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Sunday, Aug. 21, 2005
Hot ice tops massif menu
By YOKO HANI
In Nagoya City, so I heard, there's a mountain that is really tough to conquer. But as Nagoya is on the lowland Nobi Plain straddling Aichi and Gifu prefectures, how could that be, this trained observer wondered?
To check my sources as a journalist should, I decided to head straight for the summit.
First ensuring I was suitably equipped with a bottle of water, not to mention a dainty pair of New Balance's finest, off I trekked for what seemed an eternity from Irinaka Station on the Tsurumai subway line, ascending ever gradually uphill until the "mountain" loomed into view.
It was then, and only then, that I realized all my extreme preparations had been founded on a misconception of the highest order -- namely, that the "mountain" was nothing of the sort.
In fact, the height of my folly was revealed to be nothing less, or more, than a building, a restaurant, that opened about 30 years ago and is designed like a mountain hut. Known throughout the Nagoya lowlands as the "mountain restaurant," Kissa Mountain is famed for its "tough" menu, if not for the thousands who over the decades must have turned up there with ice axes, heavy boots and, who knows, even oxygen cylinders strapped to their backs.
Having overcome my shock, inside I found the restaurant decorated like a old-time coffee house in which classical music wafts through the air.
Not very different from a regular chic cafe, I thought, rather loftily.
But as I took in the view more closely, I soon realized there was little that was "regular" about this chic "mountain."
First, there is the variety of dishes.
About 80 sorts of spaghetti, 50 permutations on pilaf and 35 kinds of kakigori (shaved ice with syrup on top) are heaped up there on the menu. Sure, some were to be expected, such as spaghetti with tomato sauce. But others invented there were high on the scale of culinary curiosities, running the gamut from banana spaghetti to maccha ogura (powdered green tea and sweet azuki beans) spaghetti.
Secondly, there are the alpine portions.
Spaghetti for one, for example seemed more than enough for you and your Sherpa, while the kakigori was a dizzying peak of shaved ice.
Suddenly it became clear why the restaurant's fans jokingly talk of clearing your plate as "reaching the summit of the mountain" -- and giving up halfway as "getting lost on the mountain."
To help me plan my gastronomic summit tour, Kosuke Kano, manager and chef of the restaurant, kindly recommended the banana spaghetti and a "mango special" -- a "hot" shaved ice with mango syrup on the top.
So it was that soon I was into uncharted territory, tasting spaghetti with a flavor like nothing so much as . . . slightly sweet banana. All that, and there was a topping of fresh banana chunks, fresh cream and bits of chocolate, too, with the cream and chocolate melting to ooze like lava down the sides of the hot heap.
In terms of sheer size, though, that was dwarfed by the veritable avalanche of "hot" shaved ice that followed -- "hot," that is, because of a spicy powder sprinkled over a sparkling confection lavishly topped with sweet mango syrup.
And yes -- it is very hard to finish.
What with its sweetness and sheer volume, the spaghetti is fuel enough for a three-day hike, while the ice made me stop and gasp at intervals as my throat caught fire. But then, buried within this glacier, it was with delight that I happened on blobs of vanilla ice cream hidden there to ease the throat.
For sure, no culinary heights I had ever scaled before had prepared me for these tastes.
"They are good, aren't they?" restaurant master Kano enquired cheerfully in his Nagoya dialect. "Bananas are especially good for your health and beauty."
They may be. But what is the point of making sweet spaghetti and shaved ice with a spicy mango syrup on top?
"It's just boring if everything tastes ordinary. We shouldn't compromise in trying to prepare something different," Kano enthused. "I am creating a menu with dreams in my mind."
Indeed, Junji Sakamoto, a tourist from Osaka who was eating the banana spaghetti, said he had come to try more of the "rare" species among the many specimens in this restaurant. "I have tried the melon spaghetti before, and this time I went for the banana one," he said.
But how can you possibly get through these towering portions?
"Well, just eat them, without stopping and thinking. That is the key," he said.
But this eatery isn't just a tourist trap, and many of those feasting on its fare were obviously locals drawn there for lunch by the novelty of the menu, the prodigious platefuls and prices that typically will leave even the most intrepid diner only about 700 yen to 800 yen lighter in their pocket.
Later, pausing for a moment from his busy work of cooking and serving dishes, Kano generously served up a helping of his homegrown philosophy: "I always introduce new items on the menu which can meet the needs of the time. I will keep doing that to make people feel happy," he said. "Nobody feels angry while eating dishes from my menu."
Strange, but true: Kano's massif plates of funky fare are certainly fun to try and conquer -- if for no other reason than simply because they are there.