Kaiseki at Kinkunoi – A Lunch Fit for an Emperor

It was finally the day I had literally been preparing for months.  Through our machiya manager, I had been lucky enough to secure a reservation at the world famous Kikunoi restaurant for a multi-course meal known as a kaiseki.  A favorite of top chefs around the globe, it is considered THE place for a true kaiseki experience.  I had been warned in advance that we probably would have counter seating versus a private room but that wasn’t a big deal as we’d be closer to the master himself that way.

It was a bit more cloudy as we took the 30 minute walk to the restaurant but seemed like more people than ever were snapping photos of the temples and shrines on the route.  We went around a corner to a very traditional Japanese building and were greeted by an old man who instructed us to remove our shoes.  He was soon joined by a woman in a kimono who bowed and told us to follow her.  We made our way through a maze like set of rooms and came to a private room facing a pretty courtyard.  We had gotten one of the rooms after all.

There was a low table with cushions and a support for the back.  I actually knew the drill here and swung my legs underneath the table where there was a heated pit to rest our legs.  Amazingly it fit!

Keiseke room

In front of us was a black round tray and a small flat bowl.  Our server poured something into the bowl and explained that it was a welcome sake made with cherry blossoms.  It was definitely different than a typical sake with a nice spice kick to it.  We decided to get a 720ml bottle of sake for lunch and chose the less expensive of the two.  I figured it would probably still be excellent, and it was – very light and refreshing but still with that unique punch sake can give you.

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The door opened and there was another woman in a kinomo who said in broken English that she was the chef’s daughter.  She presented us with the menu we would be having today and set down a book that explained the various dishes, which had been published a few years ago with a forward by Feran Adria.

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The first course soon arrived in a very beautiful wood carved box and inside was this true work of art.

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I won’t list each component as the full menu is above but everything was delicious.  The true stars though were the red sea bream roll and the mountain yam shaped like a butterfly.  So clean and pure.

Soon after we finished, the next course came – ah, finally some sashimi – the red sea bream again along with some stunning Spanish mackerel.

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This was quickly followed by more sashimi and the biggest of them all – belly of blue fin tuna (maguro) with a piquant soy mustard sauce.  Like buttah.

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Next we switched to a hot course – tilefish steamed in cherry leaf with sticky rice.  The fish was perfectly tender and the clumps of sticky rice made for a nice texture contrast.  It was also the first time I had bamboo root, which tasted like a steamed potato with a bit more of a woody flavor.  Delicious.

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After some more sake and a chance to catch our breaths, my favorite course of the day arrived – grilled halibut with egg yolk.  The yolk had been turned into a fine yellow powder scattered on top of the thick filet of halibut.  The meat was thick but not chewy, with a slight hint of the charcoal from the grilling.  There was also a small bowl of a local plant called udo in a rich soy sauce.  A truly stunning dish.

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I had been looking forward to the palette cleanser since seeing it on the menu – strawberry-wasabi sorbet.  As Chris correctly pointed out, it taste pretty much what you would think that combo would – the wasabi wasn’t overpowering but added an interesting element of heat.

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Our next course was the only real miss of the meal.  A seaweed salad with shredded mountain yam.  To me, it was a texture thing.  I did enjoy the yam though so it wasn’t a total loss.

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Fortunately the ship was righted with the next dish – a pot of steamed bamboo shoot, a different type of seaweed, our friend the red sea beam and rapini, which wasn’t something I was expecting to find.  This was a much larger piece of bamboo, which tasted even better than the previous incarnation due to the rich broth that the sea bream helped develop.  I also quite enjoyed the seaweed as it wasn’t nearly as slimy in this preparation.

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Our final savory course was another winner – see the full description above – but the highlights were the fantastic prawn dumpling, which was one of the best I’ve ever had and amazingly enough for me as I’m not usually a fan, the pea soup.  I think I liked it because that’s where the dumpling was so the prawn flavor permeated the soup.

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By this point, I was pretty sated but since the last and only sweet course was my all time favorite ice cream – pistachio – along with a mango soup, I figured I could squeeze in a bit more.  The ice cream was heavenly and while mango is pretty much my least favorite fruit, it complemented well with the pistachio flavor.

