Saturday, January 11, 2014

Kyo Aji Kenichiro Nishi

Kyo Aji may not be a kind of restaurant that many people are familiar with except for serious Japanese gourmands. As a matter of fact, it was not in my radar initially when I did my 'homework'. Kyo Aji, located in the Shinbashi neighborhood, literally means "Taste of Kyoto". Master Chef-Owner Kenichiro Nishi is originally from Kyoto, Japan's ancient capital, before moving and settling in Tokyo. The establishment has been around for more than 40 years and consistently occupying Tabelog's top spot. There is a couple of reasons why this restaurant is not that 'popular'. Firstly, Chef Kenichiro Nishi refused the 3-star Michelin awards, hence you will not see it anywhere in the Red Guide. Like Matsukawa, Nishi-san disliked or didn't care about any awards or publication. Secondly, Kyo Aji is strictly an "introduction-only" restaurant. Sometimes in July, I called and talked with a few Chief Concierges from Tokyo's elite hotels such as Mandarin Oriental, Peninsula, Park Hyatt etc.; all of them informed me that they were unable to secure seats for me and my wife at Kyo Aji. Honestly, I didn't have much hope. I was simply trying my luck and told some chefs and friends about my desire to dine there. 1-2 months before we're leaving Tokyo, my friend's friend suddenly informed me that s(he) knew someone who could and was willing to help us introduce and reserve a meal at Kyo Aji as a gift for our "2nd (delayed) honeymoon".  Moreover, it's a dinner! I would be very ecstatic even with lunch ... Voila, that's how we ultimately could eat here.

Kyo Aji, as the name suggests, serves top quality Japanese traditional food (in kappo-kaiseki style) focusing on Kyoto cuisine. The restaurant only offered one menu - omakase, serving only the best dishes using stunning seasonal ingredients and depending upon diners' food allergy (if any). Since it's a golden opportunity, we made sure that would not be late for our dinner. With a clear map and a picture of the restaurant's entrance, my wife and I managed to reach Kyo Aji 15 min. earlier. As we took pictures around the restaurant's premises, I saw a senior gentleman in white coming out of a side door bid farewell to 3 middle-aged local executives. Then, (in Japanese) I greeted him and asked if he was Kenichiro Nishi-san. Chef Kenichiro said yes and looked a bit puzzled; he might be thinking: "how in the world this foreign stranger knew my name". I told him I got a reservation at his restaurant, after that he called someone from inside and soon a friendly lady in kimono appeared. As we came before our appointment time and it was cold outside, the Okami Makiko Nishi kindly let us waiting inside the private dining room. About 5 min. later, we were escorted to our seats at the counter. Allora, another good fortune - we're seated in the 6th & 7th row from the entrance, in which I could clearly see the legendary chef himself in action. All the 9 spots at the counter were occupied. A memorable gastronomy journey just began; in total the restaurant served us sixteen courses including 2 rice dishes and 2 desserts.

'Amuse-bouche': Anago served with steamed sticky rice and wasabi - The conger eel was light and pure (exploiting the anago's natural flavor), worked well with the 'translucent' mochi rice and pleasant horseradish
Hassun: It consisted of dried & cured mullet roe, 'salad' of cucumber with persimmon sauce & sesame paste, and water chestnut chip - Good quality karasumi; refreshing vegetables; crunchy & slightly bitter chip

Yaki Matsutake: Broiled Matsutake mushroom seasoned with lemon and served with spinach - Along with French morels, this is my favorite mushroom in the world. The matsutake was clean & aromatic with pleasant meaty texture. The chef managed to fully bring out its flavor in this dish. The lemon and spinach provided nice variation
Shirako - A generous serving of plump Cod's milt/fish sperm that's initially boiled with salt only. This winter delicacy showcased different textures: dry & chewy on the surface and creamy/milky inside with subtle sweet sensation   

Taiza Kani - Top notch snow crab from Kyoto is Japan's best crab (possibly also the world's best). It contained plenty of succulent egg sacs. The crab meat, served chilled with the kani miso, was pristine and delicious. Easily the best crab dish I've ever eaten in my life until the ones I had at Matsukawa ..
Deep fried Ebi imo - The shrimp-like taro with curved shape was not greasy at all. It's very delightful, fragrant and tasty. Deceptively simple but required an expert to produce this kind of age-imo, which was crispy outside and still soft inside

