Saturday, December 12, 2015

Kyo Aji Kenichiro Nishi - 2nd visit

2 years ago, I was very excited to be able to have dinner at Kyo Aji, an introduction-only (kappo) kaiseki establishment in Japan. That dinner immediately ranked in the top 3 as the finest meal I've ever had. Since I cannot (yet) be considered as 'regular' at Kyo Aji, I was not very sure whether I would be able to return here particularly as Autumn is generally the favorite season among the restaurant's regular guests. Furthermore, the restaurant can only accommodate 15 people, including the private room. A couple of months prior to my visit, I was thrilled knowing that once again my wife and I would have the opportunity to savor the creations of the legendary Kenichiro Nishi. This time was for lunch and it was special because I was celebrating my 35th birthday at my favorite restaurant in the Land of the Rising Sun. In fact, Kyo Aji was the only restaurant that I re-visit in Japan during 2 separate years.

Our initial reservation time was at 1 PM, but Makiko Nishi, the restaurant's okami, suggested us coming earlier at around noon time so that we would not be rush and the kitchen would be able to prepare more dishes for us - what a kind gesture! From the original booking, my concierge at hotel Okura informed me that we would be seated at the private room. I was really glad when we arrived at Kyo Aji and knowing that the counter seating was still available. Of course, I decided to seat there instead of the private room. It was always fun to see the live action of Master Chef Kenichiro Nishi and his kitchen staffs. It seems that I have a good luck in terms of eating Matsutake, Japan's highly sought-after mushroom. 2 years ago, the Matsutake harvest was late so we still could eat this Pine mushroom in the middle of November. On the contrary, this year, the harvest was a bit early (coming out in September) hence our lunch at Kyo Aji in early Oct coincidentally was the 'peak' period for Matsutake season. Consequently, our meal was quite similar to what we had a couple of years ago except this time we still had a chance to eat Kamo nasu often known as Kyoto's queen of eggplants. However, I love that this happened since I just cannot have enough of Matsutake - officially, my favorite mushroom in the world.  

Sekihan aka Azuki-meshi: Rice with red adzuki beans served with Shiro miso soup - The rice, a mixture of normal rice + mochigome + a little salt, had minimal taste & a good texture. On the contrary, the white miso soup was earthy, more intense with concentrated flavor but not so salty. A beginning for a celebration ...
Zensai (Starters): Lightly grilled Kamasu (Barracuda) with char skin + meaty and juicy pink flesh; Ginkgo nuts had slight bitter taste; Quail egg with uni had interesting flavor; cooked Shimeji mushroom was alright; and Tamago with kani was a bit sweet 

Shirako: Sacs of Cod's milt served with Sudachi (Citrus) - Shirako season came pretty early this time and Kyo Aji gave us even a more generous portion than the one we had in our previous visit. The surface was a bit crisp while the interior was creamy with custard-like texture. The overall taste was naturally sweet but light and heavenly, seriously! Obviously, the shirako was of top produce and perfectly executed - slowly enjoying it in my mouth. I might not be comfortable yet eating 'random' Cod's milt - only the one of high quality such as this one
Grilled Matsutake served with spinach and ponzu sauce - Kyo Aji is arguably the best place to savor this "Pine mushroom" that had distinct aroma and unique flavor. It was also meaty, slightly salty and a little acidic from the dressing (a combination of soy sauce and citrus juice). Truly a delightful dish and delicious since this Matsutake's cap was still relatively 'closed' 

Kamo Nasu Dengaku: Baked/slow roasted Kyoto Eggplant served with sweet miso + Aka uni - The eggplant was sublime with delicate texture; it surprisingly tasted even better than the creamy red sea urchin but both ingredients complemented each other. The dish was enhanced by the sweet but light miso paste. A classic & unpretentious Kyoto-style dish that was executed meticulously
Tai (Japanese Sea Bream/Natural Snapper) Sashimi served with shio and 'sour sauce' - The Japan's king of fish was really good though we consumed it in Autumn, probably since the tai was caught off the coastal city of Akashi. The white fish had wonderful natural flavor and firm flesh. It will not be easy to find a better Tai sashimi

