Kaiseki

Japan- Ishikawa- ✪✪✪

Tucked away near a Bushido temple in Shinjuku, tiny Ishikawa has an understated exterior shielding one of the world's friendlist and most interesting three-stars. Hideki Ishikawa is featured in Lutz Hachmeister's food documentary Three Stars (worth a watch, by the way) and describes in detail the hard work he invests to create not just a special experience for his guests, but a fantastic place to work for his staff as well. This was an excellent experience worthy of another visit- exceptional service, stellar food with incredibly fresh ingredients, and delightfully creative presentations.

Ishikawa Main Entrance

Ishikawa Main Entrance

TOKYO, JAPAN

SERVICE: 8.5/10

FOOD: 8.0/10

PRICE PAID: $176 PP (LIST PRICE- PRE-CHALLENGE)

VALUE/MONEY: 8.0/10

FINAL SCORE: 8.0/10

Ishikawa Main Hallway

Ishikawa Main Hallway

Ishikawa Interior

Ishikawa Interior

Upon entering, the scented air immediately fills the space around you- it is heavy with rice, cooked fish, and spices- in a completely welcome and homey kind of way. Not nearly as formal, aseptic, and strict as most of the other Kaiseki restaurants I have visited on this trip. 

Ishikawa Chef's Table

Ishikawa Chef's Table

I'm given a chair at the very small (7-seat) counter next to two nice couples. The space is clean, subtly lit, easy on the eyes. I'm immediately comfortable. 

First Bites: Blowfish + Radish Sauce, 9/10

First Bites: Blowfish + Radish Sauce, 9/10

First out is a delightful cold dish of blowfish tossed with Japanese herbs and a white radish sauce. Great textures and very, very fresh. Radish sauce is fruity, almost citrusy. 9/10.

Course 1: Turtle, 8/10

Course 1: Turtle, 8/10

This is my first experience with turtle of any kind, and it has a chewy, soft, mushroom-like texture. Two large chunks are served hot, and they're meant to be eaten in two big bites with kelp salt to taste. 8/10. 

Course 2: Scallop Dumpling Soup, 8/10

Course 2: Scallop Dumpling Soup, 8/10

Next, a clear-broth soup with scallop dumpling, bamboo shoots, and seaweed. The small green garnish on the dumpling is a Japanese Pepper bud. The bamboo tastes rich, almost smoky, and the seaweed is super fresh- feels like it was hauled off a boat that morning. 8/10.

Course 3A: Sea Bream + Sea Urchin Sashimi, 9/10

Course 3A: Sea Bream + Sea Urchin Sashimi, 9/10

3-Michelin Star sashimi courses rarely disappoint; this is no exception. Sea urchin as soft as ice cream, sea bream as bright and zingy-crispy-fresh as I've ever experienced. The texture is also soft and smooth- a very easy-to-down course. 9/10.

Course 3B: Lightly Seared Squid Sashimi, 9/10

Course 3B: Lightly Seared Squid Sashimi, 9/10

Next, a few elegant bites of squid with ginger. Lightly seared and warm. The increased temperature is a nice break from the sea bream and the urchin, but the squid is seared in such a way that it doesn't lose its outstanding texture. 9/10.

Course 4: Conger Eel, 9/10

Course 4: Conger Eel, 9/10

Next, some conger eel- pleasant and soft, perfectly cooked texture. This is normally a subtly-flavored fish, but the crispy presentation and the cooking oil bring out some delightful flavor. 9/10.

Course 5: Snow Crab + Turnip, 8/10

Course 5: Snow Crab + Turnip, 8/10

A delightful plate of snow crab; soft, with an almost sinewy texture. The turnip brings out stunningly bright flavors in the crab, which is served cold. The title of this dish was "Delicacy," and I couldn't agree more. 9/10.

