TWO KAISEKE MEALS IN KYOTO: KITCHO AND NAKAMURA
RANKING: I need to eat more kaiseki meals to be confident about rankings. This said, I think three Michelin stars to Kitcho is fully justified. But I am puzzled by only two stars to Nakamura. My meal at Nakamura was an unforgettable experience. Only a handful of the chefs in the world can perform at this level of precision and sophistication.
DATE VISITED: March 21 and 22, 2010, respectively.
PHONES: Kitcho 075 881 1101 Nakamura 075 221 5511
SUMMARY: Japanese haute cuisine, the kaiseki meal, is a must if you visit Kyoto. At its best, it is subtle, rigorous, harmonious, appeals to the eye and taste buds, and the course of the meal is driven by the availability of the best ingredients on the day you visit the restaurant. (So the word ‘seasonal’ or the cliché ‘farm to table’ remain inadequate.) I was taken aback by how much discretion chefs enjoy when designing exclusive kaiseki feasts for their guests. At Kitcho in Arashiyama, the chef-owner Tokuoka-san works like a calligrapher, his style is quite restrained, and it is easier to appreciate him when his whole work is complete rather than on a dish by dish basis. Nakamura-san, on the other hand, is capable of making some bold statements, and his cuisine is quite lusty by Japanese-kaiseki standards. One thing that unites the two chefs is their absolute commitment to their profession and their attention to detail.
Prior to our dinner, we visited the wild monkey forest in Arashiyama. It is the best spot to have a bird’s eye view of Kyoto. Arashiyama is a gorgeous district and a stroll along the bank of the river is recommended.
Kitcho is composed of some 7-8 private rooms, and the room where we dined was elegant and had a view of a beautiful garden. The black lacquered table was also gorgeous.
The meal consisted of 10 courses, including dessert.
The ceramics and the composition of dishes in Kitcho are individual masterpieces. Notice the pink bowl in which o-toro and seasonal greens happily and harmoniously co-exist.
The presentation of dishes is breathtaking. They mimic some aspects of nature, such as an island in the surrounding sea, the waves, the wooded hills, etc. The candles you see below are wrapped in daikon radish cut very thin in circles.
Some natural seashells are used as plates. Others are ceramics inlaid with gold.
Our first course consisted of two elements: pickled amadai fish (tilefish) and shitake mushrooms with mountain potatoes. We then had steamed Japanese cod fish (ainame) with sea cucumber roe (hosiko). Thirdly, we were served tai (red snapper) sashimi with okahigihi (crisp mountain green) and iwataki (tasted like a root vegetable). Monkfish liver mousse was served alongside ponzu, and it married perfectly well with the tai.
Next, we had o-toro and baby squid served with a crunchy green vegetable (mikuna) and pumpkin sprouts. Fifth, incredibly tender bamboo shoots were offered with shaved dried bonito. The chef paired the bamboo shoots with white asparagus, kombo and kinome.
The next course was a delight both for the eye and for the palate (photo above). It consisted of three portions: shrimp dusted with Japanese red mullet roe (karaseme), raw sea cucumber-espardenyes and shitake mushroom, also with fish roe, and, finally, poached torigai (giant scallop) with ginger.
The sweet fleshed baby ‘ayu’ river fish featured in two successive courses.
First, the fish was presented on top of a ceramic cooking pot which contained burning charcoal and a metal cooking grill on top. Next, we had two deep-fried versions of the same fish and swallowed them head to tail by dipping the ayu in ‘tadeza’ sauce. The slightly bitter tasting head was especially flavorful.
We cleaned our taste buds with a remarkably clear dashi which was subtly flavored by ginger.
The final rice course was exquisite, on par with a perfect seafood and vegetable risotto. It featured ice fish from the Shimone prefecture combined with a medley of pickled vegetables and mustard leaves and eggplant. The salty- briny taste in the dish turned out to be shad roe. The chef is a master in blending the appropriate fish roe with many of his dishes to add depth.
The fruit platter had oranges, honeydew and two kinds of strawberries. The quality of strawberries was noteworthy.
We punctuated our meal with an aromatic and slightly bitter green tea which seemed to be a fine digestive after a bottle of champagne and a bottle of house sake.
Nakamura is across the river from Gion, and it was a pleasure to have a walk in traditional Kyoto prior to our 19:00 meal during the beginning of the cherry blossom (sakura) season.
Nakamura is also a traditional restaurant where you take off your shoes and sit on the floor or in low chairs. But it is more comfortable than Kitcho because they have a hole under the beautiful red lacquered table to stretch your feet so that you don’t have leg cramps after three hours.
Six weeks after our meal there, I can still savor some of the flavors. Especially their white miso soup, abalone, grilled amadai, and the rice dish should rank as true classics.
We were served nine courses and a dessert, and some very good sake for a fair price.
The sushi-sashimi course was served along with fresh cherry blossom or sakura leaves. Both the presentation and the flavors were first rate. We wrapped the tai and shrimp sashimi in the sakura leaves to make a roll. The various elements of the first course were: tai sashimi, ebi-shrimp sashimi, steamed octopus, kore himono, mountain potato, and hiyou (small white fish).
White miso soup did not contain kelp or bonito. The exact combination may be a house secret. We were told that they only use water, white miso, and mustard. There was a white rice cake floating on top which added some textural contrast. This soup has to be tasted to believe that white miso can be elevated to this level of excellence.
Next we had another beautifully presented sashimi course with tai, amadai and maguro tuna.
The fourth course was steamed shiroguji (cod) with sake. It was presented in a bowl with bamboo shoots, kelp, shitake, Japanese lime, and kikuno greens.
This was followed by Japanese lobster tail which was first grilled and then cooked in dashi. The dish also contained sesame tofu, citrus fruit, scallion and a thick soy bean curd broth. This was a light and balanced dish.
Both of these courses were impressive in terms of the freshness of the ingredients and the clarity of taste.
The sixth course, the abalone and its liver, was a masterpiece. The chef handled wild abalone very well as it was soft but the taste had a depth that I have never experienced before. The dish was composed of bamboo shoots, hama bofu, kelp, cucumber, hotate, daikon, crunchy greens and ginger.
This was truly a lusty dish.
Nakamura-san followed this masterpiece with another one. He served a good portion of the amadai fish which was first slow-grilled, and then, hot sake was poured on top. The fish was moist and firm.
We were told not to eat the skin and to leave the bones intact.
This is because, after we finished eating the white flesh, they added an indescribably clean dashi (very special kelp and bonito and water—I think the source of the water is the key to making the dashi so exquisite). The whole thing than turned into a Japanese style fish soup with a clear and intense taste. Exquisite!
We must have been so excited with this dish as we have forgotten to take pictures.
Prior to the dessert we were presented with a beautiful ceramic bowl that drove home the point that we were in Kyoto during the beginning of the sakura season.
The lid opened.
This was perhaps the most decadently flavorful rice dish one can ever experience. The thick and incredibly gelatinous broth reminded me of the Basque pil pil sauce. The salmon trout you see in the photo was moist and flavorful. Side dishes included takenoko and kinome and pickled vegetables.
Our feast ended with a strawberry dessert in various textures: soup, jelly, custard. It was refreshing and wonderful in its simplicity.
Chef Motokazu Nakamura should be considered one of the greatest chefs of his generation. His technical command and his calibration of taste is simply stunning. His mother is a most gracious hostess and is justly proud of her son whom, she says, is the 6th generation descendant of the family. There is no doubt that her husband would have approved of his son’s performance.