Japan- Mizai- ✪✪✪

Set in a corner of the elegant Maruyama Park near Kyoto's historic Gion (geisha) district, Mizai is as fine an example of Kappo Kaiseki, or Kaiseki "in the kitchen," as it were. Diners sit directly across from chefs as they prepare dishes, enhancing the immediate freshness of the preparation, and allowing conversation and questions to flow naturally between the two groups. If you speak Japanese, that is. 

 Mizai Exterior

Mizai Exterior

KYOTO, JAPAN

SERVICE: 7.5/10

FOOD: 8.5/10

PRICE PAID: $380 PP (LIST PRICE- PRE-CHALLENGE)

VALUE/MONEY: 6.0/10

FINAL SCORE: 7.5/10

 Mizai Chef's Counter

Mizai Chef's Counter

Two big notes on decorum when it comes to your own visit: show up early, and bring cash.

My reservation was for 6PM; I arrived at 5:55PM and was definitely the very last person to be seated. In Kappo Kaiseki, everyone is served at the exact same time, and coordination is critical, so I learned the easy way not to be late. 

The room is taken up by a grand wooden bar with ten seats on the long end (I sat near the middle of the long side) and four on the short end- a total of 14 high chairs.

As I sat down, I was literally immediately served some green tea as a starter, and the chef greeted me. A short, serious man with an excellent mustache and precisely-rolled cuffs in his shirt. 

The space is just gorgeous- small wax candles burn on the countertop and off to my right is a view of a mossy, stone wall-garden. Small monkeys (for 2016- year of the monkey) adorn the set top to my left. The feeling is calm, quiet, peaceful, reflective. More temple than restaurant. 

 First Bites: Soup + Vegetables + Rice 9/10

First Bites: Soup + Vegetables + Rice 9/10

First, they bring out the big black tray that will serve as my meal carrier/personal space-definer up until dessert. On the first platter is a small cup of soup, a tiny portion of perfectly-cooked rice, and an amuse-bouche of pickled vegetables, fish, and seaweed. The soup was milky and sweet, the rice was delicious, though I must admit that I'm not enough of a connoisseur to appreciate the rice at the level everyone else seemed to. The vegetable/fish combo had a silky, soft mouthfeel and was a lovely and colorful contrast to the two monotonal dishes that accompanied it. A tasty start, 9/10.

A note on service: the course was accompanied by a long, impassioned speech entirely in Japanese that probably lasted 10-12 minutes, during which the origins of the rice, the combination of ingredients, and the cooking techniques were discussed. At least, I'm fairly certain that's what was being discussed based on the impassioned "oohs," and "aahs" emanating from my impressed co-diners, along with many other emphatic expressions of understanding that I could not, in good faith, emulate, because I don't speak a word. At the end, one of the sous-chefs walked over to my place while everyone else stared at me intently, pointed, and said, "Rice. Soup. Vegetable and Fish." A long stare, as if to ask if I needed that epic description recapped. Mic drop.

I said, "Thanks, I think you nailed it." And luckily, everyone else at the restaurant (who all spoke fantastic English) was polite enough to laugh. 

 Course 1: Bucket 'o'Sashimi, 10/10

Course 1: Bucket 'o'Sashimi, 10/10

The next course, sashimi, was about 25 full minutes in the making. Each type of fish was brought out from the kitchen and assembled by hand by the chef himself using only chopsticks. First the otoro, then the maguro, then the yellowtail, then squid, then sea bream, and then finally the vegetables (some extremely crunchy leaves meant to refresh the palate that were eaten last), the hand-ground wasabi and the two small soy sauce cubes were carefully and painstakingly placed on a bed of ice. It was real masterwork, and I had no problem with how long it took, given how clearly this dish was meant to be an opening high point. Every piece of fish was transcendently fresh and delicious- the otoro had the texture of cream cheese it was so soft and fatty. The squid was firm but extremely yielding- a unique texture unlike any I have ever experienced before. The yellowtail was fresh and had a sharper, more fragrant taste. The sea bream ("Tai" in Japanese), also called the King of Fish, was flavorful and delightful. 

One last note- the blue ceramic placed in front of me before the sashimi bowl came out is more than 100 years old, and a great deal of time and attention was spent by diners and restaurant staff alike describing and admiring the ceramics that were a part of the meal. 10/10.