Course 6: Duck Hot Pot, 10/10

Course 6: Duck Hot Pot, 10/10

Hot pot courses are super fun at Kaiseki restaurants, and this one was no exception. Super-fatty duck is served alongside some vegetables; the slick mouthfeel of the duck pairs perfectly with the lean, crisp vegetables and the tasty broth. One of my favorite courses of all time. 10/10.

Course 7: Steamed Rice + Perch, 8/10

Course 7: Steamed Rice + Perch, 8/10

As most Kaiseki restaurants do, Ishikawa offers a "bottomless" course that usually involves rice and a light protein. In this case, steamed rice and perch are served alongside some pickled vegetables, and will be refilled on demand until you're full. I like the idea that good restaurants don't want you to leave hungry. One round was all I needed, and the flavors were light and delicious- if anything, a touch on the bland side. 8/10. 

Course 8: Soybean Mousse, 9/10

Course 8: Soybean Mousse, 9/10

For dessert, a mousse of soybean in a soybean soup. I can very safely say I have never had anything remotely like this dish- the soybean mousse is almost chocolatey- and this is a perfect cool-down dish. A great finish to a great meal. 9/10. 

Japan- Wa Yamamura- ✪✪✪

Nobuharu Yamamura's Wa Yamamura was a close-to-perfect chef's counter kaiseki experience in Nara, Japan. Nara is famous for tame deer who bow when you give them snacks, gorgeous temples with enormous buddhas that have pillars so big it's a rite of passage to crawl through them, and tons of other beautiful sights from Nara's days as the ancient capital city. Nara is off the beaten path a touch but it's worth a spending a day. Tucked back down some very plain-looking residential streets you'll find Wa Yamamura, a small oasis of simple beauty with a chef and staff who are working exceptionally hard. 

Wa Yamamura Interior

Wa Yamamura Interior

NARA, JAPAN

SERVICE: 8.5/10

FOOD: 8.5/10

PRICE PAID: $180 PP (LIST PRICE- PRE-CHALLENGE)

VALUE/MONEY: 9.0/10

FINAL SCORE: 8.5/10

We were lucky enough to be seated right at the bar, which was a vital and busy display of chef, server, bartender, and other associates moving at great speed through their tiny space. The restaurant had a feeling of being overstaffed, but everyone moved fluidly around each other and there were few collisions (but definitely at least one).

A few quick words on service- our seat was absolutely prime for watching the head chef do his work, including assembling the sashimi dish into fully-iced-out bowls (video below). If you go, ask to be seated on the far left of the counter, since most of the interesting stuff happens there. Every single member of staff was pathologically friendly and helpful, and the menu was translated into English for us by hand. The chef, with an enormous flourish, signed said menu at the end of the meal with three different types of ink. 

First Bites: Crab + Abalone, 9/10

First Bites: Crab + Abalone, 9/10

Great Knifework on the Abalone!

Great Knifework on the Abalone!

For our first bites, a small bowl of crab with abalone. Clean, firm crab taste comes through perfectly. The abalone had tiny microcuts along the side for ease of consumption and tenderness, and I found that it massively improved the normally-rubbery texture of the fish. Amazing panoply of textures and flavors. A strong start. 9/10.

Course 1: Dashi Soup, 8/10

Course 1: Dashi Soup, 8/10

Course 1: Dashi Soup, 8/10

Course 1: Dashi Soup, 8/10

Check out the gorgeous ceramic bowl this dashi soup arrived in- like most of the pieces used in this restaurant, they felt to my amateurish eye to be close to museum-quality. The soup was thick, with the approximate texture of egg whites. The shrimp was extremely fresh and surrounded by cloudy, starchy dough. The broth had flavors of pine smoke, and the tiny turnip serves as a great visual set-piece as well as crunchy and tasty in its own right. Great soup. 8/10.

Preparing the Ice Bowls

Preparing the Ice Bowls

Hand-Assembling the Tuna

Hand-Assembling the Tuna

Next, we had the good fortune to get front-row seats to watch the chef assemble the sashimi into a custom-made ice-bowl. 

