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Jan 10, 2014 09:16 PM

Kenichiro Nishi's "Taste of Kyoto"

I almost forgot the review of arguably my most important meal in Japan; here you go

If you had to name a restaurant in Japan that many people, including famous and highly accomplished chefs, revere the most, it’s likely to be Kyo Aji. This restaurant has been identical with excellence, perfection and ‘ichiban’. Out of my curiosity, during this trip I was talking to a few chefs including Matsukawa and it proved to be correct that when you mentioned this restaurant’s name or asked what the best (kaiseki) restaurant was, generally they concur that Kyo Aji stays at the top or very near to it. As some of you might have known, the master chef/owner Kenichiro Nishi refused the 3-star Michelin award for his restaurant.

My wife and I were very fortunate to have been able to dine here. Our dinner reservation was around 8:30 PM and we arrived 30 min. earlier. It was a windy night, colder than the normal mid-November weather. Since the restaurant was full, we had to wait: about 5 min outside and 10 min in the private room. Then, we were escorted to our seats at the counter; it’s almost in the middle. Located in the Shimbashi neighborhood, Kyo Aji’s building look traditional and simple but very Japanese – it can be mistaken for any regular house except for the kanji sign at the entrance. The decor inside was also quite humble; hardly representing “fine dining” places as I know in Europe/America. One thing caught my eye was a counter made of a single slab of hinoki – it’s still robust and really clean given this restaurant has been around for more than 40 years.

Let’s come to the substance: the food. A typical Japanese kaiseki place, Kyo Aji only served one menu – Chef’s omakase. It’s quite long and I was very pleased with it. The top dishes I ate here easily among the best stuffs I’ve ever had in Japan. Here are my top 3-4 dishes:
- Taiza-gani (snow crab from Kyoto). This crab’s quality was stunning; its meat, with some kani miso, was pristine and delicious. I also enjoyed the succulent egg sacs. Only Matsukawa’s crab dishes could be considered slightly better
- Matsutake. I was told it’s a miracle that by mid Nov this year we were still able to enjoy fresh & top notch (wild) pine mushroom. I love all of the characteristics in this “true” pine mushroom (tricholoma matsutake especially with its cap on): distinctive spicy/intense odor, meaty texture and complex flavor (a mixture of meaty, spicy and slightly sour) – just beware that not everyone would like matsutake especially for those who prefer tamely flavored mushroom. There were 2 matsutake exclusive dishes I liked very much. First, yaki matsutake - The chef managed to fully bring out its flavor in this dish. The lemon and spinach provided nice variation. Secondly, age matsutake - 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
- Hamo matsutake nabe. This hotpot dish revealed a beautiful marriage of delicious summer and autumn ingredients. It’s among the very best thing I’ve ever had in my life. The flavorful broth was extracted from pike conger eel bones and perfumed by pine mushroom. The fluffy and full body hamo looked like a flower (due 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!

There were actually no bad dish at all. Some other very good dishes were:
Shirako - This winter delicacy (Cod’s milt) showcased different textures: dry and chewy on the surface and creamy/milky inside with subtle sweet sensation. I ate many of it in this trip and the one at Kyo Aji top it all except maybe when compared to Fugu shirako.
Age ebi imo - It's very delightful, fragrant and tasty. Deceptively simple but required an expert to produce this kind of deep fried taro, which was crispy outside and still soft inside

Along with the ones at Kitcho Arashiyama, the rice dishes here are the most delicious. At the beginning, the restaurant served matsutake gohan - 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. Even the tsukemono was of good quality even by Japanese standard. Then come, sake harasu gohan - The rice had very good texture that went well over carefully broiled salmon. The salmon belly was salty and a bit juicy; I should’ve have asked for another bowl ... sigh
Despite in the Autumn season, I learned that the 2 desserts we ate were more commonly served during summer. I was talking about: kuzukiri with kuromitsu - It's simple and elegant. The kuzukiri, silky with amazing texture and minimal taste, was dipped into fragrant and liquid kuromizu that had the right amount of sweetness. Together, they're producing an ethereal experience. Next, warabi mochi – it’s 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

If you want to know more about the other dishes not mentioned here, please read the more comprehensive report from the link below. We savored about 16 dishes and surely there were a lot. But then, 3 gentlemen sitting next to us (regular customers) got a chance to eat even more; they received 1-2 extra dishe(s).