Hamo Nabe Matsutake: "Shabu2" of Pike conger and Pine mushroom - My favorite soup dish in the world and having it during the peak season of Matsutake was truly special. The dashi, made of hamo's bone, was very savory with deep flavor; it was scrumptious and pretty much 'perfect' that I did not really bother to utilize the lime and ponzu this time. The broth was perfumed by thick & clean Matsutake as well. The Hyogo's pike conger beautifully bloomed into fluffy 'white flower'. Both the flavors and fragrant of the sea and forest were simply ethereal - also showcasing the soft and meaty texture contrast. Oishii
Simmered and then grilled Tai head - It was served with 'green' sauce containing vinegar and herbs to improve the sea bream's meat flavor. We were encouraged to eat using our hands since it was not easy to consume all the meats by using only the chopsticks. The most delicious element was the part near/below the fish's eye (eye muscle?). It was not big, but very divine - just one byte. The white flesh, mainly near the cheek, was generally delicate and slightly sweet whereas around the jaws was tender. It was an enjoyable dish except it had plenty of bones 
Nishin to Nasu: Herring fish and Eggplant served with snow peas - This was a hearty dish often eaten by common people in Kyoto. A good example of humble and rustic dish that was phenomenal, perfectly executed and full of umami flavor. The nishin was tender and somewhat salty; it helped bring out the optimal flavor of the juicy nasu. In contrast to the soft eggplant was the fresh and firm snow peas. Don't forget to finish up the umami 'soup' below that predominantly having autumn eggplant taste
Matsutake "Furai": Deep fried Pine mushroom - This dish was served with shio, shoyu and sudachi; choose your own way to eat! It was done by Nishi-san himself and of course flawless. The matsutake was not greasy and still had its meaty texture, fragrant aroma and unique flavor (here, it's a bit sweeter than usual - love it). The kitchen did not usually serve this dish during lunch as we got it because we requested in the beginning. I've never got enough of Matsutake at Kyo Aji ;)
Kuri to Amadai: Steamed Japanese Chestnut with Tilefish - They thought I was full; I said no when Makiko-san offered me this dish. I had it a couple of years ago, liked it a lot then and still loved it this time. This simmered dish might look unpleasant, but it was very delectable. The fried and firm Amadai was dried a few days to develop its rich flavor; the chopped chestnut was sweet and soft. A nice display of contrast texture while the flavorful elements enhanced one another. The non-cloying thick sauce had wasabi and some arrowroot elevated this 'ugly' dish even more. It would take a genius to create such dish ..
Matsutake Gohan: Matsutake Rice served with Fall pickles - The rice looked beautiful, didn't it? You could see the grain clearly - flawlessly cooked. I had plenty of Matsutake gohan during this trip, thus I only had a bowl of it. The one served here was among the finest (top 3) - I liked it when the rice had more intense matsutake's flavor and aroma. The tsukemono was also very good
Sake Harasu Gohan: Salmon belly rice - The timeless dish of Chef Nishi. A great transition from aromatic matsutake gohan into a more flavorful with stronger texture salmon rice. The 'sake' was well seasoned and carefully grilled above binchotan; resulting in delicious crispy skin and juicy meat yet not overly salty. Consuming it with Japanese rice was heartwarming indeed. It would be a big mistake not to have a second bowl of this - somehow, I never get tired of repeating the same dishes at Kyo Aji - perhaps they're simply marvelous!
Kuzukiri to kuromitsu: Kudzu starch in noodle-like strips served with brown sugar syrup - Another dessert specialty at Kyo Aji that's probably more unusual for foreigners than the warabi mochi. The hot & translucent 'noddles' (put into ice water) was silky, thin but didn't easily break. You dip the kuzukiri inside the sweet but balanced syrup, then slurp it slowly to savor its tasty flavor and very decent texture. Again, Nishi-san himself precisely prepared this signature dish. It was so outstanding that I doubt I would ever eat a better kuzukiri than the one served here
Warabi mochi to kinako: Japanese 'rice cake' made of bracken starch and covered with roasted soybean flour - The desserts at Kyo Aji also never changes, but they're classic and you would want to keep them actually. We usually began with this soft and sticky mochi served together with the kinako that had an acquired sweet taste & delicate texture. These were a joy in the mouth. I consumed 2 portions on my own. The key to this 'great' sweet was to have lots of kinako to go along combined with the top quality and gooey (hand-made) warabi
The food at Kyo Aji has been excellent. Kenichiro Nishi is more than able to perform at high level all the times. The 2nd visit made me appreciate the food even more. I noticed that most dishes (whether the dashi, seasoning and 'sauce') were more flavorful while still maintaining Nishi-san's style to prepare light & clean items with complex taste. Because they're very delicious, in more than one occasion, I decided to skip the condiments such as shoyu or sudachi when enjoying the dishes during this visit. The trio of Matsutake were still incredible and flawlessly executed, so were the rice as well as the desserts. Another thing that truly stood out was Chef Nishi's skills to elevate simple ingredients and homey dishes to the perfection of fine dining level such as the ones with eggplants and chestnuts. Essentially, every dish has been carefully prepared; when you tasted them, they're not only delicious and comforting but also deep and balanced. Even after doing this for more than 50 years, we could see that Nishi-san was still passionate in the kitchen. He's always there and leading by example - hands on whenever possible despite being in advanced age. 

