Editor's note: in 2020 Aca relocated to Tokyo, opening in August in Nihonbashi.
Aca opened in 2013, serving Spanish cuisine with some Japanese touches. It is located on a quiet side street in central Kyoto, up a flight of stairs from the street, via an unmarked door to your right as you climb the stairs. The restaurant has a counter seating for six people plus a couple of separate tables. At the counter you can watch the trio of chefs preparing your food over the charcoal grill, and can peer into the additional small kitchen area behind. The head chef is Tetsuo Azuma, who trained mainly at another Spanish restaurant in Kyoto before working for a short time in San Sebastián. Aca has a Michelin star, one of the few non-Japanese restaurants in Kyoto to have that accolade.
There was a short wine list, but availability was limited at our visit, with the first two wines I ordered being unavailable. We settled in the end on a bottle of Bodegas y Vinedos Tabula Gran Tabula, 2011 which was very nice, priced at ¥10,000 compared to its retail price of ¥6,000. The chef, who speaks good English, mentioned that he is considering moving to larger premises, and perhaps there they may have more storage space for a larger wine selection.
The meal began with charcoal grilled Ishigaki clam from Okinawa, topped with caviar. I am not a big fan of clams, but the cooking process here had removed much of the inherently chewy texture from the clam and imparted a pleasing smoky flavour, while the caviar was excellent (14/20). Spanish mackerel was also charcoal grilled with sherry wine vinegar, served with a vegetable called moroheiya, which has been cultivated since ancient Egyptian times and has various names in English including “Arab’s Mallow”. It reminded me a little of okra and was delicious, as was the precisely cooked fish (16/20).
This was followed by anago or salt water eel, which was grilled over the charcoal and served on a bed of rice flavoured with a sherry reduction. The eel was excellent and the rice had lovely texture (16/20). I next tried the chef’s very different take on sobrassada, a cured sausage from the Balearic Islands. Instead of pork the chef used horse, grinding up the meat as mince and mixing it with egg yolk and pepper at the last minute to form a tartare. This was served with matsutake mushrooms and a stack of perilla leaves to wrap the tartare and the mushrooms. This was unusual but delicious, the meat being less gamey than when I tried it in France. The mushrooms were also lovely and the seasoning spot on (15/20). A pescatarian alternative was matsutake mushrooms and prawns in a garlic sauce served in a little iron pot, and this was for me even better, the mushrooms beautifully cooked, the prawns lovely and sweet and going really well with the buttery garlic sauce (17/20).
This was followed by a take on gazpacho, a tomato jelly with sea urchin from Kyushu and little pieces of a fish called sanma, which in English is Pacific soury, an oily fish that has a flavour reminiscent of mackerel. At this stage I had wagyu beef from Yamagata, a fillet cooked over charcoal and served with a baby onion. The beef was gorgeous, less fatty than some wagyu and having incorporated the smoky flavour note from the charcoal, the onion being almost sweet after grilling and going well with the richness of the beef. A little bread on the side was also excellent (17/20). A pescatarian alternative was barracuda with herb salad and white garlic and a soup dressing. The final savoury course was paella with crab, served with an aioli flavoured with sansho peppers. This was a joy to eat, the rice lovely, the crab delicate and enhanced by the garlic and gently numbing spice of the sansho (17/20). The meal concluded with caramelised white fig from Kyoto, with roasted almonds and vanilla ice cream. Japanese fruits are hard to beat, and this was excellent (16/20). Coffee came with a selection of petit fours: chocolate with olive oil and Maldon salt, apple chips, pistachio and chocolate cookie.
The few staff that we encountered were charming. The chefs delivered the food and popped out to top up wine in between their cooking, so the atmosphere was quite intimate. The bill came to ¥57,900 for two including wine, which works out at £198 each. If you drank a wine at half the price of the one we ordered then a cost per head would have been about £180. Not cheap, but then you have three chefs cooking for ten diners, and we were eating high-end Japanese beef and matsutake mushrooms, which are costly ingredients. I really enjoyed my evening here, the cooking showing considerable skill, and making the most of those lovely ingredients.