Course 2: Sashimi, 10/10

Course 2: Sashimi, 10/10

The shrimp's flavors are almost buttery it's so fresh. The flat fish is chewy, and the fatty tuna (otoro) is orgasmic good. Ground by hand right in front of us using a shark-skin grater, the wasabi is fiery-hot. 10/10

Course 3: The Smorgasbord, 8/10 Overall

Course 3: The Smorgasbord, 8/10 Overall

Next, an insane smorgasbord of different dishes with a riot of colors arrived. I'll describe each component in turn; overall the course was an 8/10.

Course 3A: Mackerel + Conger Fish Cake + Beans, 7/10

Course 3A: Mackerel + Conger Fish Cake + Beans, 7/10

The enormous green beans are surprisingly brittle; they break apart immediately, and have a flavor just like a fava bean; hearty and earthy. Beautifully hand-cut, the curls of radish and carrot helix have flavors that pair perfectly. The mackerel is oily and a touch fishy, it's probably been in the fridge a few hours too long. The cubes are conger eel with fish paste, which are super fun and taste a bit like not-sweet vanilla cake. 7/10.

Course 3B: Black Beans + Tiger Prawn + Karasumi, 7/10

Course 3B: Black Beans + Tiger Prawn + Karasumi, 7/10

These black beans are bigger than previous restaurants, with more smoky flavors and less blueberry. The pickled honeydew (on the left) has extremely interesting combinations of savory and sweet. The prawn is a touch dry, and the karasumi isn't my fave, per usual. 7/10.

Course 3C: Anchovy + Abalone, 8/10

Course 3C: Anchovy + Abalone, 8/10

The anchovies are crunchy and slightly sweet; they're dipped in a soy sauce of some kind. Abalone is unyielding but flavorful. 8/10.

Course 3D: Sesame Tofu, 9/10

Course 3D: Sesame Tofu, 9/10

This sesame tofu is slippery and spongy, and very satisfying to eat- soy and wasabi speaks nicely to the previous course. 9/10.

Course 3E: Cod Roe, 9/10

Course 3E: Cod Roe, 9/10

Last, a dish of soft cod roe in vinegar that looks like a slimy brain and is creamy, warm, and totally delicious 9/10. 

Course 4: Sea Urchin Soup, 9/10

Course 4: Sea Urchin Soup, 9/10

This sea urchin soup is made with eggs, lily bulbs, and ginkgo nuts that give it an extremely interesting texture contrast. The thick starchy soup goes great with creamy Uni texture; the lily bulbs are the approximate size and shape of garlic cloves, but with a mild potato-like flavor. 9/10.

Course 5: Butterfish, 9/10

Course 5: Butterfish, 9/10

The ceramic dish this course of Butterfish is served on is incredible- a soaring bird, complete with features. The flavors of the fish are, well, quite buttery and rich, and this makes for an excellent main course. Perfectly cooked and tender. 9/10. 

Course 6: Scallop + Lemon Vinegar Jelly, 7/10

Course 6: Scallop + Lemon Vinegar Jelly, 7/10

This fantastic scallop dish is interesting, because the flavors and textures of the scallop itself are unremarkable- the jelly is full of lemon and citrus flavors along with a savory note from the vinegar elements, and those strong flavors carry the dish. It's a little odd, I will admit, to have a dish that consists of jelly garnished by scallop as opposed to the other way around. 7/10.

Course 7: Vegetables, 8/10

Course 7: Vegetables, 8/10

Taro, tofu, carrot, burdock root and bamboo shoot showed up next with two small garnishments of Japanese Pepper leaf. The starches are crunchy-fresh and the flavors are soft and subtle- easing the transition towards dessert. 8/10. 

Course 8: Rice in Tofu Skin, 8/10

Course 8: Rice in Tofu Skin, 8/10

This next dish was really amazing- tofu skin (also known as Yuba, or bean curd sheet) is milky and cheesy and is full of rice, with a light dash of significantly-less-spicy wasabi on top. 8/10. 