It’s a fantastic meal at Kyo Aji that I would certainly cherish for a long time. Chef Kenichiro Nishi, often labeled as "God of kaiseki", consistently brought out the natural and best taste of every ingredient and their beautiful combination. He deeply respected Japan’s produces. His dishes were clean, soothing and delicious; Nishi-san would not mask or manipulate flavor. The cooking method essentially epitomized maturity and simplicity of kaiseki perfection in which everything was in harmony. 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 – for her, something good/delicious has to be flavorful, which is not always the case in Japanese cuisine,such as south east asia dishes that tends to use intense and rich spices. Often, she didn’t get “it” – even occassionally I experienced the same thing. Then I asked the chef/the okami about the idea of the creation of certain dishes

Although Kyo Aji is an exclusive place (introduction-only), the service was far from formal and rigid. Led by the okami - Ms. Makiko (Chef Nishi’s daughter), we felt as if we’re invited to someone’s home. She made sure we feel relaxed and had a good time at the restaurant. As a bonus, Makiko-san spoke fluent English. She patiently answered our questions and explaining every dish presented. The other staffs were also sincere, helpful and friendly. We were “flattered” when the okami was willing to share many things with us ... almost “uncensored” (given that we barely knew each other): her private life, her dad’s younger days and characters, the future of Kyo Aji etc. I decided not to leak further details as they relate to the family’s privacy. Another surprise was the interaction with Kenichiro-san. With the assistance of 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 and so on. Furthermore, Chef Nishi asked when we intended to return here 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. I was amazed how lively and energetic Chef Nishi was; even when he would reach 80 years of age in a couple of years (You can see his radiant face and lively spirit from our pictures). He still cooked some dishes himself particularly the ones that used Matsutake.

If there’s such thing as perfection, my first meal at l’Arpege and this one must be the definition of such thing; they reached that pinnacle of gastronomy excellence. Kenichiro-san was a very passionate chef who always gave it all. He cooked with his head, heart and soul. The result was a top kaiseki experience, rooted in tradition, combining hedonism and ritual. In the process we learn to appreciate and apprehend Japan’s seasonality. It has been privileged and great pleasure to dine at Kyo Aji. I hope it would not be my last meal here. Before somebody might ask, I would like 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. Perhaps a concierge from certain (elite) hotels could be connected to this place or just talk to your foodie friends. We received favor from a friend’s friend who kindly reserved for us as our romantic gateway gift. Food and service wise, Kyo Aji was definitely worth above (Michelin) 3-star level.

A more detailed review can be found here: http://zhangyuqisfoodjourneys.blogspo...
For the pictures, please open this link:

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  1. I cannot help but do this. Just for fun, based on personal experience - Compare and contrast of Kyo Aji vs l’Ambroisie (3 visits). Many perceive these places as the ultimate gastronomy restaurants for traditional Japanese cuisine as well as classical French respectively

    - They’re (the restaurants) known to be exclusive and expensive. Both chefs-owners were not really concerned about any awards. If there’s any big event among top chefs in France or Europe, it’s very likely that Bernard Pacaud would not show up including Ducasse celebration for Paul Bocuse or Le Louis XV 25th anniverssary. I barely saw his picture at Paul Bocuse (in Auberge du Pont de Collonges, you could see lots of (old) pictures about events attended by Europe elite chefs – but no Pacaud’s face).
    - Both Nishi-san and B. Pacaud were always at the kitchen. Pacaud walked past the dining room twice during my 3 meals there; Chef Nishi will be working at the counter all the time
    - Led by legendary and very capable/perfectionist Chefs. Both kitchen’s equipment was quite traditional (not that updated by today’s standard)

    - Kenichiro Nishi made an effort to interact with his guests even despite language barrier; whereas Pacaud hardly smile or made an eye contact with his guests – not that he’s too arrogant, I think he’s just a very shy man.
    - The service at l’Ambroisie was formal and rather stiff (gets better at my subsequent visits); they would not engage in any conversation (unless you asked for something) even when you eat alone. The nicest and most sincere person there was probably monsieur Pierre LeMoullac (former manager and sommelier). Kyo Aji, on the other hand, rendered impeccable service. Everybody was friendly and helpful, even chefs behind the counter would smile and at least make eye contact with each diner. The okami Ms. Makiko made sure each guest was well taken care of
    - Kyo Aji’s decor was simple, but I felt at home throughout my meal – customer was “king”. At l’Ambroisie (with luxurious neo-venetian style setting), sometimes I didn’t feel very welcome as if they’re doing me a favor by allowing me to dine there in particular during the 1st visit. I became much more comfortable in the 2nd and 3rd visits, but the hospitality (among Parisian places) was nowhere near the level of Ducasse Plaza (D. Courtiade), Ledoyen (P. Simiand) or l’Arpege (H. Cousin & N. Socheleau)