Sashimi: Maguro and Tai - High quality of Bluefin tuna without any trace of imperfection; the Sea bream was elegant and delicate with the right amount of chewiness
Hamo Matsutake Nabe: Hot pot containing sliced conger pike eels and Pine mushrooms in dashi and served with sauce (shio & sudachi) - A beautiful marriage of delicious Summer and Autumn ingredients. The flavorful broth was extracted from hamo bones and perfumed by matsutake. The fluffy & full body "king" eel looked like a flower (thanks to many fine slits cut into it). The matsutake offered entrancing aroma while retaining its firm texture; it's very oishii when cooked in hamo dashi. An amazing and unique delicacy, simply perfect!

Moroko-fish and Sole served with Shimeji mushroom and sweet vinegar sauce - The lightly grilled moroko from lake Biwa was savory with sweet/salty taste. The sole fish, dried overnight, was more intense. Enhance both fishes with the pleasant vinegar; the shimeji was nutty with some umami flavor
Kabu cooked in dashi served with shrimp, matsutake and kikuna/shungiku - The round turnip was mild and soft drawing the taste from the mushroom and shrimp while the (edible) chrysanthemum leaves tasted slightly bitter - a nice flavor contrast 

Age Matsutake: Deep fried Matsutake mushroom - Chef Nishi did fabulous job. The matsutake inside was still firm and meaty; the bread crumbs outside was of great quality. The dish was not greasy/soggy at all and I could still taste the pine mushroom subtle flavor. In addition, it revealed an interesting contrast of 'chewy' matsutake and crisp crust. Excellent!
Nimono: Simmered chestnut served with Sea bream - The boiled chestnuts was soft and had a hearty taste that's comforting when the weather was cold. There was a good portion of Tai at the bottom; the white fish flesh was delicate and tasty. A good combination

Matsutake Gohan: Rice cooked in matsutake-based 'dashi' - The Japanese rice, served with radish & pickles, was cooked with broth made of wild pine mushroom. The rice well absorbed the earthy matsutake. Nishi-san didn't do much with it; he simply let the natural smell & taste of Matsutake to shine itself
Sake Harasu Gohan: Grilled Salmon belly with white rice - Kyo Aji's famous rice dish. The gohan had very good texture that went well over carefully broiled salmon. The salmon belly was salty and a bit juicy; it's even better than the matsutake gohan

Kuzu-kiri served with kuromitsu - Kyoto style sweets, the restaurant's signature dessert. Kuzu-kiri was the translucent "noddle" strips (sitting in ice water) that's made of boiled kuzuko while kuromitsu was the brown sugar syrup. It's simple and elegant. The kuzukiri, silky with amazing texture and minimal taste, was dipped into fragrant & liquid kuromizu that had the right amount of sweetness. Together, they're producing an ethereal experience. My best dessert in Japan
Warabi mochi - Jelly-like mochi, served chilled, was freshly made from bracken starch and covered in toasted soybean flour. This Kansai specialty was my wife's most favorite dessert. It's very delicate and quickly dissolved in the mouth; you could hardly chew it. The nutty kinako was flavorful. We ate a couple more warabi mochi during the trip, but nothing came close to this   

Kyo Aji just provided me a fantastic (meal) experience that I would remember and cherish for a long time. The cooking here is all about deep respect to Japan's amazing produces. Master Chef Kenichiro Nishi, often labeled as "God of Japanese Cuisine", consistently brought out the natural and best taste of every ingredient and their beautiful combination . He would not mask/manipulate flavor or do too much with his food; less is more. The result was dishes that were clean, soothing as well as delicious. His cooking method essentially epitomized maturity and simplicity of kaiseki perfection. Everything was in harmony; you hardly find any dish that was not balanced or too rich. I could not agree more when many have said that in order to fully appreciate what Kyo Aji has to offer, it would've been better if you already had (extensive kaiseki) meals elsewhere. It's especially true with my wife's case. She got used more to very flavorful stuffs from South East Asia and could not really differentiate great products at times. Even for me, my understanding and respect towards Nishi-san's dishes grew after having meals at Kyoto Kitcho and Ishikawa. We were told that this year, Matsutake mushroom season appeared later than usual. Hence, we're blessed to still be able to enjoy this delicacy (in fact, lots of them) in the middle of November.

