It is not often that you come across a complete idea. Many ideas begin with great intentions, yet fall short of fully blossoming into tangible results, of filling that space which they set before them. So it is with restaurants, where many concepts strive to come to a single complete idea, and also where many fall apart. Melissa put it best: “Restaurants usually do one of two things. They either make great food from mediocre ingredients or they make mediocre food from great ingredients.” Finding that balance, that perfect arc of taste, texture, and presentation, requires so many elements to be precisely and seemingly effortlessly set into place that nothing remains but the singular experience of the diner and the dish.
Cafe Proverbs, situated on the third floor of a building at the intersection of Imadegawa-dori and Higashi-oji-dori, is presenting the people of Kyoto with a complete idea. It was without a doubt, after two confirmed visits, the best vegetarian restaurant Melissa and I have ever been to. We made the long bike ride to the northern part of the old city on Saturday and were eagerly drawn into the restaurant by the pleasant, attentive staff. We were seated quickly, given water, and a run-down of the lunch specials. Behind Melissa was a painted sign bearing the proverb from which the cafe draws its namesake, Proverbs 15:17: “Better a dish of vegetables where love is, than a fattened ox and hatred with it.” Over the speakers came light gospel music. The music flowing throughout the cafe completed the concept of the proverb, devotion, love, life, and sang the praises we with full mouths couldn’t. Indeed, when our food arrived, it had been given devoted attention by the kitchen, and then continual hallelujahs by us.
High on our ordering priority were the vegetarian gyoza made with ground okra and tofu and topped with a tangle of dried red seaweed. We also ordered from the lunch specials. For Melissa, the teriyaki tofu steak with miso soup, salad, and brown rice. For me the lentil and spinach curry with salad and brown rice. In addition to the gyoza we shared a pine and walnut and avacado salad dressed lightly in olive oil, lemon juice and cracked pepper.The dishes were brought out as they were made, a practice I wholly approve of for the food arrives fresh, perk in its presentation, and exists alone and whole on the table, drawing all of your attention to it. The food at Cafe Proverbs deserves such attention for they have crafted an almost narrative menu of sandwiches, salads, curries, plates, and bowls that highlight a leitmotif of balance. Melissa’s teriyaki tofu steak came first, layered like fallen dominoes on a rectangular plate and drizzled with teriyaki sauce. Frying tofu is a delicate art, for it must attempt to be both meaty and not too oily, and this tofu was a model example. The side salad to both our meals, in addition to the salad we ordered, were medleys of mesclun and spinach—surprising in a country inundated with shredded cabbage salads. If any element of the meal was found lacking it was my curry, and only perhaps because behind its sweet coconut base, was a fundamentally Japanese curry aesthetic, which may be hard to describe to those who have not eaten Japanese curry. The flavor is not floral like an Indian curry or spicy at the middle of the tongue as with Thai, but peppery all over the palate, and something that I have not yet grown used to. However, this is only a matter of taste; the curry was clearly the best of the best of Japanese curries.
Halfway through our meal, Melissa made her observation about the off-balance quality typical of restaurants, a thought only inspired by the distinctive difference at Cafe Proverbs. “Cafe Proverbs,” she said, “is somehow making amazing food with amazing ingredients.” It has, for all observable purposes, achieved, if not surpassed, the dream of many a food lover who opens a restaurant (for the architects behind Cafe Proverbs must be nothing less than supplicants before the idol of the vegetable) by enriching the customer’s soul through food. That light-headed feeling we both had after eating the salad, savoring the avocado lightly covered in extra-virgin olive oil, that rush of endorphins produced from the absolute pleasure of experiencing a idea coming to completion in our mouths, had not left us hours later as we wandered the streets of Kyoto. For those who travel to eat, Cafe Proverbs is a destination as worthy as any temple in Kyoto, no less special and no less complete.