Japan- Chihana- ✪✪✪

The name means something close to "1,000 blossoms," and tucked into the dense and romantic Gion district of Kyoto is this tiny gem of a kaiseki restaurant. The cuisine style originated hundreds of years ago in Japan as a style of coursed menu for nobility, and persists today in many excellent restaurants in Kyoto and elsewhere.

 Chihana Main Entrance

Chihana Main Entrance

KYOTO, JAPAN

SERVICE: 8.0/10

FOOD: 8.0/10

PRICE PAID: $245 PP (LIST PRICE- PRE-CHALLENGE)

VALUE/MONEY: 7.0/10

FINAL SCORE: 7.5/10

A quick heads up to those visiting- give yourself an extra 15 minutes to find the place. Tucked way down a twisting alley that looks like it leads nowhere, GPS will also actively obstruct your journey by taking you to the back entrance which isn't open for guests. 

 The Main Restaurant Seating Area

The Main Restaurant Seating Area

 Chef Nagata

Chef Nagata

You enter a blond-wood bar with dozens of small, colorful ceramic cups and plates arranged carefully behind the chef's counter. Behind the curtain to the right is a packed kitchen with an unknown number of scurrying assistants who duck in and out. There are only eight seats with a few small private rooms behind us that were unoccupied, so the evening is incredibly intimate and quiet. Chef Nagata rolls in and out of the back room to quietly chat with guests. His English was pretty basic, but he seemed to care deeply that I was enjoying myself.

 1st Course: Strawberry + Broccoli + Scallop, 10/10

1st Course: Strawberry + Broccoli + Scallop, 10/10

To kick things off, the chef began with a truly outstanding combination of cooked strawberry, broccoli, and hot scallops. The strawberries and greens were cold, creating a wonderful balance of colors, flavors, textures, and temperatures. The briny-ness of the scallops met with the sweet of the strawberry and the fibrousness of the greens; this is by far the best individual course I have had on my adventure thus far. 10/10.

 2nd Course: White Fish + Spring Onion, 8/10

2nd Course: White Fish + Spring Onion, 8/10

A savory mix of warm fish proteins, hard veggies, and a sprinkling of strongly-flavored spring onions gave this dish a hearty feel. 8/10.

 3rd Course: Vegetable Tempura, 8/10

3rd Course: Vegetable Tempura, 8/10

A massive and filling portion of fiddlehead fern and bamboo shoot tempura, served with a touch of salt and a fresh lemon to taste. Great texture and perfectly cooked, but took me about 10 minutes to get through. 8/10.

 4th Course: Onion Soup, 7/10

4th Course: Onion Soup, 7/10

Next came a warm soup of onion slices and a doughy, spongy substances that tasted like fish cake. The overall dish made sense but it was on the bland side- the onions were crisp and a little young, and the doughy substance made for a nice pair with the vegetable. The ceramic bowl's colors went along perfectly- in most cases, you can see that the chef's carefully selected the dishware for that particular course. 7/10.

 5th Course: Greens + Fish, 8/10

5th Course: Greens + Fish, 8/10

Thus began the dishes that were set to challenge my western palate. Served cold, this plate of greens with cooked fish and a mustardy sauce throughout was a fun little dance of textures. The consistent, cold temperature challenged my opinion of high-end fish. 8/10.

 6th Course: White Fish + Asparagus, 6/10

6th Course: White Fish + Asparagus, 6/10

With what could only be described as a heapin' helpin' of loosely-bound fish, this dish was a tough one for me. Combining the huge portion and the repetitive fish-and-greens combo, I only made it through halfway through this course before giving up. 6/10.

 7th Course: Seaweed + Bamboo Shoot Soup, 8/10

7th Course: Seaweed + Bamboo Shoot Soup, 8/10

The sprig of herb you see front and center is only a brief flavoring gesture- it was removed right after the dish was placed in front of me. This was a subtle dish, with the fibrous bamboo shoots playing nicely off the sweet, soft seaweed and the herbaceous broth. A fun dish that made sense to me. 8/10.

 8th Course: Raw Fish, 8/10

8th Course: Raw Fish, 8/10

Some interesting condiments I had never experienced before- the black sticks in the upper right of the photo were dry seaweed, and I was encouraged to use wasabi, horseradish, and soy sauce combinations to find my own optimal grouping. Effectively, the un-named, fresh fish was a platform for different combinations of salty flavors. Another fun dish, 8/10.

 9th Course: 5-Dish Combo, 9/10

9th Course: 5-Dish Combo, 9/10

(Sorry for the blurry photo! Learning curve and all that...) From left to right: bean paste, ("eat this one fast!" was the instruction), fried veggie chips, squid paste, fish paste, and a veggie mix. The idea here was to mix and match very different flavor profiles and preparation ideas- each of these felt like they were made by a different chef. The squid paste wasn't quite to my liking, but the other four dishes formed a spectacular harmony of tastes. 9/10.

 10th Course: Red Snapper, 9/10

10th Course: Red Snapper, 9/10

Easily one of the freshest, best fish dishes I have ever had. The lemon and salt re-appear for flavoring, but they weren't necessary since the fish itself was the must succulent and rich I have ever experienced. 9/10.

 11th Course: Bean Curd Soup, 8/10

11th Course: Bean Curd Soup, 8/10

Look how well the colors turn out in this dish- it almost looks like a cheddar beer soup. Bean curds aren't usually my preferred ingredient, but this course managed to change my mind a little. The curds were fresh and tasted like a rich bread, the perennially super-fresh veggies gave the dish depth. 8/10.

 12th Course: Pine Nuts + Whole Fish + Beans, 8/10

12th Course: Pine Nuts + Whole Fish + Beans, 8/10

Very similar to a dish I had earlier enjoyed at Hyotei, this dish was an interesting combo of large, hard, lima bean-like vegetables with pine nuts and full sardines, eyes and all. Though I am proudly up for a challenge, this specific dish definitely pushed me- I feel like they're looking at me. I got over it and enjoyed the crunchy bones up against the hard, rich beans. 8/10.

 13th Course: Rice + Herbs, 7/10

13th Course: Rice + Herbs, 7/10

Things went off the rails for me at this point. This was such an enormous, heavy portion of rice with such a liberal and substantial heap of herbs that I had to give up 1/3rd of the way through. Though certainly tasty, the dish felt mis-placed in the order of the meal. 7/10.

 14th Course: Orange Juice, 7/10

14th Course: Orange Juice, 7/10

And then, leading up to dessert was... A glass of orange juice. The orange juice had a spritz of apple, giving it a bright and fruity taste. But, I mean, come on. It's just orange juice. I'd like to fully own that this might be my Western cuisine bias, but especially after how large and heavy the final courses were, this felt like a letdown. 7/10.