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



hkballer852 said...

wow! thats so amazing! just wondering how would u compare it with matsukawa and ishikawa?

Bu Pun Su said...

Thanks for reading
"Taste of Kyoto" is a wonderful dining place indeed. For me, both Kyo Aji and Matsukawa are better than Ishikawa

Kyo Aji vs Matsukawa: truly a tough call, very close. For the overall experience (food + service), I would give a slight advantage to Nishi-san's restaurant.

Chef Matsukawa is relatively "young"; I predict that in 5-10 years, his establishment will become the current 'Kyo Aji' or even better