Kyoto has a lot of wonderful restaurants and food markets. We tried our best to sample as much as we could. Our ryokan dining experiences were special experiences that we will talk about in our upcoming blog on Kyoto Ryokans.
Nishisaka, which is in the heart of Gion, specializes in Shaba Shabu, but offers a few number other dinners as well. We shared two dinners. The tempura dinner included shrimp, squash, turnip, eggplant and green and red pepper tempura, along with rice and a bowl of yuba-covered tofu. We also had beef shaba shabu which came with the same rice and yuba-covered tofu accompaniments, plus a bowl of mushrooms, tofu and assorted vegetables (especially cabbage, sprouts) to be cooked and eaten along with the beef. Although both were good, we were a bit disappointed to find that the cooking pot was filled with water, rather than miso as it is at one of the San Francisco shabu shabu restaurants we like. The miso not only adds taste to what is cooked in it, but also makes for a nice soup when you finish the meal. Not the case with water. Even with this minor disappointment, we still left happy—especially after drinking a bottle of sake.
Wabiya Korekido. This is a chicken restaurant. It has a farm at which it raises (or judging from its own pictures of the farm, "pampers") its own food. The restaurant then uses every part of the bird in one of three multi-course chicken dinners it offers each evening. Our dinner began with a selection of raw vegetables that could be dipped in a delicious white miso paste (which we believe, contained traces of citrus and small pieces of chicken). This was followed with a number of chicken dishes: steamed chicken with a light spring onion sauce, a skewer with chicken leg meat, a skewer with chicken neck meat (not our favorite part of the chicken) and a tasty chicken-duck meatball, this was followed by chicken sukiyaki that was made in front of us. It contained seasoned chicken breast and leg meat, yellow and green onions, two types of mushrooms, potato noodles and soy sauce. This was served with a thick rice porridge and a raw egg (presumably from the farm’s pampered chickens) into which the meat and vegetables are to be dipped before eating. Dessert consisted of ice cream (vanilla) for Joyce and Japanese pudding (like a caramel cream) for Tom.
The restaurant is very popular, came highly recommended by our concierge and provided very attentive, very personalized service. It was also fun sitting at the bar where we could watch the chefs at work. This being said, it wasn’t exactly to our taste. We weren’t enamored with the pieces of the chicken that were used and thought that few of the preparations significantly enhanced the flavors. And for $120 per person (more than $170 including sake, service and tax), we expect much more than what we got.
Sushisei. A very popular sushi restaurant. We understand why. The staff, and especially the chefs are very friendly and engage the customers, many of whom appeared to be regulars. Moreover, the sushi was very fresh, good and reasonably priced. After an hour of sampling and eating small portions of many types of foods at the neighboring Nishiki Market (see below), we speny the last lunch of our trip with flying fish roe, sea urchin and red clam sushi and three types of sashimi: lean tuna, medium fatty tuna and octopus. Tom, however, had seen a very curious looking ingredients in a number of sushi bars over the last week that looked like and had the color and general texture of brain. While the chef couldn’t translate the name, he did have a book that could: soft roe in a sperm sack of any of about fives types of fish (especially mackerel), typically eaten with a light vinegar. Of course, Tom had to try it. It is, as the server suggested in sparing English, an acquired taste that Tom had not yet acquired: very earthy with the texture of a rather mushy roe.
Sho-ya itzakaya. When we asked for a a recommendation for an itzakaya lunch, we expected something like those with which we’re familiar in the U.S.–informal places where you order individual small bites. We ended up at a lovely, informal spot that attracted primarily groups of businessmen and women office workers with a selection of good, relatively inexpensive multi-dish lunches. All such lunches included a salad, a dish of cold, slightly sliced green beans, a bowl of miso soup, a bowl of rice and a choice of main dish. We selected two: sashimi and tempura. Both offered relatively large servings of good food at a reasonable price. While we were initially disappointed that we couldn’t select individual dishes, we ended up quite pleased with our lunches and our Japanese itzakaya experience.
