeps customers coming back.

But more impressive than the menu is chef Kihara, who diligently hand-prepares each dish upon order and presents them, beautifully plated, to be savored by the senses. Dressed not in the formal whites that one imagines when it comes to kaiseki-ryōri, but in a more casual black button down, with a traditional indigo blue mae-kake apron, he chats with customers while he works, deftly switching between watching kushi-yaki on the grill to preparing chawan-mushi (a silky and warm savory egg custard brimming with seafood and vegetables) for steaming, searing rich cuts of maguro tuna, and putting the finishing garnishes on waiting plates. Dedicated to quality ingredients, the daily menu makes a point to list where ingredients were sourced, be it locally, from neighboring prefectures, or from other domestic localities, including faraway land of plenty, Hokkaido.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: seasonal, high class cuisine by a seasoned chef, AND a curated drink menu? How much is this trip going to cost me? Surprisingly, not as much as you’d think. The price point isn’t just reasonable, it’s generously reasonable, costing more or less the same as a night out at your local izakaya, but with markedly better quality.

So let’s review:

Design? On point.
Quality? On point.
Price? On point.

…need I say more?

Kisuke is a must, especially for those hungry for incredible seafood. With no shortage of fresh fish and shellfish to try, it’s a welcome change from the seemingly endless parade of Spanish-inspired bar serving cuts of meat and little else. Traditional Japanese cuisine is wonderfully diverse with an expansive range of flavors, textures, and techniques that you can sometimes forget, even while living in Japan. But Kihara and Hirosawa are here to bring the intimidating world of washoku back to the people, and to remind us in a time of ever-shifting food trends why the classics never go out of style.

Kisuke [㐂すけ]
Address: Rotary Bldg 2F, Yagen-bori 2-17, Naka-ku, Hiroshima
Address in Japanese: 〒730-0027 広島県広島市中区薬研堀2−17 ロータリービル 2F
Tel: 082-242-3050
Hours: 17:00 – 24:00
Closed: Sundays

Hiroshima Food Snob

Freelance writer, translator, local TV talent, and full-time food snob in Hiroshima

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