Kyoto Review: Chihana
A meal at Chihana is an amazing experience. On entering the small restaurant, one could not help marvel at the stacks of colourful porcelain serving dishes, meticulously arranged (there are 6 on each stack), at the back of the counter. Chihana’s Kaiseki is anything but traditional.
1. The first course was hirame fritter with grapefruit jelly. The chef explained that it was from a particularly rare part of the hirame. Could one imagine more contrasting texture and flavor than fritter and jelly?
2. The second course was torigai in white miso sauce. I have never had sweeter and more succulent torigai.
3. Then came shirako with broad beans. The shirako had a milky texture and was piping hot.
4. Next was the cheek of ray fish in ginger and leek soup. I didn’t even know it is edible and its texture was nearly as milky as the shirako.
5. Grilled chu-toro with green onion followed. It was perfect.
6. The next course, vinegared ainame was the only weak link of the meal.
7. The soup course was seaweed and bamboo shoot. Elsewhere, kinome always dot bamboo shoots but much to my relief, the kinome leaf was not meant to be eaten. The soup was clear and the subtle taste offered a wonderful contrast with the ainame.
8. Sashima came next. The hirame and toro sashimi were of the highest quality. The hirame I had was always chewy (not in an enjoyable way), the hirame at Chihana had truly wonderful texture. Only now do I understand why the hirame is such an esteemed fish.
9. The hassun consisted of 5 small plates. A whole range of texture and flavor were on display. The crushed squid and the essence of soy beans were particularly refreshing.
10. Then came grilled mutsu in spring vegetable sauce.
11. Spring vegetables simmered with tofu.
12. Vinegared cabbage with red pepper, pine nut, shira-uno and grape jelly cleanse the palette for the final gohan.
Chihana is a relatively old restaurant (established in 1946) among kaiseki places with over-the-counter style kind of service. This 10-seat restaurant, in the Gion district, is hidden in a small and long alley between two modern shops, near the busy Shijo street. We didn’t get much difficulties to reach here because a lady-staff from Gion Kinana was kindly enough to guide us to reach here – yes, she literally walked with us all the way to Chihana from her ice cream shop (Japanese was indeed really nice and such gesture was one of the reasons we would love to return to this country again & again).
The meal at Chihana consisted of 15 courses and it’s one of a few places where I felt really stuffed towards the end of the meal. My wife was already quite full after about 8 courses, and the attentive Chef Nagata gave her smaller portion than mine since then. The meal began well with prawn jelly served with kaki and renkon (lotus root) – bright, sweet with some texture contrast. The rests are as follow:
The ones I like (not in order),
- Seared maguro with vegetables was good; the dish seemed to be inspired by Chinese food
- The clear soup had good stock (a right amount of katsuo + konbu) though I was not too inspired by the kani-shinjo, hiratake mushroom or spinach inside it
- I enjoyed ika with creamy & sweet uni ‘sauce’ in the hassun; the rests of the items (such as sanma, “salad” with sesame dressing and gingko nut) were alright, but nothing memorable
- My favorite dish was probably Amadai sashimi, served with kelp. The red tilefish was delicious, fresh and rich
- Grilled tai with miso was also great. The fish was of good quality and well executed. The sweet kuwai (duck potato) had interesting texture and sweet
The rests of the dishes were generally fine, but I found many of them had strong taste (a bit too intense). For instance,
- Kamasu (Barracuda) sushi; it has more rice (strongly vinegared) than I get used to for sushi in Japan. It’s quite sweet also – perhaps Kyoto way of doing sushi?
- “Shumai” inside has sawara, slice carrot, kombu and mushroom. This dish looked and tasted more like Chinese food (again); its flavor was simply too strong and cloying. I needed sake and ocha to get rid of the not-so-pleasant after taste. My wife could not finish it
I found the “tempura” dish (stingray and maitake mushroom) was a bit soggy. Perhaps, I should not be too surprised since I experienced similar things (greasy lobster claw tempura) when dining at Robuchon Macau. Even a high end restaurant could slip at times
To be fair, Katsuyoshi Nagata-san tried to balance out his rich dishes by serving sunomono (vinegared salad near the end of our meal. Even the rice dish was simple; the mochi gome rice was served with shiso leaves, chopped mint and tsukemono – producing predominantly sour taste. The dessert was simple and refreshing: a small glass of juice by mixing orange, apple and pear
Before deciding to dine here, I read plenty of positive reviews about Chihana. But, after having this dinner, I had to admit that it’s the ‘weakest’ among high-end restaurants I visited in this trip. We ordered menu C (the middle one). Although the menu was more expensive at Chihana, (for me) the food quality and flavor was not up to the level of Ishikawa or even Koryu. The food presentation was rather ordinary, but many courses were served in pretty antique wares. In my notes, for food only it’s 92 pts (a low 2 ¼* by Michelin standard)
The service, on the other hand, was really good – thoughtful, friendly and attentive. Chef Nagata and his staffs were enthusiastic and genuinely cared about their customers. After the meal, Nagata-san and the restaurant’s okami (none other than his own wife) escorted us out. They helped us hailed a cab on the street and made sure that the taxi driver knew how to get to our (not so well known) ryokan. The restaurant was busy, only 1 seat unoccupied at the counter; the private room was used too. We’re not the only foreigners – next to us, there were 2 teachers from Singapore (teachers are respectable and must be well-paid there) who visited Chihana for the 2nd time but somehow when I mentioned it to Chef Nagata, he was unable to recall their previous visits. Generally, it was not a bad experience at all actually, but we simply ate better somewhere else during this trip. It’s likely that the next time we re-visit Kyoto, unfortunately Chihana would not be on our list – there are just a lot of other great kaiseki restaurants in Kyoto that we want to try in the future.
Click here if you want to see the pictures of my meal: http://www.flickr.com/photos/7124357@...
re: Bu Pun Su
I had dinner recently at Chihiro, pretty much directly across Shijo doori from Chihana, and run by the 3rd son of the original owner of Chihana, so there is a history there.
The quality of the ingredients was high, and preparation was careful, but except for a number of exceptional grilled fishes, it was a solid, but not transcendent experience. Still, probably better than Kikunoi, which I think is vastly overrated.
On top of that, the boss radiates a bad attitude. Nothing in particular, just didn't seem that nice a person, and he treated his many employees rudely.