Friday, September 19, 2008

Birthday: Down and Then Up

It was my birthday on the 18th, and for once I didn’t have to spend most of the day running after my kids. So I meandered off for a nice lunch in the areas around the river (Pontocho and Gion).

Down With Gion
The weather wasn’t too bad initially, but it soon became so humid that I felt like I was swimming. So when I reached a lovely old street in Gion on which is a restaurant I’d had recommended to me, I thought, “this is just the thing.”

Nope. “Sorry, reservations only.” I got a nasty feeling that what they really meant was, “sorry, no sweaty foreigners,” which happens quite a lot in that area. But okay, fine, I’ll go a solid step down-market.

Nope. Turned away again, same thing. I was now getting irritated. Another place? Nope.

Okay, you’re thinking, these places were busy, they didn’t have space. Are you kidding? One place that turned me away was empty. I mean, like empty. One couple at an end table, otherwise deserted. “Sorry, reservations only.”

I was now sick of Gion. Pretty, yes, but yuck. Back over the river, I found that there was some kind of school holiday going on, and a zillion 12-year-olds in uniforms were crashing around everywhere making a hell of a ruckus. Scattered among them were a huge number of foreign tourists, which meant that I could tell what ordinary Kyoto-ites were thinking when they saw me: “damn foreigners.” I was distinctly annoyed, hot, and tired — nice way to spend my birthday, I don’t think.

Okay Lunch, Blah Day
Finally I wandered to Rokkoji just east of Karasuma, where tourists don’t usually go, and had a nice lunch at a place called Little Bean House [小豆家, I’m not sure how it’s pronounced]. Curry with mysterious but tasty things, raw pickle salad, tofu, cooked pickles, rice, miso soup. Quite good, not expensive, and in general a positive conclusion to a dispiriting morning. I then gave up and went home.

To be fair to Gion, it’s pretty. No, but actually I do think that these places meant what they said: reservations only. Turns out that the way these places do kaiseki, they make exactly X number of each dish, so they have to know well in advance how many people are coming. If you show up without a reservation, they don’t have food to feed you.

Anyway, I have decided that it’s healthier to believe this than that I was turned way for being white — which is entirely possible. But the whole thing left a bad taste in my mouth, as it were (not to be snide about Little Bean House, which was perfectly good).

Up With Pontocho
The next morning, forewarned, my wife called ahead to make reservations. No problem: we got a reservation at Roan Kikunoi (露庵 菊乃井), just south of Shijo on Kiyamachi. It’s a slightly informal version of the very high-end kaiseki (or technically kyo-ryōri) place Kikunoi 菊乃井, which is much celebrated and often considered one of the best in Kyoto.

It was raining, because the edge of a typhoon is brushing the area, but at least it was passably cool. We dressed up a bit — I wore a black suit, but no tie, and we figured that though we might be taken for tourists, we’d at least be high-end tourists, which means a lot here.

(On this score, Kyoto reminds me of Florence. If you’ve been there and had waiters be nasty to you, chances are you were dressed like a shlep. If you go to Florence, wear a suit and tie, and eat when civilized people eat. Oh, and remember of course that the Florentine definition of “civilized” is “Florentine,” so eat when they eat, like 8:30 for dinner. You do that, you’ll love it. If you fake a few words of Italian as well they’ll adore you, because you’re showing how wonderful you think they are, imitation being the sincerest form of flattery.)

In any event, we got there. Roan Kikunoi is a neat little place jammed behind a large and especially ugly McDonald’s, and I must say I had a nagging worry in the pit of my stomach that this was not going to go well.

Bracing ourselves (well, I was), we came in and sat down at the bar -- definitely the way to do this, by the way, because the chefs make things on the other side of the bar and then hand them to you direct. We ordered some sake, took a deep breath, and ...

WOW. Okay? Wow.