Course 9: Strawberry Jelly + Pear + Orange Juice, 9/10

Course 9: Strawberry Jelly + Pear + Orange Juice, 9/10

Desserts in Japan are always a subtle affair- some places like Chihana just give you a glass of orange juice- but Wa Yamamura's was both understated and a total delight. Strawberries preserved in gelatin are delicious, but the Asian pears are particularly amazing- soft and sweet. A fantastic end to a fantastic meal!

Japan- Nakamura- ✪✪✪

With a history dating back to 1827 when a fish-peddler named Seibei decided to establish a kyo-ryori house, Nakamura has since been passed down to Seibei's great-great granddaughter, who now runs the show. Down a beautiful Gion sidestreet, Nakamura one of the more traditional implementations of tea ceremony-style Kaiseki (Cha Kaiseki).

Nakamura Main Entrance

Nakamura Main Entrance

KYOTO, JAPAN

SERVICE: 8.5/10

FOOD: 7.5/10

PRICE PAID: $280 PP (LIST PRICE- PRE-CHALLENGE)

VALUE/MONEY: 7.5/10

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

Nakamura Private Room

Nakamura Private Room

For the ultra-traditional experience, guests would sit straight on the tatami mats with no padding or open space. Nakamura moves things a bit closer to the comfortable end of the spectrum by adding heated floors, comfy cushions, and plenty of space to sit upright.

We were given a gorgeous private room with a view of the beautiful garden, running brook, delicate lighting, and weird fake crab (you can make it out sitting on the stone in the background).

First Sip: Honey Smacks Tea, 8/10

First Sip: Honey Smacks Tea, 8/10

We're gonna be seeing a lot of this puffed rice tea going forward, so to save everyone time I'm just going to nickname it Honey Smacks tea and move on. This cup is exactly as good as every other cup I had on my journey, and just as refreshing. 8/10. 

Course 1: Crab + Fish Egg, 10/10

Course 1: Crab + Fish Egg, 10/10

Next, a transcendently delicious dish of crab, fish egg sauce, and fish eggs. This seafood dish has a creamy, almost dairy-like texture, with strong sea/saline flavors from the extremely fresh crab. Crisp, crunchy white vegetables set off the texture interplay. An incredible dish. 10/10.

Course 2: Miso, 9/10

Course 2: Miso, 9/10

Course 2: Miso, 9/10

Course 2: Miso, 9/10

Next, a dish that I can quite comfortably say I have never had anything remotely like. A white miso soup with an extremely stretchy, starchy dumpling, surrounded by a thick broth with deep wasabi and mustard flavors, but not spicy in the least. Almost tastes like the awesome milk at the bottom of the bowl of Frosted Flakes. Yes, I realize that is my second cereal reference. 9/10.

Course 3: Sashimi, 9/10

Course 3: Sashimi, 9/10

Next arrived the fish sashimi plate - shrimp, squid, and sea bream. The squid is firm and delicious with great texture and a super fresh taste- perhaps the best bite of squid on the whole trip. The other fish hold their own quite nicely, and the wasabi was obviously recently hand-ground. 9/10.

Course 4: Clam + Bamboo + Seaweed Soup, 7/10

Course 4: Clam + Bamboo + Seaweed Soup, 7/10

Soup with seaweed, bamboo shoots, and clam. The whole situation is a little bland but the seaweed is fresh and dense- like eating snap pea husks almost. The dumpling is a big dry and nondescript. It was around this point that the proprietress entered and had an extremely long, utterly entertaining, but ultimately one-sided conversation in Japanese with us non-Japanese speakers. She clapped when we tried the food, sang a short song, and made many sidebar comments. Honestly, I had no idea what to do for a solid 15 minutes. 7/10.

