Japan- Kitcho Arashiyama Honten- ✪✪✪

Set against Kyoto's gorgeous Katsura river with the Arashiyama mountains beyond, Kitcho is a truly traditional private-dining Kaiseki restaurant executed in a strict formal tone and with a great deal of ceremony. If you're looking for an utterly traditional Japanese meal, this place is most certainly the bottom line. 

Named after a chant that bamboo-grass paint sellers used to hum to themselves during a certain January festival, Kitcho is a tea-ceremony style Kaiseki (called Cha Kaiseki), that requires the chef to go through deep cultural and artistic training alongside possessing massive culinary skill, and arose almost a thousand years ago as a meal style for aristocracy in the ancient capital, Kyoto. Kaiseki chefs are supposed to be food artisans who also appreciate poetry, art, and songs. The word itself means "breast stone," and is a reference to the warm rocks monks used to carry in their robes to fight hunger pangs between their two meager meals a day. A bit of a bougie reference, if you ask me. 

 Kitcho Private Dining Room

Kitcho Private Dining Room

KYOTO, JAPAN

SERVICE: 8.0/10

FOOD: 7.5/10

PRICE PAID: $470 PP (LIST PRICE- PRE-CHALLENGE)

VALUE/MONEY: 3.5/10

FINAL SCORE: 6.0/10

We were led to a private room down soft, beautifully kept floors made of what felt like packed papyrus. The room had an aura of incense, not too much, just enough to feel exotic. Dominating the room's quiet space is a low slung table of faultless shiny black lacquered wood, with two small bright lamps suspended above.

 First Sip: Hot Rice Water, 8/10

First Sip: Hot Rice Water, 8/10

 Kitcho's Menu

Kitcho's Menu

As a welcome and palate-cleanser, we are brought cups of salted hot water with rice crackers. The taste is very subtly sweet- almost like Honey Smacks cereal. An understated, elegant cleanser/starter. 8/10.

 Course 1: Presentation with Ceramics

Course 1: Presentation with Ceramics

 Course 1: Snow Crab + Sea Cucumber + Apps, 8/10

Course 1: Snow Crab + Sea Cucumber + Apps, 8/10

Our visit was on the approach to Chinese lunar New Year, and the year of the Monkey, so monkey references abounded during not just this visit but during the trip overall. Quick side note: absolutely charmingly, the menu described this course as: "The Some Kinds of Appetizer." Perfect. 

Starting clockwise from the top right (the monkey sculpture, of course) is an exceptionally fresh concoction of snow crab with a vinegar sauce. Extremely fresh and zingy, with nice notes of ginger and densely-cooked green leaves at the base that brings the dish together almost perfectly.

The collection in the lower right of the photo includes a brightly-colored tiger shrimp with caviar, the yellow-colored piece covered with an obsequious leaf of gold is mullet roe, or karasumi. Popular around the New Year, karasumi is a side dish of condensed, dried fish eggs, and I'd have to search for a long time to find a food that disagrees more with my palate. With a flavor that precisely mimics dead fish coupled with the smells of dead fish and other rotting things, I am stunned at how much I dislike karasumi. I'll attribute a large part of this to my unexposed Western sensibilities and not give the course a terrible score, but I did not make too much progress on that piece.

The small cube of similar-yellow-color is egg and fish cake, which tastes indistinguishable from fish cake. 

Sea cucumber has a delightfully soft texture with floral, almost tropical notes. Lastly, a few large black beans that taste exactly like a cross between a normal black bean and a blueberry- sweet and almost fruity. 8/10.

 Course 2: Hand-Painted Ceramic, ~50 Years Old

Course 2: Hand-Painted Ceramic, ~50 Years Old

 Course 2: Rock Fish + Seaweed, 9/10

Course 2: Rock Fish + Seaweed, 9/10

I include the before-and-afters here to show the incredible level of dish/ceramic/presentation beauty in almost every single dish brought to us. The soup bowls- always presented covered and with flawless, glossy colors- were a delight to look at and enjoy separately for almost every course. Kaiseki is about emphasizing all of the aesthetic- touch, sound, smell, and obviously taste. 

The fish in this course was perfectly hot, fragrant, and the seaweed was a nice add-on. The fish itself (Kasago or rock fish) is very light. The advice from our server was to "try it with and without seaweed." Sure enough, the seaweed paper brings out very different flavors with each bite. 9/10. 

