A true dining experience (comparable with Michelin-star restaurants), haute cuisine and the crème de la crème of Japanese food, serving, atmosphere and presentation: kaiseki is a must for everyone visiting Japan interested in what this country has to offer when it comes to gastronomy!
The first challenge for a non-Japanese speaker is to find a good non-touristy kaiseki. Luckily enough, our host in Kyoto booked a table for us at a restaurant favoured by locals. Indeed, once there, we realized that the menu we had ordered beforehand had been translated into English just for us!
Dressed up and full of expectations, we recognize the place by the two white curtains hanging by its entrance in an alleyway. Our host for the evening welcomes us in a beautiful light blue kimono. We take off our shoes and follow her along a hallway bordered by an unexpected lovely garden into our private tatami room with traditional sliding doors.
The chopsticks rest on a beautiful piece of Kyoto ceramics and we can’t help ourselves from taking pictures of these details.
We have the nice surprise of sitting down on comfortable low chairs instead of the tatami at a low table. Our host enters the room, goes down on her knees, bends and tells us that she will start serving us… in French! I don’t know what amazes me more; a French-speaking Japanese woman or the appetizer she was serving.
After the first bite, we look at each other as the appetizer consisting of a sugar tomato, soft grilled eggplant, topped off with sea urchin in a juice of thin Muzuku sea-weed, a crunchy veggie, decorated with a yellow flower served with a delicious sweet prune wine along, is mind blowing. This exceeds all expectations! I realise this is a special night…
We are served a cold green tea and order two different sake’s along with our meal. Both are served differently: one in a thin glass tea pot, the other, slightly sweeter, in a hand painted glass jar.
What we hoped was something unknown actually appeared to be a spelling mistake: “soft shell tartle” is indeed turtle*, in Japan considered the Emperor’s meal. Out of our comfort zone but not wanting to be rude, we eat the course wrapped up in a savoury steamed egg custard floating in a transparent broth.
For the next course, we are served a beautiful ceramic bowl, filled with small ice-cubes, on which thin slices of wood carry a truly magnificent mix of fish; raw sea-eel, cuttlefish, that causes a real mouth filling explosion once chewed on, a cube of fresh homemade tofu (that surprisingly is tasteful!), thin slices of yellowtail amberjack and our favourite maguro tuna. To spice it up, this plate of heavenly treats is accompanied by a homemade wasabi, soy sauce, and topped off with a tasty purple flower for the finishing touch.
The tuna is to die for and we happily welcome our next dish; two tuna sushis made from the finest part of the fish. Also this time, the ceramics don’t go unnoticed.
We find ourselves in heaven. This food is so good, treated and served with such respect that is hard to describe in writing.
Our next dish comes in a delicate basket. The basket is filled with delicious fried ginkgo nuts, jellyfish vinegar, sea urchin, pumpkin, octopus, soy beans, prawns and a fried freshwater crab. Our hostess tells us to eat the crab as a whole, including the scissors, legs, head, etc. A bit cautious at first, the crunchy crab is actually mouth-watering as is the rest of the food in the basket.
There are six more courses waiting for us, and we are happy that although the variety is wide, the courses are small.
The next course is to be eaten as a whole as well, head to tail: grilled sweet fish with a salty green sauce, accompanied by a young peach on a white wine jelly. Exquisite tastes, structures and flavours which are completely new to us!
The feast is not over yet as we are served sea-eel in peppercorn, a Kamiel-nasu eggplant and melon.
We feel treated like princesses when the perfectly cooked beef pieces with black vinegar arrive, just melting on our tongues.
According to the tradition, the rice is served by the end of the Kaiseki. We get new and finer chopsticks, new warm steamy napkins and our hostess scoops the rice carefully into two bowls. A red miso soup and a freshly brewed brown tea come with the rice.
Dessert consists of cubes of two kinds of melon with a sesame tiramisu.
Last but not least, we end this wonderful experience with a tea ceremony. We are served a delicious matcha tea with a treat made of red bean paste decorated with silver foil.
We have experienced how Japanese chefs respectfully turn a wide variety of high quality ingredients into true art: wonderful to look at, a shame to start touching, and causing a truly magnificent explosion of textures, colours, and flavours! If Kaiseki can be found throughout Japan, there is something truly special about enjoying it in a traditional wooden house in Kyoto, overlooking a Japanese garden in the Gion district.
* Being concerned by the survival of endangered species, seeing turtle on the menu was quite shocking to us and I have to admit that we had a hard time swallowing it. After checking, soft shell turtles are not endangered as they are bred. This really helped us digest that delicious meal!
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