I ate incredibly well in Japan. Almost every meal was memorable in some way. I ate everything from the best sushi of my life, to a perfect bowl of ramen, to excellent tempura, to Japanese style gefilte fish (more on that later), to deliriously good sukiyaki, to addictive yakitori.
Somehow, amidst all of the excellent Japanese food, an Indian restaurant in Kyoto looms large in my food travel memory.
That night, weary from days of travel, and overwhelmed by too many excellent dining options, we decided we were in the mood for Indian food. It was a cold day, and spicy food sounded good. Japanese food, while extraordinay, is very rarely spicy. My travel companion decided to find the best Indian restaurant in town, and a quick google search led us to Kerala Indian Restaurant.
The restaurant is located on the second floor of an unassuming multi-story building in a bustling part of downtown Kyoto. We stepped inside, and were immediately greeted in English by the host/owner. Many people speak English in Japan, but it was actually unusual to be greeted in a language other than Japanese. We waited a bit for our table, and observed the busy, small, and inviting room.
Once we were seated, I asked the owner what he recommended. He mentioned their array of different kinds of grilled fish and meat, and he also mentioned that they were known for their tomato soup. I wasn't in the mood for meat, and tomato soup didn't sound exciting. Instead, we decided to order a salad appetizer, palak panner, vegetable jalfy, rice, and garlic naan.
The owner came back to our table, and we told him our order. He laughed a little and said to me, "You asked for my recommendations, but you haven't ordered any of them." I apologized and said I wasn't wanting to eat meat. Again, he mentioned the tomato soup. I told him that we had probably already ordered too much food. He responded that they offered a half-size serving of the soup. Out of a sort of culinary politeness, and a fair amount of curiosity, I decided to order the small-sized portion of soup.
I am so so so grateful that he urged me to order it, and that I listened to his advice.
This guy was underselling his soup. In his urgings, all he had said was "it is a fine soup." Fine is the wrong word. This soup is a miracle. I have never ever tried anything like it. It brought new ideas to my palate. It was silky and delicate, creamy without being heavy... and then there was the taste - aromatic, rich, tomatoey, spicy, mysterious. I can usually parse out the ingredients in any dish I am trying, but this one stumped me. I tasted the soup a few times, and detected cinnamon and a few other spices. I asked the proprietor about whether there the soup had cinnamon and allspice, and he said "You are right, there is cinnamon, but I can't tell you anything else." He was happy I liked the soup, and justifiably guarded over the recipe.
The food that followed was excellent. I can easily say that it was the best Indian food that I have ever eaten. My travel companion has been to India (and had even been to Kerala), and said that it was the best Indian food he has eaten outside of that country. The salad was fresh and spicy, the palak paneer was BRIGHT green, earthy and creamy (the owner says it's because they use a TON of fresh spinach). The vegetable jalfry was perfectly rich and delicious. The garlic naan was completely covered in thin slivers of fresh garlic. The raita was cool and refreshing. Even the wine was outstanding.
But that soup...
The owner tended to our table, and he and I talked throughout the meal. He is young, and is the son of a Japanese mother and an Indian father. He was born in Kyoto, but spent time in England, and speaks perfect English with a slight British accent. His father opened the restaurant many years ago (plus or minus 30 years), and the son has since taken over. Before he took over the family business, he had worked in a classic French restaurant, as well as a classic Italian restaurant. The tomato soup is a fusion of French, Italian, and Indian cooking; it took him a long time to develop it to his liking.
I can't expect that I will be able to replicate anything like the perfect soup that he has created, but I certainly intend to try my own take on the dish as soon as possible.
And if you're in Kyoto, which by the way, I highly recommend you visit, please do yourself a favor and go to Kerala Indian restaurant. Order the soup. Full size.