Kyo Aji's service, led by Kenichiro Nishi's eldest daughter, was impeccable. Makiko-san was exemplary and spoke fluent English; she was assisted by 2 other staffs and all of them was courteous, helpful and sincere. Honestly, I was pleasantly surprised. As an exclusive restaurant, I expected to receive formal and rigid treatment at Kyo Aji, perhaps similar to my experience at l'Ambroisie. It's totally the opposite. We felt very comfortable and had a wonderful time. Nishi-san was really welcoming, caring and easy going. With the assistance for his daughter, he initiated plenty of conversation. For instance: whether our home/family was not affected by typhoon haiyan, what we would do during our stay in Japan, how we found out about his restaurant etc. When my wife asked for a 2nd help of the warabi mochi, he was curious if it's that tasty. Thus he tasted a couple pieces of his own creation (except for the dashi, I didn't really notice that he often sampled the restaurant's dishes). Furthermore, Chef Nishi asked when we intend to come back again because he's already old and can be 'gone anytime - though he still looked healthy. I thought it was both funny and a bit sad. Toward the end, I requested to take a picture with him and Chef Nishi immediately agreed. He suggested that it would be better to do it outside, in front of his beloved restaurant. Even in his mid/late 70's, Nishi-san was still energetic - you should see his lively spirit and radiant face in the picture from the link below. He's so passionate that he not only supervised his staffs in the kitchen, but also cooked several dishes. Unbelievable! As we bid farewell, he told his daughter to make sure the taxi driver knew our hotel address. I was very touched by his kind gestures, after all he's a "kaiseki God". What a gracious host, humble person and superb chef.  

Kyo Aji has become my 2nd favorite restaurant in the world, very close to Alain Passard's l'Arpege. Everything worked well together; I was not sure if we were lucky or it was a destiny. The Matsutake mushroom, usually finished by end of October, was still available in mid November this year. Due to the unusual cold weather, people could eat Taiza crab in early Nov; also how in the world Kyo Aji still had high quality Hamo in the Autumn. Any dishes with these ingredients as the main stars were my favorite. It might sound weird, but I felt that we found favor in the eyes of the Nishi family (Kenichiro Nishi and Makiko Nishi) in many ways. First, without being accompanied by the regular, we had a dinner meal; normally, newcomer could reserve lunch only. Next, it's Kenichiro-san's act of kindness and generosity as described in the previous paragraph. Then, as if we've known each other for years, Makiko-san shared lots of interesting stories, many of them happened to be personal, ranging from the younger days of his father, the building's story, the future of Kyo Aji, what they often do together as a family, some his dad's characters & personalities and many more. While doing that, she never failed to explain every dish, patiently answer any questions we had and continuously delivered immaculate service. She really made us feel "at home". We're surprised at how Makiko-san openly shared many "private" things including her own family since she barely knew me and my wife. With that kind of trust, I decided not to spill the beans. Lastly, some of you may have pondered this but I would to apologize in advance that I could not help any of you make a reservation here. Visited this place once does not make me a regular (yet).

Kyo Aji prepared a kaiseki meal that was truly a celebration of senses and life; it embodied the equilibrium permeating through nature as well as the heart of the altering seasons. I could see that Kenichiro Nishi-san cooked with every element of his life: head, heart and even his soul. The result was delightful and flavorful dishes. It has been privileged and great pleasure to dine at Kyo Aji. In a rather ordinary dining room lies an extra ordinary meal and people. Please click the following link to see the pictures of what I ate: Kyo Aji Fall 2013

