Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Mizai Hitoshi Ishihara

Mizai was one of the main reasons for our visit to Japan in early October last year. It was notorious to be one of the most difficult seats to secure among Kyoto's restaurants but it was fair. Mizai is not one of those introduction-only dining places and it would allow diners to reserve even as far as 6 months in advance (that's what I did although my schedule had not been set in stone at that time). Thankfully, many things went as planned and finally we managed to dine and savor Hitoshi Ishihara's creations. Had we failed to book a table here, we would not have visited the Kansai region a few months ago.

Mizai's new location is still in the Maruyama park area and not too far from the road. Since the hotel concierge informed us that we had to be punctual, we reached the restaurant at 5:30 PM by taxi. It was chill outside; we were among the first guests arrived at the restaurant and only 15 min later, one of the junior chefs opened the main gate and allowed us to enter the restaurant. He served hot tea and hot towel to four guests at the waiting area while the rests had to wait outside until the party inside had been escorted to their seats. By 6 PM, all guests had arrived and been seated. Owner-chef Hitoshi Ishihara emphasized the significance of cha-kaiseki tradition (chanoyu); one of them was he would serve each course together to all diners at the same time and describe the dishes once they're in front of us. It's almost like a professor explain some materials to his students. We happened to be the only non-Japanese guests and neither Ishihara-san nor his helpers spoke English. Thus, communicating and understanding the stuffs we ate were very challenging especially since taking pictures were not allowed in the premises (except to take a photo together with the master chef at the end of the meal).

Meal at Mizai began by Chef Ishihara himself poured an aperitif sake to every guest. Following this, we had the real kaiseki feast ... 

1st course: "Mukozuke". To open up our appetite, Mizai prepared a small amount of top quality white rice, soup, salad and pickles. The shiru was a clear miso served with freshly grated wasabi, ginkgo, and chestnut while the salad consisted of some kinoko (mushroom), edamame and light goma dressing. A 'humble' dish that was mild, a little bit spicy. sweet and bitter altogether

2nd course: Sashimi; the presentation was impressive and each fish was masterfully cut. Mizai served this course on a couple of big and artistic china with precise plating. We had Sumi-ika (smooth & tasty squid), O-toro (marbled & melting tuna belly), Maguro (tender & bright lean tuna), Tai (fresh sea bream with excellent texture), Shima aji (clean striped horse mackerel), Engawa (delicate fluke fin) and Aji (tasty jack mackerel). Note that: each person was served 2 slices of every kind, so it implied that each of us supposedly consumed 14 pieces of exceptional fish :-)
The sashimi was served a few 'dressings' with ponzu sauce, salt, Tai liver (very rich) and shoyu+nori in cube form. For garnishes to enhance the overall enjoyment, the kitchen served grated ginger, radish, wasabi, naga imo (mountain yam) as well as shira negi (leeks). I thoroughly loved it. The abundant quantity did not compromise the fish's quality but I could understand if some people, in particular with small appetite, might have been overwhelmed given it's only a second course

3rd course: Shinjo Wan; fish dumpling in clear broth. Inside the soup, there were earthy matsutake, kuri (sweet chestnut) and Guji shinjo (delicate and mildly flavored Amadai). The dashi was superb with the addition of lime to balance the dish - very good

4th course: Yakimono. Lightly grilled local wagyu beef served with green pepper and some kind of sweet dressing (like a mixture of apple & honey sauce). The rich but rather lean beef was cut into smaller pieces and it was delicious. I found the sauce was bold and unusual

5th course: Chawanmushi; savory steamed egg custard was a conceptually simple dish but often complex to be properly executed. Chef Ishihara was on different level as his luxurious version of chawanmushi was silky, light and umami. It was served with hamo, matsutake and gingko - they provided some nice textural contrast. A common dish was elevated to fine dining level

