Japan- Kikunoi Honten- ✪✪✪

Friendlier, homier, more welcoming, and just plain more fun that any other Kaiseki restaurant I went to is Yoshihiro Murata's awesome Kikunoi Honten. Like most of our other visits, the space was immaculate, beautiful, and comfortable; the food was a spectacularly exotic journey... But what made this place special was the engaged, thoughtful, amazing service. The chef himself sets the tone with a warm, welcome message that everyone on the staff tries to take seriously- I've never seen a restaurant in Japan try to describe itself as an "amusement park for adults," but Kikunoi pulls it off. 

The restaurant has been around since 1912, and the company (which includes other restaurants and stores) considers their mission to be "communicating Japanese cuisine to the world," and "cooking for the public benefit." Yoshihiro himself was trained in France and has executive-chef'd for Singapore Airlines, among others.

 Kikunoi Honten Main Entrance

Kikunoi Honten Main Entrance

KYOTO, JAPAN

SERVICE: 8.5/10

FOOD: 8.0/10

PRICE PAID: $140 PP (LIST PRICE- PRE-CHALLENGE)

VALUE/MONEY: 9.0/10

FINAL SCORE: 8.5/10

 Kikunoi Honten Private Room

Kikunoi Honten Private Room

A rainy day turned out to be the perfect backdrop for the private room- water gently cascaded down a rocky stream, and a stone wall-garden serves as a peaceful, gorgeous setting. The gentle drips and dabs of rain intermingled with a low, musical gurgle of the tiny creek nearby. Muted grey light from cloud and rock shone into the room intensely throughout this mid-afternoon meal. Every inch of space both indoors and out reflected a smooth, quiet, low, focused calm that I have never experienced before.

 Kikunoi Honten Place Settings

Kikunoi Honten Place Settings

For the three of us (all relatively long-legged Westerners) the floor-pillow with TV-dinner stand (not really, but you get it) was somewhere between a little awkward and extremely awkward for those of us who struggle to sit cross-legged (yours truly). 

 First Sip: Puffed Rice Tea, 8/10

First Sip: Puffed Rice Tea, 8/10

Per tradition, the place settings included a cupful of Puffed-Rice tea that, also per tradition, tastes exactly like Honey Smacks cereal. Not kidding. A super-light, mild opener and palate cleanser. 8/10.

 First Bites: Sushi + Greens + Roe + Black Beans, 9/10

First Bites: Sushi + Greens + Roe + Black Beans, 9/10

First up: a delightful collection of hand-painted ceramics containing even more delightful appetizers. Clockwise from the bottom of the photo: horse-reins sushi (named for the beautiful, twisting pattern it is folded into), wasabi greens, sweet black beans (once again with the strong blueberry flavors), icefish with yuzu flavoring, rapini dressed with mustard, cod roe terrine, and a Michelin-Star shaped agar-agar jelly.

Amongst the greens are butterbur leaves ("fuki," in Japanese, which the menu mis-translates as the very similar coltsfoot, another herbal medical plant; butterbur is well-known for treating migraines), that add a subtly sweet note. 9/10.

 Course 1: Steamed Prawn Soup, 9/10

Course 1: Steamed Prawn Soup, 9/10

 Without Cover

Without Cover

Next up, an extremely hearty soup that felt more like a paste. Steamed prawn and red turnip with a healthy dollop of wasabi. The prawn has great texture, and the wasabi is bright and somewhat understated. 8/10.

 

 Course 2: Sashimi of Sea Bream + Prawn + Udo + Vegetables + Wasabi, 9/10

Course 2: Sashimi of Sea Bream + Prawn + Udo + Vegetables + Wasabi, 9/10

Next up, some Botan Shrimp with green shrimp eggs (in season from November-March in Japan). The shrimp itself has a texture and flavor that are very rich - almost buttery- and it's served with the hottest fucking wasabi ever. Udo (a vegetable similar to ginseng that grows in the mountains), is earthy and sweet at the same time.  9/10.