Course 5: Grab-bag Box, 8/10

Course 5: Grab-bag Box, 8/10

Briefly thereafter we were presented with a gorgeous multi-level box containing (clockwise from top right) skewers of fish and vegetables, mustard greens, karasumi, sweet potato rolls, and sweet black beans. The mustard greens have something close to a rich peanut butter flavor, and (once again) the black beans are quite sugary-sweet and kind of taste like blueberries. On the skewers, the fish was mostly unremarkable but the cucumber all the way on the rightmost end was smoky and sweet. 8/10.

Course 6: Vegetable + Uni Soup, 9/10

Course 6: Vegetable + Uni Soup, 9/10

Next up, some gloriously good vegetable soup with Japanese potato, daikon, and Uni (sea urchin). The potato is fried and has consistency of fried chicken, roughly. It goes perfectly with the uni's smooth, melted butter texture and flavors. 9/10.

Course 7: Cooked Sea Bream, 8/10

Course 7: Cooked Sea Bream, 8/10

The last main course - a deliciously cooked sea bream in a light broth. This was a shockingly simple dish, without much fanfare, spices, or accoutrements, showcasing just the fish itself, which was luckily quite good. 8/10.

Course 8: Rice, 8/10

Course 8: Rice, 8/10

Course 8: Pickled Vegetables, 8/10

Course 8: Pickled Vegetables, 8/10

As a final savory follow-up, a bowl of rice with homemade pickled vegetables. A nice smooth downshift from the rest of the main courses. 8/10.

Course 9: Citrus + Strawberry Dessert, 10/10

Course 9: Citrus + Strawberry Dessert, 10/10

Desserts in Japan are almost always a subtle affair, but this citrus and strawberry combination crushes it. A very fine, sugary jelly lain overtop brings it all together perfectly. 10/10.

Last Sip: Roasted Oat Tea, 8/10

Last Sip: Roasted Oat Tea, 8/10

And, once again per tradition, the final sip is a bottomless glass of roasted oat tea, consumed at one's leisure at the tail end of the meal. 8/10.

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. 

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. 

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.

Japan- Hyotei- ✪✪✪

Hyotei Exterior

Hyotei Exterior

KYOTO, JAPAN

SERVICE: 6.0/10

FOOD: 8.0/10

PRICE PAID: $45 PP (LUNCH)

VALUE/MONEY: 7.0/10

FINAL SCORE: 7.0/10

Hyotei (2 of 15).jpg

Though décor does not figure prominently into my rating schema, I would have to give Hyotei extremely high marks for their unbelievable space. From the outside on a rainy day, Hyotei's 14th-Generation owner/chef Eiichi Takahashi (yes, totally not kidding, 14th-generation) has taken care to present an unassuming portal. But, on the inside, a universe of colors and a delicate balance of indoor and outdoor space transports you to another time and place. The experience is beyond surreal upon entering the small door and walking through garden pathways to the restaurant. Which, by the way, was almost totally empty when I visited. The pinks and the greens popped so brightly, and the small stream flowed so perfectly and serenely through the mossy riverbed that even after taking ten minutes to absorb the space I could hardly believe it was real.

Hyotei Interior

Hyotei Interior

No one in the restaurant spoke a single word of English. Not even, "Hello," so I was stuck with, "Hi, I'm Andrew," until we squared away that I did, in fact, have a reservation and wasn't just lost. 

The lunch Bento Box

The lunch Bento Box

Bento Box Interior

Bento Box Interior

Lunch was presented in a traditional black-lacquered Bento box, together with fiddlehead ferns in a potato-based sauce. Several traditionally-dressed ladies participated in the presentation of the box, and very carefully explained each dish. They explained the ingredients, the origins, and the sources of each portion of the meal, along with talking through the Chef's strategy and his attempt to remain loyal to the spirit of this long-established restaurant. At least, I think they did, because once again I speak only the most crucial Japanese phrases and they made it clear that no effort would be made to accommodate an English-speaker, God bless 'em.