6th course: Hassun; a tray showcasing several kinds of seasonal delicacies from the mountain and the sea - the presentation was extravagant and decorative, I wish I had the pictures of this dish. The hassun was amazing - both in the eye and in the palate.
Some items were: Chestnut soup, broiled Iwashi (sardine) with sauce, creamy Uni with sesame cream, tasty Ikura rice, decent Kohada, cooked Lotus root, Edamame, crisp Maitake tempura, tender braised tako with sweet sauce, Hokkaido roast duck with mustard etc. I might have forgotten 1-2 other things. Many of these were served with some kind of light and quite acidic 'jelly' sauce
Each 'dish' was meticulously prepared and executed, such as the salmon roe and baby octopus were about as good as the ones I ate at Sushi Yoshitake. Again, many of the items served was multiple pieces. The bigger enjoyment was the ability to take a small byte here and there to experience different kinds of flavor, texture, and temperature. Though it may look cliche, but for me, the whole pleasant experience here was simply greater than the sum of its parts

7th course: Nimono. For the simmered dish, we had delicious & sweet Nishin (herring fish) served with stewed Satoimo (taro root) and yuzu. Satisfying

8th course: Cooked seafood. They're dazzling - fresh, high quality and flawlessly prepared. Hokkaido Kegani (hairy crab), Kuro Awabi (abalone) and Salmon. Looked ordinary but flavorful

9th course: Yuto accompanied by Konomono. At first, we're given a small portion of top quality rice then we would serve for ourselves a big bowl containing clear broth and crunchy browned rice/cereal to be shared with a few other guests. The pickles were crunchy and rich. It was quite interesting and the 'common' ingredients were superior. You're welcome to eat as much rice/soup as you want

10th course: Mizumono. The dessert was Japanese sweets made with chestnut and bean paste. They were alright. Then following cha-kaiseki ritual, the assistant chef passed a bowl of (foamy and bitter) matcha, each was carefully prepared by Chef Ishihara himself. I loved this powdered green tea; probably the best I've had for this trip      

11th course: Kudamono; it's no secret that Japan is blessed with numerous top quality fruits. Mizai mixed possibly more than a dozen of different local fruits and they're superb in particular figs, grapes, pawpaw, melon and pear. In addition, we also ate raspberries, dragon fruit, orange, peach, apple, papaya, and blueberries. The assorted fruit was served with champagne jelly. My spouse was full at this point, and I had no problem finishing 1/4 of her 'fruit salad'   

Mizai has been constantly leading the Kyoto tabelog for several years now. It should not come as a surprise because Hitoshi Ishihara is a capable, talented and respectable chef in Japan. In his younger years, Ishihara-san was already a well-known prodigy in cooking washoku. Before opening his own restaurant, Chef Ishihara honed his skills for more than 20 years, mainly at Arashiyama Kitcho in which he became the ryotei's youngest head chef. After this meal, I could confidently say that Mizai provided generous food and impeccable dishes that utilized fresh and outstanding ingredients mainly sourced from Kyoto area and its surroundings. It has been the commitment and the passion of Ishihara-san to introduce as many local produce as possible and prepared them skillfully. He 'warned' us not to be surprised if for subsequent visits in the future, he would serve even more items than what we had that night.  He was indeed a confident chef with a unique style; Ishihara-san effortlessly composed dishes using various ingredients and carefully adjust them to reach a perfect balance with deep flavor. Not only in cooking, he was also a genius in pottery and literature. When not busy, he would design and create lidded bowls to be used for his own restaurant. Additionally, he wrote a cooking book that according to my Japanese friend (Ki-sho head chef) was very philosophical and sometimes not easy to understand even among Japan's chefs.

Mizai is not a big kappo-kaiseki restaurant. The main counter could accommodate about 12 people; it also has a single private room. It has one seating only every night, this should explain why getting a seat here would often require tenacity, patience and perhaps luck. The dining room was fresh & clean with sufficient light. The beautiful counter was made of an exotic and gorgeous lacquered wood. At Mizai, sometimes for the same dishes, Hitoshi Ishihara would use different plates and china for his guests - this make a special experience by itself. The hospitality was wonderful with friendly and helpful staffs. Following a traditional root/culture of Japanese kaiseki, only males work here. Except Ishihara-san and his sous chef, it seems that the waiters were 'discouraged' to speak to guests especially about food and beverages. Overall, it was a very memorable dinner. The progress of the meal was well-structured and the kitchen was more than able to consistently produce good quality dishes that were outstanding in both presentation and flavor. Along with Kunio Tokuoka's flagship restaurant, Mizai stood as the best and my favorite dining place in Kyoto & Osaka areas.  

Food: 97 pts

Service: 93 pts

Overall: 96/100

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