Food: 99 pts

Service: 97 pts

Overall: 98.5/100


Friday, January 3, 2014

Kyoto Kitcho Kunio Tokuoka

Talking about traditional kaiseki restaurant in Japan, one cannot help but to mention the name Kitcho (literally means Good Omen). It was founded by a legendary chef Teichi Yuki in 1930 with the oldest branch located in Koraibashi, Osaka. However, among all of Kitcho establishments, the most famous and arguably the current best one is Kyoto Kitcho, in the Arashiyama district near the gorgeous Ooigawa river. Kunio Tokuoka, the grandson of Kitcho founder, is a very capable and talented chef who currently owns and runs the flagship restaurant of Arashiyama Kitcho as well as the other Kitcho restaurants in Toyako and Nagoya. In the middle of November this year, my wife and I were fortunate to have the opportunity to have lunch at Kyoto Kitcho honten. Prior to our meal, we came early to enjoy the beautiful scenery of Arashiyama in the Fall with its red, orange and yellow color momiji (Japanese maples). It was a busy weekend with a nice sunny weather. After more than 20 min. walk from Keifuku Arashiyama station, we eventually reached the rustic gate with gravel path entrance of the luxury Kitcho restaurant.

As my wife and I entered the restaurant, we were greeted by a young man who watered the front garden (later we learned that he's actually Chef Tokuoka's son). Then, a friendly kimono-clad lady led us to our private room in the 2nd floor without any private garden. We're given a welcome drink and hot towel. A few minutes later, a lady came and apologized that our tatami room was supposedly at the first floor. I don't mind this "mistake" since the new room was actually a lot bigger (can comfortably sit 6 guests altogether) and it has an attractive Japanese garden. The room was spacious with a calm and peaceful atmosphere. Having a meal at Kitcho was designed in such a way that we would not see or hear other guests' presence; as if we're the only diners in the entire ryotei. After taking off our coats and receiving another towel, our room attendant soon brought and put the 1st course of our meal on the black lacquer table. The lunch journey at this fine Japanese restaurant just started and below is the full menu.

The Appetizer (Shiizakana): Steamed chicken served with persimmon and vegetables with vinegar jelly; Salted and dried mollet roe with turnip - The yasai (carrot, cucumber) was refreshing and crunchy, more dominant than the chicken; whereas the karasumi was of high quality as expected

The Soup (Suimono): Clear soup of Snow crab - The soup was clean and delicate; the Zuwai-gani was tender and sweet; the grilled tofu was silky and smooth. Half way savoring this owan, it's recommended to enjoy it altogether with the nori. A tasty dish though not in the level of Matsukawa's soup (crab + matsutake)

The 1st Sashimi (Mukouzuke): Kelp grouper - The sakana was served with Iwatake mushroom, ponzu (light & pleasant) and liver (rich & intense) sauce. The first time I eat this kind of white fish. The Kue has high quality flesh with sophisticated flavor. It worked well with either sauce 

The 2nd Sashimi (Mukouzuke): Seared Japanese lobster and squid - The seafood was served with shio, sesame and dashi soy sauce. The Ise ebi was perfectly cooked and succulent while the Ika was tender (not rubbery at all). Another great sashimi dish

The Side Dish (Kuchitori): Snow crab - The Zuwai-gani's meat and kani miso was umami and of excellent quality. We had the option to heat up the crab on top of a ceramic cooking pot (containing burning charcoal) to make the crab's flesh tasted sweeter. The strong flavor of kani's 'brain' was nicely balanced out with the yuzu sauce

The Assorted Delicacies (Hassun) presentation - An appetizer platter commemorating and celebrating the (Autumn) season. It consists of: Boiled Cod's milt with vinegar jelly, Filed caviar mixed with abalone, Shrimp with moromi miso, Stewed tongue of beef, Egg and fish cake, Deep-fried gingko nuts and Salmon roe
There were 7 different kinds of food from the mountains and the sea: The Ikura was of stunning quality, Shirako with jelly and veggie was very good, The beef tongue was smooth and delicious, gingko mochi was crunchy and bitter, the prawn was firm. The rests (fish cake & abalone) were just fine. An elegant display of the season's diversity in color, texture, flavor and smell

The Grilled food (Yakimono): Grilled Butterfish served with chestnut and deep-fried turnip - The flavorful and top quality Mana Katsuo was expertly seasoned and carefully grilled. The kabu tempura, gari, and prawn head provided interesting variation

