During autumn, Kyoto explodes with color. The ancient Japanese city is world-famous for its palaces and temples, but also famous for its food. Some view the city as the seat of Japanese cuisine, referring to the art and tradition of Kaiseki, multi-course Imperial-style dining.
Kaiseki is a serious culinary art form – all about balancing the taste, color and texture of fresh, local cuisine. A traditional kaiseki dinner is presented much like a Japanese tea ceremony. It’s a long, deliberate and formal affair bordering on a spiritual experience.
I couldn’t possibly visit Japan without immersing myself in the full, traditional kaiseki experience. Through extensive research I discovered Kyoto’s finest authentic kaiseki master, Iron Chef Yoshimi Tanigawa. Yes, that kind of Iron Chef. Yoshimi Tanagawa is one of only seven chefs in history to beat the famous Masaharu Morimoto on the Japanese television competition. I was fortunate to score a coveted reservation at the bar of Kichisen, Master Tanigawa’s famed kaiseki restaurant in North Kyoto. After riding the shinkansen, or “bullet train” from Tokyo, I arrived in Kyoto and made my way to one of the most surreal and incredible dining experiences of my life.
Kichisen isn’t easy to find. Our taxi driver had the restaurant on the phone (my rental Blackberry to his ear) for a good ten minutes while circling the area. After exiting the cab, crossing a busy thoroughfare and jumping the median shrubbery, we located the mostly unmarked door. Upon entering, we shed our shoes and squeezed into small woven sandals. The waitstaff bowed as we shuffled into the tiny bar room.
There were only four places set. My foodie friend Aaron (who accompanied me to Japan) and I took our places at the bar. A hush permeated the tiny room; it felt as though we had entered a culinary temple. Little to no English is spoken at Kichisen, but I didn’t mind; the experience is all about the food. My only worry was that our knowledge of Imperial-stlye etiquette was severely lacking. For a moment, we couldn’t even figure out if the enormous hand-woven cloth in front of us was our napkin or not. Thankfully, a couple (who spoke some English) entered the room and were seated next to us at the bar. Beer and sake were ordered, and the meal commenced.
Iron Chef Tanigawa brought out our first course. The presentation was stunning. A tiny bowl rested on our chopsticks. The kitchen staff looked at us. We looked at them. It was a standoff. They began to laugh and quickly realized that it would be better to first serve our bar-mates, as we had no idea what to do first. The bowl, it turns out, was to be flipped over and filled by the staff with a clear, palate-cleansing broth. The theme of this course was gold, an autumn color. Flecks of gold stained the handmade paper plate. Inside the tiny gold-coated bowl was a piece of smoked salmon dressed with gold leaf. The small blue bird on the right opened to reveal a mound of dark “grape” beans.
The second plate (to the best of my knowledge) was a cool, sweet peach soup flecked with pomegranates and shaved ice.
The next dish was by far my favorite. I’m usually neither here nor there when it comes to soup, but Chef Tanigawa’s matsutake mushroom and eel dobin mushi (literally “pot” and “stream”) is one of the most magnificent dishes I’ve ever tasted. It’s almost impossible to describe: a subtle dish that somehow bursts with complexity. A lot of this has to do with the prized matsutake mushroom, the Japanese equivalent of the truffle (out-of-this-world flavor and expensive as hell). These fungi are seasonal and rare, only found beneath pine trees and never growing in the same spot twice. The clear broth is poured from the pot into the small bowl, then seasoned with a squeeze of fresh lime. After the broth is consumed, the pot’s lid is removed and the tender white eel and flavorful mushrooms are finished off with chopsticks. And no, I didn’t figure all of that out on my own.
The Autumn theme continued throughout the meal, as seen with the sashimi presentation below. Slices of fresh fish are accented with piles of soft, icy “snow” signifying the nearing end to the season. Bonus: a gorgeous piece of uni (sea urchin roe) was tucked away in the boat dish’s hidden compartment on the right.
For the next course, a small serving of sticky rice with roasted chestnuts. On the right, black caviar and seaweed.
The next course that Master Tanigawa presented represents a historical aspect of Kyoto cuisine: sabazushi. This slightly pickled fish derives from a time, hundreds of years ago, when seafood would have to make a day-long journey inland to reach Kyoto. The sushi style that evolved used pickling as a preservative, ensuring the fish would reach its destination. These Kyoto-style sushi rolls are made with mackerel and bound with thick kombu seaweed. It’s said that the pickled sushi is delicious when made, and twice as delicious the following day.
The next course: wrapped in a tiny bundle of sticks were some of the largest crab legs I’d ever seen. They were accompanied by a dipping bowl of kani miso (crab guts seasoned with vinegar). The chilled meat was sweet, succulent and pretty much perfect in every way. The bold flavors of the kani miso (my favorite part) added a ton of depth to the dish.
The next course was a veritable study in texture; this warm tilefish soup ran the gamut from soft to solid with jellied dashi, crunchy ginko nuts and tender fish.
Another fall-themed hidden package arrived on the bar. Char-grilled bamboo carefully tied together and dressed with sprigs of rosemary housed the next mystery course.
Once opened, the packages revealed a large mushroom, grilled over fish (perhaps eel).
I believe Master Tanigawa referred to the next fish course as “sunfish” though I’m still attempting to identify this small, white steamed fish. I’m sure it’s something quite rare and unusual, though due to its size, I wouldn’t call it what we think of as a sunfish (an up to 1000 pound, rare, somewhat poisonous creature). So the jury’s still definitely out on this one, but wow was it delicious. The fish was thin and bony. so only a few pieces of meat were carefully removed and placed into our small bowls of rice.
The Master in his element, deboning the mystery fish.
The fish over rice, served with a bowl of various pickled vegetables and a cup of tea.
Dessert part one. This giant, red apple was sliced through the middle, hollowed out and re-filled with it’s own frozen apple sorbet.
Dessert part two: the last “hidden” object of the night. Opening this shiny lacquered box revealed a tiny square of red bean cake.
As in the Kyoto tradition, our multi (multi!) course meal finally came to a close with a traditional Japanese digestive: a small bowl of bitter green tea.
Four hours and thirteen courses later, we had to nearly roll ourselves out the door and back into our shoes. With Iron Chef Tanigawa at the helm, Kichisen’s traditional kaiseki dinner goes above and beyond anything I’ve ever experienced. Before we left, the Master gave us a dvd copy of his winning Iron Chef battle, then handed me a wrapped bamboo package, another hidden surprise, and told me it was “breakfast.”
The next morning… I opened the bamboo leaves to reveal an entire sabazushi. What a rare treat! The pickled fish had sweetened throughout the night (we kept it refrigerated, though we probably didn’t have to) and made for a perfect start to the day.
Kichisen is located at: 5 Tadasu-no-mori, Shimogamo, Sakyo-ku, Kyoto
Visit Kichisen online at: http://www.kichisen-kyoto.com/
2010 Mileage Total: 98981