Course 1: Fish Paste + Vegetables, 7/10

Course 1: Fish Paste + Vegetables, 7/10

Starting with the dish on the lower-left, a pretty excellent balance of fish paste with a delicately carved starch and spring peas. This one pushed my comfort zone a little, in that I was completely unsure what any of these items were (except for the fish paste). 7/10.

Course 2: Whole FIsh + Grape Leaves

Course 2: Whole FIsh + Grape Leaves

Course 2: Inside the Grape Leaf

Course 2: Inside the Grape Leaf

The next dish (situated in the lower right on the main photo) included some more challenges to my Western palate. Dried, preserved fish in their entirety (eyes and all), along with some vinegar-dipped rice in a grape leaf. The grape leaf imbues a sweet and earthy flavor into the rice, and the fish were crunchy and actually pretty good. 

Course 3: Egg + Fish, 10/10

Course 3: Egg + Fish, 10/10

This next dish- a hot, cooked flank of incredibly cooked fish and the brightest-yellow eggs I have ever eaten. The richness of the eggs paired up with the lean fish in an incredibly fashion that blew my expectations away. I was really impressed with this dish. 10/10.

Course 4: Thinly-Sliced Fish + Fresh Vegetables, 9/10

Course 4: Thinly-Sliced Fish + Fresh Vegetables, 9/10

This dish in the upper right- thinly-sliced fish with a generous helping of incredibly fresh vegetables and a dash of soy sauce- rivaled some of the sushi I had had in Tokyo. 9/10.

Course 5: Fiddlehead Fern Soup, 9/10

Course 5: Fiddlehead Fern Soup, 9/10

After I wrapped up the Bento box, I was served a tremendous hot soup of fiddlehead ferns that were literally-just-picked fresh, an egg ball, and a rectangle of something totally delicious. Once again, wish I could figure the rectangle out. 9/10.

Course 6: Mushroom + Rice, 8/10

Course 6: Mushroom + Rice, 8/10

This incredibly fun dish- mushrooms and rice- was deceivingly plain but a pleasing finish to the meal. 8/10.

Final Round: Green Tea, 8/10

Final Round: Green Tea, 8/10

Finally, a ceramic cup of some of the richest Green tea I have ever experienced. 8/10.

Japan- Ryugin- ✪✪✪

Ryugin Main Entrance

Ryugin Main Entrance

TOKYO, JAPAN

SERVICE: 9.5/10

FOOD: 9.0/10

PRICE PAID: $310 PP (LIST PRICE- PRE-CHALLENGE)

VALUE/MONEY: 8.0/10

FINAL SCORE: 9.0/10

Ryugin was an incredibly special blend of European, Chinese, and Japanese styles into a harmony that I haven't seen done as well anywhere in the world. It was also eclectic and experimental- some of the dishes could compete with the most innovative techniques I've seen in the US, and the overall experience was a seamless blend of new and old approaches. Seiji Yamamoto is the head chef, and he is also clearly proud of his many accomplishments, including the third Michelin star. A visitors' room I stumbled into upstairs has a flat-screen TV playing a video from his Michelin acceptance celebration on a loop.

The Ryugin Owl

The Ryugin Owl

Also, there is an owl. The owl viewed the visitors' room as his space.

The Ryugin Menu

The Ryugin Menu

Start to finish, every aspect of this evening was polished, almost to a fault. The menu, for instance, came in a stamped and post-marked envelope, and a perfectly readable (though certainly full of interesting word choices) English.

1st Course: Sea Urchin, 8/10

1st Course: Sea Urchin, 8/10

First up was a delicious, fried bite of sea urchin. It was rolled up in the individual maki with ginger and green peas, giving it a cool mix of flavors and textures, along with the crunch of the shell. 8/10.

2nd Course: Firefly Squid, 9/10

2nd Course: Firefly Squid, 9/10

This was my "you're not in Kansas any more" moment on the first trip to Japan. A plate of warm, whole squid (eyes and all) was gamely placed in an egg custard, and all of it cooked over charcoal. The charcoal comes through incredibly strongly, and the squid (I must admit I've never eaten whole squids before) were a delightful blend of exotic flavors- a rich umami blend- and paired perfectly with the egg custard. A surprisingly welcome combination and dish. 9/10.

