Meet Kitchen Natsu is a bistro located roughly in the middle of the Ōmi plain, where the little town of Inae gives way to an expanse of rice fields. According to the owner, Natsuhara Masashi, the concept of this cosy eatery is a place where you can enjoy excellent food in a casual atmosphere.
The bistro has several tables seating four people, and a counter facing the kitchen, where you can watch Natsuhara-san cooking. The décor seems to have settled on lions as a theme.
“How did you come to start a bistro here?” “I trained in French cooking at a one-star restaurant in Kobe and then Sapporo, and afterwards I wanted to open a local restaurant here, where there was no other such place.” “But why did you choose this location, right in the rice fields?”. “When I started looking for a place, there was a café here that had closed down. Also, when I was at primary school, I used to walk past here, and so it had a certain familiarity for me.” Incidentally, the four ladies who work rotating shifts as helpers and servers were all in the same year at the same school, and first-time customers commonly mistake all four of them for Natsuhara-san’s wife. He has yet to take the plunge. “I also liked the big windows with the views over the rice fields.”
Today’s starter is a fig beignet topped with homemade ricotta cheese and wild boar bacon with herbs, served with a glass of Hitobito no Kizuna junmai ginjō from the local Hinoya brewery. “The salty bacon complements the sweetness of the fig. I recommend this clean sake to go with it.” The sake is made by the kimoto method, giving it a richness that perfectly matches the food. “The brewery releases carp into the rice fields that eat all the weeds and fertilize the rice. It helps to reduce the use of chemicals. I’ve always liked organic beverages, including wine”.
Natsuhara-san uses a lot of gibier meats. “My master was very skilled in their use. In Shiga, wild boar and deer are serious agricultural pests, and I like to make good use of their meat. I know several hunters so I can get very fresh meat.”
Next up is a chilled potage of butternut squash with a drizzle of olive oil. “Recently, local farmers have started producing this type of pumpkin.” The mild flavour is perfect for a hot summer day. There’s also a salad topped with pretty okra petals, which have a pleasing crunchy texture. Natsuhara-san recommends a glass of NiYa Dela wine from Hitomi Winery in Higashiomi. This slightly cloudy, slightly pétillant white is produced using Delaware, a grape popular in Japan.
“Do you keep up to date with the latest trends in French cooking?” “Yes. I’ve always like classic French home cooking, which is at the heart of bistro cuisine. And it’s my intention to use local produce as far as possible, so I try to adapt various dishes. The most successful so far was coca, a Spanish food, using puréed funazushi. That was really good!”
The main dish is a large hamburger of Ōmi beef on a bed of mashed potato with a demiglace sauce. The hamburger is rich and fluffy, and although it’s a seemingly simple dish, it’s exceedingly popular with Natsuhara-san’s customers. “I must have made several thousands of these.” The wine that goes with this is Shindo Funi, a slightly cloudy red made with Muscat grapes, another distinctive offering from Hitomi Winery. By this point, I’m becoming rather taken with local Japanese wines. Dessert is a nutty nougat ice on chopped pears, which happen to be another speciality of Ōmi. It’s served with a spicy and refreshing ‘cola’ drink, made with a concentrate using an amazing variety of wholesome ingredients.
Customers are largely women coming for lunch, but occasionally men come and sit at the counter to eat and talk. The bistro is open for lunch and dinner.
On one of the walls is painted a motto in French – “Chassez le naturel, il revient au galop”. I asked Natsuhara-san what it means. “A leopard can’t change its spots. I chose it to remind myself always to keep a beginner’s mind, because I can sometimes get a bit carried away with myself.” Today’s server and his primary school contemporary nods vigorously. “Indeed, he can!”.