Kokekokko Yakatori. this yakatori bar sits atop a department store with a sweeping view of the city. While the view is certainly sweeping, the city skyline is pretty uninspiring. We did, however, get a nice sampling of grilled food at this chicken-centric restaurant. We had chicken breast (rather tasteless on its own, but nice with the dab of wasabi they put on each bite). The chicken hearts were tasty (especially with the sauce with which they can be ordered). So were the chicken meatballs, the pork sausage and the Eingi mushroom; (two of the fewer non-chicken skewers on the menu. (Although the mushrooms were good, Tom thought they were too salty, which was primary reason Joyce so enjoyed them.) The only real disappointment were the chicken gizzards; dry, tasteless and so tough as to be almost impossible to chew.
Nishiki Market. This 400-year-old market consists of more than 120 stalls housing all types of food vendors. You can get everything from fresh fish, meat, fruits and vegetables, to pickled vegetables, snacks and a wide range of seasonings. The vendors are happy to offer samples, even to foreign tourists who are unlikely to buy their products. Although we were on our way to lunch when we stopped here, we still partook in all types of samples. Tom, as usual, couldn’t restrain himself and had to buy some food including fatty salmon with sesame seeds, grilled calamari, shrimp tempura with a mayonnaise sauce, barbecued oyster, grilled quail, roasted chestnuts and my two favorites: salted eel tempura and Tako Tamago; a grilled baby octopus whose head is stuffed with a quail egg.
Itoh Teppanyaki was the sight of our last supper of a wonderful, but long, trip. And what a Last Supper it was. We were looking for a dinner suitable to the occasion–one that would be as memorable as the entire trip. We got it. Itoh is a small chain, with restaurants in Hakone, Kobe, Osaka and Kyoto in which the chef/owner partnered with star chef Nobu Matsuhisa to offer incredible steak-based meals. For each meal, diners select the type of meat, how much they want (110 or 160 grams) and how they want it cooked. The staff takes care of everything else. We chose dinners based on 110 grams of Kobe beef and 160 of Wagyu–both medium rare. We got a feast, a show and an informative discussion with the chef/owner Keisuke Itoh as to what gives Wagyu beef its unique marbling and taste (primarily a combination of the breed and its special diet) and what makes Kobe beef its particular taste, texture and status (primary the prefecture in which the steers are raised and its rigorous testing and qualification system).
The feast began with slice of fresh sea bream over rice with a touch of soy sauce, followed by a small bowl of onion soup. The hors-d’oeuvre consisted of an imaginative, rich and delicious cheese gratin poured over pieces of bagel with a beef reduction sauce. Then came the appetizer course, an almost entree-sized sea bass fillet with Japanese yams, prepared in front of us on the iron grill, accented with a truffle sauce. The main course, of course, was the beef, liberally salted and peppered, artfully cooked and sliced on the grill. The meat came with a light wasabi pepper sauce and topped with garlic chips (along with conversation). The meal ended with a light touch; a light and creamy blue cheese on a airy rice cracker, followed be a formal dessert of chocolate cake with vanilla ice cream and a sauce made from sweet sake. We enjoyed all of this with a bottle of Argentinian Malbec.
While the food, the service and the atmosphere (we selected seats at the grill rather than at a window overlooking the river) were incredible, such an extravagance doesn’t come cheap. The Kobe dinner (110 grams) was about $126 and the Wagyu (160 grams) $84. But how many times do you celebrate the conclusion of a trip like this? As for the big question–Kobe vs Wagyu. First, we absolutely loved both. As would be expected, however, the Kobe was a little lighter and slightly richer, more tender and more flavorful. Although we loved every bite, for the difference in price, we tend to lean toward the Wagyu.
And now a word about sake. Sake is so essential to the enjoyment of Japanese food that we have to make a special mention. We found extremely attractively-priced daiginjo sake that we loved at a store. The name, translated into English is SECyunomai. The price, Y980, or less than $9.50 for a 750 ml bottle. We will absolutely check it out in the U.S. If we can’t find it, we can always make a trip to Berkeley, right outside of San Francisco, to Takara Sake…a place that produces and sells sake