 Course 2: Dumpling + Turnip Soup, 9/10

Course 2: Dumpling + Turnip Soup, 9/10

Next, a small, flavorful soup with a tiny Japanese turnip with long, bright green leaves served on top of a very stretchy dumpling and a clear broth. 9/10.

 Course 3: Wagyu, 10/10

Course 3: Wagyu, 10/10

One of my favorite courses of all time- a plate of fresh, perfectly cooked Wagyu beef, together with lightly grilled onions and green vegetables. Soft, luxurious, decadent, insanely good. 10/10.

 Course 4: Seaweed + Vegetable Soup, 7/10

Course 4: Seaweed + Vegetable Soup, 7/10

Next, a clear broth with seaweed and hard vegetables (sorry for the insanely bad photo). The bamboo shoots were hard and almost crunchy, the Japanese Pepper (or shishito) adds a cirtrus-y note. 7/10.

 Course 5: Sea Urchin, 8/10

Course 5: Sea Urchin, 8/10

Next, umi (sea urchin) karasumi, eel, and vegetables served in an orange husk, which are January's fruit of the season. I've already covered the fact that karasumi (dried, condensed fish eggs) are one of my least favorite things on the planet, but the eel and sea urchin are excellent- sea urchin tastes like earthy cream cheese at its best (a completely positive description by the way!) And this dish nails it. 8/10. 

 Course 6: The Smorgasbord, 7/10

Course 6: The Smorgasbord, 7/10

Check out this super fun little teepee of pine-needles that adorn what can only be called a small smorgasbord plate. A huge diversity of flavors and colors; I was instructed to eat the deep-fried vegetables on very bottom first and work my way clockwise through the tiger shrimp and onwards. Inside the cut lime were many small, pale anchovies staring back at me. 7/10.

 Course 7: Vegetable Soup, 8/10

Course 7: Vegetable Soup, 8/10

Another soup, this one with daikon carrot, tofu, and fish paste. The colors weren't as bright and vibrant as they were at Kitcho, but a refreshingly simple and hearty dish nonetheless. 8/10.

 Course 8: Crab + Sashimi, 8/10

Course 8: Crab + Sashimi, 8/10

Another small fish plate, with crab in the center. The crab sauce was bright and fruity, and the sashimi almost outdid the earlier main fish plate's freshness. 8/10.

 Course 9: Pickled Vegetables, 9/10

Course 9: Pickled Vegetables, 9/10

Pickled vegetables, which were totally remarkable for the huge variety of flavors they were able to achieve. Sweet, sour, and everything in between. 9/10.

 Course 10: Puffed Rice Soup, 8/10

Course 10: Puffed Rice Soup, 8/10

Once again, I manage to take a horrifyingly awful picture, so apologies. Not much to say about this soup other than it tastes distinctly, once again, like Honey Smacks with puffed rice. 8/10.

 Couse 11: Sticky Bun, 8/10

Couse 11: Sticky Bun, 8/10

A semi-sweet pastry with enormous leaf. The pastry has a very sticky consistency that makes the experience a bit like eating a delicious sponge. 8/10.

 Course 12: Matcha, 8/10

Course 12: Matcha, 8/10

Matcha tea, once again grindingly handmade by the chef himself. A total work of art- he individually selected each cup. portioned out the matcha, added it to the cup, mixed it together with the matcha stirrer, and handed it to his assistant after uttering a small prayer before and after each completion. The server would then, with a very precise and practiced motion, turn the bowl to the front facing the guest, place the bowl in front of the guest with two hands, and give a deep, profound bow. I did my best to accept the gesture in kind, and I think I was given a C+. 

 Course 11: Citrus + Strawberry, 8/10

Course 11: Citrus + Strawberry, 8/10

Lastly, two courses of dessert were served- the first was orange custard inside a carved-out orange peel with red and white strawberry- totally delicious, sweet, and for such a small and reasonably-sized portion felt almost decadent in the context of the meal. 8/10.

 Course 12: Sliced Fruit, 10/10

Course 12: Sliced Fruit, 10/10

The very last, a beautifully colorful plate of precisely-chopped fruits topped wth gold leaf. This was one of the most beautiful and intensely colored desserts I have ever experienced. 10/10.

One final note- after service was completely over, every member of the kitchen staff emerged from the back, was given a beer by the chef himself, bowed, and we all clapped. An awesome, fun conclusion to the meal.

And, about that cash thing I mentioned earlier- each guest, separately, is ushered to what can only be called a small cash door where payment is requested. They don't take credit cards, so for goodness sake make sure you use the ATM beforehand.