Kitchen Nankai

This post is part of a collection on Tokyo Restaurants.
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Suzuran Doori is the shopping street lined with restaurants and bookstores set just back off the larger, Tokyo-spanning Yasukuni Doori that all the station exits cluster around. While there's lot of shops with long histories and unassuming signs, only one has little wooden elephants next to its plastic samples. That's キッチン南海 / Kitchen Nankai, which has been serving black curry to customers for fifty years.

When I went on a cold Saturday around 6PM Suzuran Doori was empty except for a line of a few people, huddled in their scarves and jackets, waiting for a seat at Nankai. There were a few groups eating at tables - a couple with a friend, a family - but most of the diners were men, many by themselves. Standing in line I had a good chance to see all the samples in the display case, which were dominated by three colors: white rice, green cabbage, and brown curry, katsu, or pork. The only exception to the color scheme was mysterious pinkish noodles included as a side on non-curry dishes. Since it was my first time I naturally opted for the katsu curry from the top of the menu.

My first impression when it came out was that I was in way over my head - like in the picture, it looks like a mountain of food. Turns out that's mostly the presentation, and it's no more filling than a standard order at CocoIchi - it won't leave you hungry, but you won't kill yourself eating it either. The flavor is good, if not sophisticated - this is a well-balanced Japanese curry, on the thin side, with a hint of something I couldn't quite place that made it distinctive. Despite the intimidating appearance it's also not spicy at all. The katsu more an accompaniment for the curry than the main attraction - the breading on even one side is thicker than the meat, so it's something to enjoy more for texture than heartiness. (According to reviews, the katsu without curry is a different beast altogether and excellent.)

The shop is small and with a lot of customers you'll have to pay attention to keep someone from bumping into. About half the seats are at the counter, where three chefs in constant motion preppare all the food. The register faces the center of the restaurant and is run by stationary old man, with just one waitress handling all the tables and requests from the customers. Maybe it was just the crowdedness, the line, or the colored plastic chits they used for orders, but it reminded me a bit of Ramen Jirou. Compared to that place the food here is actually worth eating and it's infinitely more approachable.

There's a lot of curry restaurants in Jinbouchou, and I wouldn't say Kitchen Nankai clearly tops the ones I've been too. But most of the curry shops in the area serve "western-style curry", which is a different and more delicate dish than what the curry at Nankai aspires to. Accepted on its terms - as teishoku-style Japanese curry - Nankai's not just the best in the neighborhood but easily one of the best I've had. If that's what you're looking for, do check it out. Ψ