 Course 3: Sashimi of Bluefin Tuna, 10/10

Course 3: Sashimi of Bluefin Tuna, 10/10

The sea bream that comes next is fresh but doesn't possess a ton of flavor. Nice bright colors and a smooth, even mouthfeel. 7/10.

 Course 4: Duck Soup, 8/10

Course 4: Duck Soup, 8/10

 Course 4: Duck Soup, 8/10

Course 4: Duck Soup, 8/10

Next, a delightful duck soup- rich but not overstated. "Yomogi," or Japanese Mugwort- is infused in a dumpling that has an incredibly sticky, dense texture- I've never had anything like it. The star-shaped yuzu really jumps out- rich sweetness like a banana or a plantain. 8/10.

With the halibut-preparation for the subsequent course underway, we enjoyed some slices of bluefin tuna, which I felt iffy about eating due to its threatened extinction. We were assured that these stocks were sustainably acquired. The texture was as smooth as ice cream, and literally melts in your mouth- this is one of many entries into the Best Tuna of All Time category. 10/10.

 Course 5: Grilled Halibut, 7/10

Course 5: Grilled Halibut, 7/10

For this very specially-served course of grilled halibut and shiitake mushroom, the daughter of the chef (and head of service) came out to serve us. The mushroom is surprisingly sweet; the halibut is a touch dry but the roe adds a great deal of sweetness. 7/10.

 Course 6: Yuzu-Wasabi Sorbet, 8/10

Course 6: Yuzu-Wasabi Sorbet, 8/10

Next came further evidence of the Western influence on chef Murata's training- a late-meal palate cleanser. The sorbet has strong wasabi spicyness that tickles the back of your throat, and the yuzu is imbued with a plummy, orange-y taste. Extremely fresh and pleasant. 8/10. 

 Course 7: Steamed Cod Tofu + Orange, 7/10

Course 7: Steamed Cod Tofu + Orange, 7/10

Next, cod milt tofu in an orange with red pepper and ponzu. The fruit and tofu flavors blend well with the cod, but it's off-putting to be eating a fish-soy dish out of an orange husk- the sweetness of the fruit doesn't translate. 7/10.

 Course 8: Hotpot Ingredients

Course 8: Hotpot Ingredients

 Course 8: Hotpot of Yellowtail + Tofu + Daikon Radish + Kintoki Carrot, etc. 9/10

Course 8: Hotpot of Yellowtail + Tofu + Daikon Radish + Kintoki Carrot, etc. 9/10

Next, like a stack of morning newspapers arrived the components of the hot pot preparation that we ourselves would be embarking upon. Yellowtail tuna, tofu, daikon radish, Kintoki carrot, Kujo onion, mibuna (a type of arugula from Kyoto), ponzu, and yuzu were all served. Like a huge fool I overcooked my fish, but overall this was an incredibly fun course. 9/10.

 Course 9: Rice + Anago Eel + Vegetables, 8/10

Course 9: Rice + Anago Eel + Vegetables, 8/10

Next, anago eel with rice, kinome, burdock root, fiddlehead ferns, and pickled vegetables. A filling, fresh ending to the main courses. 8/10.

 Course 10: Custard of Almond + Apricot + Strawberry Sauce + Kiwi Sauce, 9/10

Course 10: Custard of Almond + Apricot + Strawberry Sauce + Kiwi Sauce, 9/10

Lastly, a dessert of custard made from almond, apricot, strawberries, and kiwis. Like most Japanese desserts, it is both pleasant and understated. 9/10.

 The Bagged Phone

The Bagged Phone

A handful of notes about our delightful surroundings. The phone, deemed too unsightly to be on open display (and available to call our server should we need anything) sat in a satin bag. Thank God. 

 Exit Hallway

Exit Hallway

 Second Floor Hallway

Second Floor Hallway

I had the opportunity to wander the halls at one point in the meal service, and the whole building does a wondrous job of transporting me back ten centuries. Every surface, step, wall, and panel is immaculate. A totally magical space appropriate for the incredible meal.