 Course 3: Sashimi, 10/10

Course 3: Sashimi, 10/10

The menu claims that the delicious white sashimi on the left is a Scorpion Fish, but a much more likely candidate is a squid (which our server referred to as devilfish, and is a common name for squids, octopi, and any other sinister-looking sea creature. But it tasted like really good squid). And on the right, fatty tuna (Otoro) sashimi. Ponzu sauce and soy sauce. Unreal good; the tuna has a melt-in-your-mouth consistency. 10/10.

With the benefit of hindsight, I'm comfortable saying that this was the freshest and most delicious bite of Otoro (fatty tuna) that I enjoyed during the almost two week-long experience in Japan. 

 Course 4: Eel Soup,, 6/10

Course 4: Eel Soup,, 6/10

Next, a heavier soup with conger eel, soy milk skin, ginger, and a leek ball. The soy milk is steamed, giving it an extremely soft and and sticky texture that isn't terribly pleasing. The included fish skin adds flavor, but the leek and ginger stand out way too much in an otherwise bland dish. 6/10.

 Course 5: Wrapped + With ... Plants? 

Course 5: Wrapped + With ... Plants? 

 Course 5: Yellowtail + Egg Yolk, 7/10

Course 5: Yellowtail + Egg Yolk, 7/10

This next course was super fun, even though I have to say I wasn't sure what the point of birthday-present-style wrapping the whole situation was. The dish was a healthy portion of Yellowtail with egg yolk. Tasty but kind of plain. The egg yolk is super sticky and difficult to manage. 7/10.

 Course 6: Hand-Painted Ceramic, ~80 Years Old

Course 6: Hand-Painted Ceramic, ~80 Years Old

 Course 6: Taro + Carrot + Mushroom + Spinach, 9/10

Course 6: Taro + Carrot + Mushroom + Spinach, 9/10

Check out the amazing colors in this dish- the red one is carrot, green one is spinach, taro is white, and the yuzu is the yellow. For being a simple preparation of vegetables, this is an insanely beautiful and enjoyable dish, with a wide variety of textures and extremely fresh ingredients. 9/10.

 Course 7: Steamed Rice + Ice Fish, 7/10

Course 7: Steamed Rice + Ice Fish, 7/10

 With the Fixins

With the Fixins

This course, I later learned, is supposed to be a hunger-killer that comes towards the end of every Kaiseki meal. Essentially, they bring out an enormous pot of rice with light protein, and will keep refilling your dish until you say Uncle. If you get through the whole bowl, they'll bring more. The idea is, no one leaves hungry. The rice fish tastes exactly like a deep-fried fish stick, which isn't a bad thing, but it's just fish with rice. 7/10.

 Course 8: "Award-Winning Rice." 7/10

Course 8: "Award-Winning Rice." 7/10

"This is some award-winning rice," we were enthusiastically told, as a large dollop of rice that, while attractive, is indistinguishable to me from most other rice I have experienced. Once again, I'll chalk this one up to my ignorance and lack of refinement, but to me it tasted like slightly buttery popcorn. And, overwhelmingly, of plain rice. 7/10.

 Course 9: Citrus + Strawberry, 9/10

Course 9: Citrus + Strawberry, 9/10

Though definitely in the understated, simple style that Japanese desserts are famous for (or, in Chihana's case, maybe too understated) this carved orange had a bright, delicious citrus sorbet along with white and red strawberries freshly picked in Southern Japan. 9/10

 Course 10: Sweet Bean Paste, 6/10

Course 10: Sweet Bean Paste, 6/10

This bean paste was a bridge too far. The flour on the outside was very slightly sweet, but the entire bite felt extremely bland. Almost like they were trying to let us down easy. 6/10.

 Course 11: Matcha Green Tea, 7/10

Course 11: Matcha Green Tea, 7/10

As is the tradition in a Cha-style Kaiseki restaurant, we end with a cup of hand-ground Matcha tea. This stuff always tastes exactly like a wheatgrass shot to me, but hey. 7/10. 

 Last Sip: Roasted Brown Tea, 8/10

Last Sip: Roasted Brown Tea, 8/10

The very last word is some delicious roasted brown tea with honey, which also tastes like Honey Smacks, and is refilled as many times as we relax on the large floor and ready ourselves for re-entry into the real world (or, at least, Kyoto). A lovely, relaxed finish to a very good meal. 8/10.