    With this, I officially completed the writings for my entire Japan’s trip (Nov ‘13). Hope a few of them has been useful to some people/readers in this forum

    1. The original comment has been removed
      1. looks the same as what i got... maybe 1 or 2 different dish...thanks for the picture... too embrassed to take pictures (even thou nishi san said ok after head chef asked , and head chef mentioned politely they usually do not allow pictures) , did you ask for 2nd gohan course of sake harasu gohan?? ,
        just want to know , okami (chef's daughter) how old was she?? i think i had chef's nishi wife as okami( judging on her age, and did not quite get the same level of communication thru the meal ask you did)

        2 Replies
        1. re: Lucil

          you're welcome
          we also asked for the host's permission about the pictures, they said fine as long as no flash and excluding the photos of other guests

          about the 2nd rice (with salmon belly), they offered us - my wife got smaller portion because she's quite full. I asked for the deep fried Matsutake
          I think Nishi-san's eldest daughter was in her early or mid 40's

          1. re: Bu Pun Su

            definitely i think i got nishi san's wife i assume as okami.. i think his daughter was in kitchen prepping stuff clearing stuff in kitchen when i was there for lunch

        2. Fantastic report that gave a good sense of not just the food, but the place and the man.

          3 Replies
          1. re: robs87

            thanks robs87
            I was pleased to know that it's not a kind of place who only wanted the customer's money

            the chef/owner and staffs also cared about us as people - there's no sense of anti & dislike towards "non-Japanese (speakers)"
            initially i thought I would have similar experience like the one at Jiro Ginza: good food but not welcoming plus cold service

            1. re: Bu Pun Su

              That's the big paradox about Japan. They put so many barriers to outsiders who want to experience the best of their culture, but once you manage to get in, they treat you with such great warmth and hospitality. I too hope to experience Kyoaji in my lifetime, despite all its barriers to entry.

              1. re: robs87

                Do you think it's particularly easy for a Japanese person to dine at Kyo Aji?

          2. how would u compare ishikawa, matsukawa and kyoaji?

            4 Replies
            1. re: jmui852

              I'm not so sure how to answer this question; I'll try

              Ishikawa's cooking is more innovative and his dishes are probably easier to accept for foreign palate or people with less experience in Japanese kaiseki
              Kyo Aji and Matsukawa prepared more traditional cooking with the focus to let the ingredients shine and become the main star - meaning extract the produce natural taste and hardly any flavor masking
              Between these two, Kyo Aji is possibly more technical while Matsukawa uses more rare ingredients based on my meals. But both are equally delicious
              Ranking: Kyo Aji >= Matsukawa >> Ishikawa

              Service (if you find it matters)
              Ishikawa spoke some English and so did his restaurant's okami. You can express your concern and interact better with the chef
              Matsukawa - the best service was delivered by the chef himself. There was some language issue, but from his body language and face expression you know that he's very sincere and trying his best to please the customers. His kitchen staffs were obviously great but interaction wise (both FOH & BOH) not as good as at the other 3-star restaurants
              Kyo Aji was fabulous, perhaps because we were taken care of by Nishi-san's daughter who spoke fluent English. Chef Nishi was very friendly and showed interests to his guests. It's like I was invited to have a meal at close friend's house
              Ranking: Kyo Aji > Ishikawa > Matsukawa

              Ishikawa is cheaper (9-10 courses) while Matsukawa/Kyo Aji cost about double (13-15 courses with more luxurious ingredients)
              You may find more "value" in Ishikawa. If people pay a lot more, they will normally expect more. However, if they dislike or are unable to appreciate washoku (yet) that tends to be "pure and simple", they are set up for some disappointment. Essentially, Matsukawa and Kyo Aji are more 'risky'

