Kyoto

Japan- Kichisen- ✪✪✪

Near Kyoto's main river in a peaceful part of Kyoto is Kichisen, a gorgeous chef's counter kaiseki restaurant that's about as traditional as they get. True to kaiseki-chef tradition, the proprietor is not only trained in several styles of cuisine, but also: calligraphy, flower arrangement, tea ceremonies, and poetry. The belief is that "Renaissance-Man" style training helps the chef get more in touch with the creative. Here's a pretty awesome photo of him about to slice the living hell out of some fish. I want that hat. 

Quite famously, Yoshimi Tanigawa beat Chef Morimoto on the Iron Chef TV show. 

Kichisen Main Entrance

Kichisen Main Entrance

KYOTO, JAPAN

SERVICE: 7.5/10

FOOD: 7.5/10

PRICE PAID: $350 PP (LIST PRICE- PRE-CHALLENGE)

VALUE/MONEY: 6.0/10

FINAL SCORE: 7.0/10

Kichisen Chef's Counter

Kichisen Chef's Counter

Somewhat obsequiously, awards and honors adorn most available surfaces. While most chefs with three Michelin stars display that accomplishment somewhere, few were as front-and-center about it as Kichisen. 

Orchid Arrangement

Orchid Arrangement

Exterior Views

Exterior Views

The counter itself is a small, intimate bar with four other patrons. Nice natural views just to my right. Blond wood everything. Echoes of laughter from the private rooms elsewhere in the building.

First Sip: Plum Tea, 8/10

First Sip: Plum Tea, 8/10

Plum tea with olives. You're not supposed to eat those; rookie move; crunch. 8/10, and close call but no missing teeth. 

Course 1: Appetizers Spread, 7/10

Course 1: Appetizers Spread, 7/10

First up, a small set of appetizers presented in gorgeous, hand-made ceramic dishes. Mushroom, broccoli, karasumi (compressed fish roe, salty as hell and not to my tastes per usual), dried fish, and black beans. The beans are good but actually a bit wilted... 7/10.

Quick close-up of the fish and veggies- a delightful little Japanese pepper leaf on top. Check out the incredibly precise knife-work on this veggie- it's been delicately cross-cut and dabbed with the perfect amount of sauce. A theme of extremely subtle work like this plays out throughout the meal. Another reviewer from TimeOut said it best: "whether you notice it or not, the food will be right down to the tiniest detail..."

Course 2: Soup + Yuzu, 7/10

Course 2: Soup + Yuzu, 7/10

This starchy soup is sweetened considerably with yuzu (the yellow at the center). But, texture is thick and feels almost slimy. 7/10. 

Course 3: Fish Soup, 8/10

Course 3: Fish Soup, 8/10

Next, I am brought a tea pot resting precariously on a bed of pine needles. This fish soup has really awesome, delicate lemon flavors in the broth. And man, they don't kid around on quantity- there's around 5-6 cupfuls... One of the downsides of dining out at places like this solo- many of these dishes are designed for two people. In the pot, spongy starch dumplings and light white fish. 8/10.

Course 4: Sashimi, 7/10

Course 4: Sashimi, 7/10

Course 4: Otoro

Course 4: Otoro

Next, a pretty awesome ceramic breadbasket of sashimi- sea bream, squid, and Japanese lobster. The lobster had the consistency of grapefruit and very fresh flavor. Unusual for otoro (fatty tuna) at Japanese three-star restaurants, this one wasn't that good- the texture was stringy, thought it was obviously fresh. Just a bad cut. 7/10.

Course 5: Rice + Chestnuts + Starch, 8/10

Course 5: Rice + Chestnuts + Starch, 8/10

A nice filling dish of "rice, chestnuts, and a starch similar to potato." Great description, and I can't argue with it. Black beans, flavorful and easy. 8/10.

Course 6: Crab Legs, 9/10

Course 6: Crab Legs, 9/10

Next up, legs like crab sticks stuck into ice in a ceramic tumbler. Especially fun to eat. 9/10

Course 7: Another Smorgasbord, 7/10

Course 7: Another Smorgasbord, 7/10

I'll describe each of these little dishes in turn: overall, 7/10.

Course 7A: Sea Cucumber + Poached Egg, 6/10

Course 7A: Sea Cucumber + Poached Egg, 6/10

If you like watery textures, this sea cucumber with poached egg is about as runny as it gets. The egg flavors weren't too strong, and sea cucumber is a delicate flavor to start with, so this wasn't my fave. 6/10. 

Course 7B: Bamboo Shoots + Beef Sauce, 8/10

Course 7B: Bamboo Shoots + Beef Sauce, 8/10

A lovely dish of bamboo shoots with a rich beef sauce. The richness of the beef brings out the bamboo's flavors, and accentuates the crunchy texture nicely. 8/10.

Course 7C: Fried Taro, 7/10

Course 7C: Fried Taro, 7/10

Some fried taro with a generous helping of shaved Japanese herbs. 7/10.

Course 7D: Karasumi + Kumquat + Tiger Prawn 8/10

Course 7D: Karasumi + Kumquat + Tiger Prawn 8/10

Karasumi roe, still not my favorite, with kumquat, tiger prawn, and why the hell not- a leaf of gold. Besides the karasumi, I'd give this little dish a 8/10. Let's go with that.

Course 7D: Pickled fish, 8/10

Course 7D: Pickled fish, 8/10

Pickled fish with Japanese pepper- served at room temp, alongside a pretty awesome-looking pine sprig. 8/10.

Course 8: Kobe Beef + Pineapple, 10/10

Course 8: Kobe Beef + Pineapple, 10/10

This was one of my favorite beef courses of all time- cooked on a lawsuit-hot stone through a pineapple slice, this chunk of Kobe beef was delightfully rich and dense. 10/10. 

Course 9: Rice + Prawns, 8/10

Course 9: Rice + Prawns, 8/10

As we get to the close of the meal, the infinitely-refillable dish is some hearty rice and prawns, small and tasty. 8/10. 

Course 10: Deep-Fried Dessert, 5/10

Course 10: Deep-Fried Dessert, 5/10

Layered with sugar, this was absolutely too fatty and greasy to eat. I got halfway through and decided it wasn't worth the heart attack. 5/10. 

Course 11: NO idea, 8/10

Course 11: NO idea, 8/10

I have no idea what this thing was, but it was totally delicious. 8/10. 

Course 12: Strawberries + Cream, 8/10

Course 12: Strawberries + Cream, 8/10

Some strawberries dipped in a light cream. 8/10. Simple, and really fresh berries.

Course 13: Matcha Green Tea

Course 13: Matcha Green Tea

Delightful Matcha green tea, this time presented over the counter with no ceremony at all, unlike at Mizai, where it was a whole thing. Just a handoff. Tastes exactly like wheatgrass. 7/10. 

Last Sip: Roasted Oat Tea, 8/10

Last Sip: Roasted Oat Tea, 8/10

And, finally, some roasted oat tea with the flavors of Cheerios more or less exactly. 8/10.

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- 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.