Kaiseki dishes invoking Italian culinary techniques, served under the thundering of passing trains, surrounded by decadent or exotic anime artifacts – dining experience at Bii is almost surreal.
Back in Beppu I had a culinary routine established for my Saturdays, and Bii was a part of it. At exactly noon, I would bike to the decadent shopping arcade located under Beppu’s train track and slide open the wooden door to the tiny, counter-only restaurant. Lightsabers, giant swords and figurines scattered around the narrow space, while posters of indie movies and underground gigs colored his walls. Sometimes, a passing train would grumble overhead. For a place serves kaiseki – Japan’s fancy multi-course dinner – Bii’s setting is certainly bizarre.
The owner, a spectacle-wearing man with a belly as cheery as the Vietnamese ông địa, would lean over the counter and ask: “Today’s lunch is oyakodon, daijoubu?”
There was no point in saying no, because Itou-san only served one dish every Saturday noon. You’ll never know what it is, but it’s alright. Lunches at Bii are like blind dates, only without the disappointment.
Over the years I could sample a wide array of lunch items at Bii’s, from oyakodon, nyumen, to chuukajukku. By names they’re simple Japanese dishes, but Itou-san’s magic, which he acquired after years of culinary training in Kyoto and South Italy, never fails to unfold layers of complexity hidden somewhere between the clear yet umami-laden broth and familiar ingredients. Ever had an oyakodon with a meringue twist? I bet ya hadn’t.
But it was only through dinner that I could explore the full range of Itou-san’s creativity. Although Anne and I had long been his regular lunch customers, Bii’s dinner omakase price, which starts from JPY5,000, wasn’t exactly budget-friendly for poor university students. But with the graduation date at our doorsteps, we realized we needed to try at least once before leaving, even if it meant splurging out of our pockets.
Itou-san, though, was accommodating: he offered to set us up with a JPY4,000 course, promising to have us eat to our hearts’ content.
So at nine o’clock one evening in fall, I rushed from work to Bii’s, my stomach intentional left empty all evening. My friend was already there by the counter, next to two elderly men. An old movie was being screened in front of us. I asked for sake, and the feast began.
For the next two hours, we were spoiled from one dish to another: from slices of fig dressed with a wholesome dollop of soymilk yogurt, seafood cocktail on a metal ice shovel, to cam soup made from pork broth. The food leaped beyond the stereotypical boundaries that one might have drawn from the conventional images of kaiseki.
While the ingredients may be eccentric and presentations not so immaculate, Itou-san stayed true to the kaiseki principle: his conscious efforts to bring out the best flavors of the season made solid presence in every recipe. And let’s not forget that he also trained extensively in Italy, whose culinary tradition adheres to a similar doctrine.
Beyond taste, the results were instantly audible: as Anne and I examined our dishes in wonder, the elderly man two seats away from us – who I late learned was the renowned kibishii owner of Nihachi – drank up his kujira soup and sighed, “Itou-san surely made the best soup.”
Address: I wouldn’t know, but you can slice open one of these wooden doors inside the shopping arcade north of Beppu Station.
Opening hours: For the JPY300 lunch, every Saturday starting from 12PM until stock exhausts. For dinner, yyou should reserve in advance. Shoot me a PM and I may be able to help/give you his phone number.