              I share my experience at these 3 places in great details in my blog (http://zhangyuqisfoodjourneys.blogspo...
              )Probably from there, you would know which one is more suitable for you because I don't know exactly what you like/don't like or which dining aspect is important to you

              1. re: Bu Pun Su

                Thx for the prompt reply. Only reason I asked is because I was just in Kyoto last year and went to both chihana and Kitcho and thought they were super overrated (food was just ok but service was terrible), but had an amazing time at ogata and kahala (which imo are as "risky" as Kitcho and may require someone with in depth knowledge and experience in Japanese cuisine to truly enjoy. I read your posts regularly as i think we have similar taste in food (l'arpege and L'ambroisie are also two of my fav restos) Right now my friends friend who's a regular at kyoaji is trying to get me a reservation for April (under u booked 2.5 months ahead of time so they should still have seats left ya?). If they're already full, I think I will go to matsukawa and ishikawa / den. Just wondering have you heard anything about den? Understand its impossible to compare as its more innovative but would appreciate if you or anyone else can share with me their experience at den. I just hope it's not like takazawa (which has a lot of hype) where while the dishes were very interesting flavours fell short imo (thats why im still trying to decide between ishikawa and den). So which are the 2 sushiyas you visited? I plan on visiting sho, umi, saito and miyako sushi (still have one slot and I'm debating between sawada again, ichikawa, kimura or maybe you have any other suggestions?). Thanks a lot!

                1. re: jmui852

                  hello again ... so sorry about your bad experiences at chihana (well, it's also my "worst" among our long kaiseki meals) and kitcho. If you don't mind sharing, what happened? I was surprised since you mentioned terrible service particularly at Kitcho arashiyama. Which season was it?

                  how would you describe the food/your meal at kahala? noted about ogata and I will try visit the place when I return to kyoto in the future. any pictures or review at ogata? have you been to mizai? I failed to get a reservation last nov

                  given we have similar taste, I think you will enjoy all of Kyo aji, Matsukawa and ishikawa. one thing to note about kaiseki is its seasonality - April, if not mistaken, it would mean the season for ayu, hamo and takenoko, asparagus. I hope you dislike none of these produce.

                  why den? is it because of the tabelog high ranking? in the past few years, den has become popular due to its creative cuisine - similar to the rising of takazawa perhaps. i've never been there; maybe if you lower your expectation and just want to have a good time - den should be alright

                  we visited sushi mizutani and sushi shou - we happened to like both. but Nakazawa-san was more friendly and helpful, his method was new for me and the morsels were delicious. go to saito if you manage to secure seats there. is it essential to have top non-sushi/tsumami experiences? if that's the case, consider yoshitake too. and of course, sawada is an excellent choice - you really cannot go wrong with your selections. it's easier to "screw up" at preparing kaiseki dishes than sushi

                  1. re: Bu Pun Su

                    Hey there. I was in Kyoto last April for Sakura. I must say I was quite disappointed at Chinhana, none of the dishes showed complexity (all very one-dimensional) and flavours were flat. For Kitcho food was slightly better but still it didn't showcase the ingredients like Ogata / Kahala did. Matter of fact I even enjoyed my meals at Ankyu and Tempura Matsu (amazing restaurant, not a tempura place but a super cozy rustic kaiseki resto) more. Kitcho service-wise was just very average, I even consider the staffs attitude poor in Japanese hospitality standards (maybe he had a bad day but still). If you do go to Kyoto, you must visit Ogata. It is IMO one of the best Japanese restaurants in the world (and standard is very high as they only have 6 seats). I guarantee you will be blown away by the dishes Ogata-San puts out. I am in the process of setting up a food blog, but please email / Facebook me at jeffreymui at gmail dot com (can send u some photos).

                    Anyway I am still debating between Ishikawa / koju and Den, not only just because of its tablelog rankings, but from the photos I saw online they actually look really good! Only concern is that I hope it won't be another Takazawa experience for me. Regarding sushiyas, I have been to Yoshitake, Sawada, Sushiso Masa, Sushi Ko Honten, Matoizushi (super amazing but at 55k per head) etc. must admit I did not enjoy my meal at Mitzutani at all. Now I'm just hoping I can secure my bookings at Saito and Miyakozushi. O and btw have you happened to have tried Kabuto? Trying to choose between Kanuto and Obana. Anyhow please contact me and I will share some photos with you!