3rd Course: "Just-in-Time" Soup and Cherry Leaves, 9/10

3rd Course: "Just-in-Time" Soup and Cherry Leaves, 9/10

The egg in the middle of this soup had a hard, crunchy white vegetable inside that was imbued with a softly fruit taste from the cherry leaves. A simple but interesting soup dish. 9/10.

4th Course: Fish, 8/10

4th Course: Fish, 8/10

As you can see, this palate of gorgeous color and shapes included (clockwise, from the top): fugu (pufferfish), Salmon, Monkfish liver, squid, and octopus. The salmon was soft and fresh, the liver tasted like an excellent cheese, and the octopus was spicy and super fresh. An amazing diversity of textures and flavors. My only (tiny) complaint is that the octopus is tough but yielding enough to be pleasurable. 

5th Course: Grilled Kin-Ki Fish, 7/10

5th Course: Grilled Kin-Ki Fish, 7/10

The deep-sea Kin-ki fish from Hokkaido is stuffed with eggplant. Smoky and rich as hell, the eggplant is a nice but bland flavor that served as a nice base for the super-rich fish. The fish wasn't quite to my tastes, and the bamboo shoot vegetables were a little too plain for me. 7/10. 

6th Course: Cook-Your-Own Broth, 8/10

6th Course: Cook-Your-Own Broth, 8/10

This next dish wins huge points for originality- a gas-driven hot-pot is brought out pre-filled with chicken broth, herbs, and fresh peas. A plate of Spring vegetables, colorful and fresh, is brought for dipping/cooking in the broth (I was told no more than 10-20 seconds is best) and a warm peanut dipping sauce is provided. Super fun to cook your own food ("we're going to make you work!" said the waiter jokingly). 8/10.

7th Course: Wagyu Beef, 10/10

7th Course: Wagyu Beef, 10/10

I won't have to tell you much more than this was the best Wagyu beef I have ever had, hands down. The beef was covered in rich sauce, and the egg of a particularly prized hen sat underneath. 10/10. 

Course 8: Chicken + Rice, 9/10

Course 8: Chicken + Rice, 9/10

This chicken was unlike any poultry I have ever tasted- soft, almost to the consistency of clay, paired up nicely with the crunch of the seeds and the richness of the rice. The chef made this dish by memory from his favorite meal as a kid- one of several sentimental references to youth and memory that chef's Spring menu portrayed.

Course 9A: Hot + Frozen Strawberries

Course 9A: Hot + Frozen Strawberries

Course 9B: Hot + Frozen Strawberries

Course 9B: Hot + Frozen Strawberries

Another incredibly adventurous dish that resembled something I thought Alinea might try. A frozen strawberry, dipped in -150F frozen nitrogen, is paired up with a spoonful of hot strawberries cooked to +150F, yielding a 300 degree temperature difference. The effect was almost like pop rocks- it snapped and crackled on the tongue and was almost overwhelmingly sweet. An incredibly creative and fascinating dish. 10/10.

 

10th Course: Sake Ice Cream + Sake Soufflé

10th Course: Sake Ice Cream + Sake Soufflé

The sake glasses

The sake glasses

The second dessert was equally beautifully presented- a warm soufflé of sake, paired with sake ice cream, and all with an unfiltered house sake poured on top. The alcoholic tinge made the sake taste "real," and the effect was that of drinking the finest glass of sake I've ever had. Also worth noting- I got to pick my own sake glass for consumption, which came on a gloriously colorful tray. 

11th Course: Traditional Matcha Tea

11th Course: Traditional Matcha Tea

Made with a traditional Matcha brush, the tea was so rich that it almost tasted like a shot of wheatgrass. Flavors of pure cut grass, seaweed, and rich tea. A fantastic finish to a fantastic meal.