We had actually only drank about a bit over half of our bottle of sake so our server kindly put the bottle not only in a bag but also wrapped it in bubble tape – full service indeed.  We said our goodbyes and made our way to the exit, reveling in the amazing experience.  Tonight would be time for more hanami fun but in the meantime, a much needed nap was in order.

Chefs daughter

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Kyoto Day 3 – Covering the city from end to end

Blessed with once again near perfect weather and with an iffy forecast ahead, we decided to hit two of the major items on our list – Philosopher’s Walk and the bamboo forest of Arishiyama on the other side of town.  We arrived at the beginning of the Philosopher’s Walk a bit after 9AM, which proved to be wise as it was already teeming with people.

Named after a philosophy professor from the near-by Kyoto University, the path was a beautiful cherry tree lined walk above a small river below.  Some locals appeared to be having their morning stroll amongst foreign tourists and Japanese tourists dressed in traditional garb.  It made for quite the people watching.  We walked the entire path, ending up on a large street that led toward the university.

As we crossed into the surrounding campus, we noticed these large wooden signs which appeared to be advertisements to join various college clubs – from alpine climbing to dancing and pretty much everything in between.  A few of the favorites we saw:

After yet another fruitless attempt to have a cab driver take us to a specific address, which led to him kicking us out of the cab, we opted to hoof it as we discovered we actually weren’t that far away.

Chris was jonesing for some more wagyu beef and since I hadn’t had that yet, I had found a place known for it, at a very reasonable price, called Hafuu.  We had actually tried to locate it the day before to get a reservation but it was closed.  After a couple of false alarms, we finally found it tucked away on a quite side street.  The counter seating was already gone but they had a small dining room in the back.  That would be more that acceptable as it was finally a real table with real chairs!

The restaurant is owned by a family who also has a butcher shop.  This, they explained, is why they can sell wagyu for a lot less than other places.  We both ordered the wagyu sirloin, which was a very reasonable $40 USD.  This would also include some sides in a typical bento-style lunch.

Soon a glorious plate of freshly grilled marbled beef appeared in front of us along with rice, some pickled ginger, miso soup and a salad.  All of these sides were familiar of course but a far superior version than a typical bento box.  I particularly enjoyed the hand cut noodles.  And oh yeah, the beef. Well, take a look at this slice of heaven.

Yes, it was delicious and over oh too soon.

We had to locate the 11 bus, which would take us to Arashiyama, which proved to be a bit farther walk than though.  We finally found the proper bus stop and boarded shortly thereafter.  Fortunately, it was the beginning of the route so I was able to get the coveted (well for me) seat in the back with lots of legroom.  We headed out of downtown Kyoto and towards the mountains off in the distance.  Along the way, we enjoyed the sing song stylings of the bus driver announcements and watched as the landscape changed from the modern to the traditional.

We exited the bus to truly feel like we were in another time and place.  A large river, deep green in color, was before us, with boats slowly gliding along and a bank filled with people strolling along it.  This turned out to be the entrance to the bamboo forest and soon we were hiking up a few hundred feet to get to this fabled landscape.  There were of course  many cherry trees along the way but at least at first not that much bamboo.

This soon changed though as we rounded the corner known as the Path of the Bamboo.  In front of us were massive bamboo trees reaching up into the sky, blotting out most of the mid-day sun.  This continued for almost a mile as the path waved its way around these majestic trees.  Truly one of the more beautiful things I’ve ever witnessed.

Chris was impressed.

And I was glad to just finally be able to completely stretch for a change.

At the end of the path was a small village designed to look like feudal Japan and while a bit chintzy, dammed if it didn’t really feel like I was looking into the far past with Toshiro Mifune and his samurai brothers peering back at me.  We made the loop around the rest of the surrounding park and got some spectacular views along the way.

Finally, as my back and feet started to rebel loudly, we made it back on the bus for the long ride home.  It was pretty much the perfect day and made me understand why so many people love it here.