The Steamed food (Mushimono): Simmered taro, carrot, Shiitake mushroom and kujyo leek - The leek and shiitake were my favorites. The carrot and taro were rich & coarse but they well absorbed the acidic 'soup'

The Rice (Gohan) and Pickled vegetables (Tsukemono): Cooked rice (Koshihikari from Niigata) with Matsutake and grilled beef. The pickles, having different colors and textures, were turnip mixed with bonito flakes, Mibuna leaves mixed with sesame and Hinona turnip - The "matsutake broth rice" with glazed Kyoto beef was very impressive. I had a 2nd helping. In addition, we were also served a bowl of pure white rice; each grain was tasty. One of the best rice dish in kaiseki
The Dessert (Kudamono): Assorted fruit before plating served with "orange" sauce (a mixture of egg, sugar, milk and cream) - The ripeness of each fruit was amazing. I love all of them: a big and flavorful peeled grape, the musk melon was moist and sweet, the pear was crisp and sweet; the kaki was watery and tender. An awesome fruit dessert, each kind was probably the best I've ever encountered

The Sweet (Wagashi): Rice cake with adzuki bean jam in the shape of a boar - Soft and sweet 'mochi' to accompany the bitter and hot matcha

The classic cha-kaiseki meal at Kyoto Kitcho was indeed excellent. The dishes were faithfully following the rhythm of a season; they're perfectly executed based on high quality ingredients that were carefully sourced all over Japan. Kunio Tokuoka, the recipient of Japanese Medal of Honor with purple ribbon, believes that every dish coming from the kitchen has to have the following elements: artistic & elegant, smells good, representing Japanese tradition & culture, as well as delicious. Chef Tokuoka's food is dynamic and keeps evolving; sometimes he's not afraid to mix it with modern technique or even using non-Japanese ingredients. One thing worth mentioning was that a few of our dishes were presented on antique (several hundred years old) and expensive ceramics. I was very impressed later upon knowing that the amazing food had been prepared while Tokuoka-san himself was not present in the restaurant that day. Kudos to the restaurant's Chef de Cuisine.

Throughout our meal, we were served by a young lady, in kimodo-clad, who was incredibly courteous, professional, warm and helpful. She's also very knowledgeable about the dishes and quite entertaining; she shared plenty of things from stuffs in Kyoto to her own family. Despite Kitcho's luxurious atmosphere and 'formal' setting, she wanted to make sure that we would feel extremely comfortable all the time. The service was (pretty much) immaculate. If I had to be picky, one small issue would be the fact that the hostesses (Madame Tokuoka) did not visit our room during the meal. In the tradition of dining at refined ryotei, it's known that the Okami (either the Chef's wife or daughter) is required to greet her guests especially when the Chef-owner is not around. When I ate at Genyana Hamadaya a few years ago, we were served by the Okami's daughter most of the time. In the middle of the meal, Keiko Mita (the lady owner) visited and talked to us for several minutes as part of  Japanese tradition in any ryotei/ryokan. Anyway, I would not penalize our waitress' impeccable service due to such trivial matter. At the end, our room attendant, along with Madame Tokuoka and her son, escorted us out until we're out of the main gate. 

Kyoto Kitcho somewhat reminded me of Le Louis XV. I found Kunio Tokuoka-san and Monsieur Alain Ducasse have similar dining concept/philosophy. Both of them created restaurants that are THE place to experience "over-the-top spare-no-expense" gastronomy with respect to its own unique cuisine: the setting is luxurious, the tableware is the best money can buy, the service is faultless, the ingredients are top notch, and every dish is thoughtful, perfectly executed and extremely tasty. Additionally, both Tokuoka and Ducasse own multiple high end restaurants in different cities and countries respectively; they also hardly stay put in any single place for a long time - not even in their own flag ship restaurant. In short, Kitcho Arashiyama honten is exclusive and refined. It came with a (steep) price tag, but one would certainly experience fantastic and memorable culinary journey in his/her lifetime - at least my wife and I did. If the time and financial situation permit, I will love to return here in the future. For the pictures, please check the following link: Kitcho Arashiyama Autumn 2013
Food: 97 pts

Service: 95 pts

Overall: 96.5/100