What was as memorable as the food at Kyo Aji was its hospitality. Once again, the chef-owner Kenichiro Nishi led the way. When we arrived at the restaurant, there were 4 other guests already seated inside. Yet, upon knowing other guests arrived, Chef Nishi, wearing his Geta, came out and greeted us. Then, the "Kaiseki God" himself escorted us to the dining room. Not only that, he even voluntarily pulled and pushed our chairs! Ladies and gentlemen, he's nearly 80 years old and given his stature, we were truly humbled and became a bit 'uncomfortable' receiving his sincere kindness ... after all, we're not the restaurant's VIPs but very grateful to be treated as such. As soon as we're seated, the sous chef told the waitress to inform Makiko Nishi that we had arrived. In less than 5 minutes, the okami welcomed us and this time she's not wearing the kimono. It's likely that day or during our lunch was her off-day but we indirectly "made" her return to the restaurant. As expected, she declined our conjecture and told us not to worry about it. The service went smoothly. Ms. Makiko clearly explained the dish especially the one we didn't have before. He also acted as a translator and mediator between us and her father. This time she also shared that Nishi-san was actually a very approachable person. Her father like many different kind of cuisine and even simpler food - he would be satisfied even with rice, egg & pickles. At around 2 PM during our lunch, her dad already asked her what he would have for lunch that day - he could choose only when Makiko was the one preparing the food, but not when here mother was around. Moreover, according to Makiko-san, her dad never complained & criticized his wife cooking at home even though when even she thought it had not been good. An interesting short story and perspective about the life of probably the most respectable chef in Japan.    

On this special occasion, Kyo Aji kindly shared Kenichiro Nishi's private collection of Kokuryu Junmai Ginjo. If not mistaken, we drank the "black dragon" version - there was a more exclusive and exotic type of the Kokuryu sake. Our sake was balanced, a bit sweet and rich, smooth with a quick finish. We were the last guests to leave the restaurant for this lunch. Following the tradition of omotenashi,  Chef Nishi, supported by his cane and accompanied by his daughter, bid us farewell on the street. He patiently entertained our request to take other pictures with him. As we were walking and leaving the restaurant, we could not help but look back and gave another bow to show our respect and grateful feeling to Nishi-san for being such a grateful host and giving us another meal to remember. He would smile, waived back towards us and kept standing as long as we're in his sight. I told my wife to take the first turn available after this so that we would not 'bother' them although going straight was a more appropriate to our next destination. Another positive note - I was pleased to see that Nishi-san still looked healthy and energetic with radiant face. Cannot wait for another opportunity to return to this temple of haute Japanese cuisine. Readers can find the pictures of the meal here: Kyo Aji Oct '15

Food: 99 pts

Service: 97 pts

Overall: 98.5/100

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