Kyoto Night 2 – Yakitori, Carnival Games and Missing Geishas

After our short respite, we walked down the hill to a restaurant that had been suggested by the couple we met at the previous night’s dinner.  Chicken yakitori is one of my favorite Japanese dishes so I was really looking forward to trying the real deal.

The restaurant was a small, very funky little spot with the usual counter layout as well as a few low tables.  The smell of charcoal grilled meat filled the air, making me a happy camper.  I noticed the menu had a few cuts of chicken I had never had – skewered or otherwise.  Curious, I opted for both the traditional thigh with leeks, broiled chicken skin along with the not to traditional, neck and hip pieces.  All were superb.  So good in fact that I failed in my food porn duties of capturing a single shot.  Sorry about that!

Filled with meat formerly on sticks, we decided to go check out Maruyama Park, which was supposed to be hosting a large hanamii – basically a party underneath the cherry trees when they blossom.  The park was quite beautiful, with many of the trees lit up along the main path.  It looked though as things were winding down as many people were getting ready to leave.  Bummed we had missed it, we kept walking up the trail and soon realized it was far from over.

Up at the top of the path was a full festival setup, complete with food stands – meats on stick natch, pop-up bars and carnival games.  There were hundreds of people in various states of sobriety, clearly enjoying the hanami.  Still, we got the sense that we had probably missed the apex and decided to go back another night a bit earlier.

We left the park and walked into Gion, which is the entertainment district of Kyoto.  It is also one of the older parts of the city and is basically untouched from days of yore.  We wandered down several alleys, which were stacked with mysterious looking bars that were clearly not for gaijin.  Behind them were probably the fabled geishas but the only ones visible to us were tourists playing dress up.

Knowing we had an action-packed day planned for tomorrow, we opted to go home and check out Gion in more detail later.

Kyoto Day 2 – Tempura and an Imperial Stroll

After a morning of some much needed rest, it was tempura time.  Kyoto likes to claim that it is the creator of tempura and while I’m not sure about that, it’s clear that they take tempura very seriously.  It’s also way more expensive than what one gets normally gets in the States.  With that in mind, I decided the best way to enjoy a tempura feast on a semi-reasonable budget was to opt for the lunch version.

Chris had already secured us 2 passes for the Imperial Palace later that day so I picked a restaurant within walking distance, which has had great reviews.  Tucked on a quiet side street, the chef Tempura Yoshikawa has been perfecting his take on tempura for decades.  There was counter seating surrounding the chef, and we lucked out getting the last two seats.

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The menu was omikase style, with 10 total items chosen by the chef.  Not surprisingly, we started off with the classic shrimp tempura, which was light and delicious.  Our server suggested we use the dipping sauce and while I normally I turn that down, I figured this was the best chance to have a really good one.  It that was a good choice as it added a nice other dimension to the already delicious tempura.

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Other items included zucchini blossoms:
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White fish, which came with a really good smoked salt.

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But the final 2 were by far my favorite.  A large, meaty chunk of shiittake musroom and a stunning white mushroom.  Delicious.

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And yes, there was another case of Steve trying to fit into a Japanese sized thing – this time their bathroom.

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After indulging in all of that tempura goodness, we made the hike up to the Imperial Palace.  The grounds to the palace included a massive park which was filled with cherry trees in full bloom.  The sunny and slightly warmer weather made the somewhat long walk to the entrance enjoyable.

 

This soon turned to something less than that as we were shown into a large orientation room filled with tourists of all nationalities.  Yes, I was about to do my least favorite thing while on vacation – a guided tour.  Since Chris had been nice enough to get the tickets plus he had endured my tempura obsession, I gritted my teeth and rolled with the tour.

Again, the almost perfect weather helped and at least some of the tour was fairly interesting.  I found the portion in front of where the Emperor would receive visitors particularly enlightening.  Still, after an hour of slowly trudging from spot to spot, avoiding the mass of people trying to take photos of pretty much everything. I was done.  Fortunately, Chris was as well.

We headed back to our machiya for a quick nap and prepared for the night fun ahead.