I took photos of most of the courses, once it became clear that the chefs weren’t concerned about foreigners one way or another. My wife was being all chatty in high-speed Japanese, which meant they could be their own chatty selves back, and the older chef who seemed to be in charge was cracking jokes with us and other customers at the bar, lending the whole thing an informal, festive atmosphere. He did ask that I not use a flash, I think because he’d be blinded by it, but I find my camera takes horrible pictures with a flash anyway so that was no biggie. Besides, the Japanese love taking pictures of their meals, so I was pretty sure he didn’t care.

But before I get to the food, there’s one other little thing. I kept thinking that the older guy, who plated several of our dishes and was generally bounciest and most talkative, looked familiar. Then my wife noticed that unlike everyone else, his jacket had no name-tag. Then it hit us: that was Murata Yoshihiro, the Kikunoi chef, the man himself. The guy who plated my sashimi. The guy who, when we asked what one of the fish was, told us it was katsuo... which seemed odd, since it didn’t look much like katsuo, but... and then went, “oh, sorry, wait, no, I’m mixed up. That’s baby hamachi [called tsubasu].” The next course was katsuo, and when it arrives I say to my wife, I thought pretty quietly, “now that is katsuo,” at which point Murata, six feet down the counter, bursts out laughing and says, “right, katsuo, whoops!” Hard to explain, I guess — you had to be there — but it’s sort of like sitting at the bar in, I don’t know, Daniel, and realizing that the guy making jokes and giving you a little appetizer he’s just whipped up behind the bar is Daniel Boulud. If that makes any sense.

Another thing I found remarkable was how every chef did everything, sort of in a rough rotation. You always had one chef standing behind the counter looking on unobtrusively, so when you finished a course he was ready to get you the next. There were several very young chefs on the line, getting what appeared to be helpful, generally positive constructive comments from the older guys. One young guy was cutting a sheet of daikon — a classic technique you have to master, where you take a usuba (honking big straight-edged knife) and shave around and around a daikon to make one huge translucent sheet — and I could see that he wasn’t all that great at it, though the results were fine. As he went along, an older chef came over and gave him some pointers. Our impression is that Roan Kikunoi is where Murata does some of his training of younger chefs, who might move up to Kikunoi when they’re ready. Again, this gave the whole thing a pleasant, cheerful, family sort of atmosphere — relatively speaking: it’s a very high-end place. It was also interesting from a cooking standpoint, because in most Western professional kitchens (at least in America) most of the line chefs do one station and stick to it: they may or may not be able to do other stations, but on a given night a sauté guy is a sauté guy. At Roan Kikunoi, and my sense is at most serious kaiseki places, stations aren’t the system.

Anyway, what did we eat? We got the mid-grade lunch (you pick low, middle, or high; what’s more, you decide when you make the reservation, not when you get to the restaurant):

A Light Lunch at Roan Kikunoi
1) Sakizuke (amuse-gueule): Walnut tofu with very small grapes. No picture: we weren’t yet sure if it was okay, and didn’t want to be those sort of foreigners. If you buy Murata’s book, he’s got a picture there. (And a recipe: good luck with that. Honestly, the recipes aren’t difficult as such, but there’s no way you’re going to reproduce what he serves. I’ll come back to this in a later post.) It was sweet, cool, and at the same time lightly spiked with wasabi. My wife's comment was that she gets the seasonal thing here, because it's cool and pleasant to eat when it's still hot out, and wasabi seems somehow really tasty when it's summer, but at the same time it's getting to be fall, time to eat nuts and grapes and stuff. I couldn't have put it better.

2) Hassun (a sort of overture, setting the palette for the meal): gingko nuts, hamo eel rolled around gobo and rice, simmered-roasted chestnut, simmered mackerel (? we're guessing -- too many things at once to remember perfectly), salted ayu entrails with trout roe in a hollowed-out yuzu citrus, crunchy sweet potato shaped like a gingko leaf, pine needles made of roasted soba noodles. I’d never had gingko nuts, but my wife has: she remarked, “I’ve never had them this big or this good.” They were slightly sweet and great, simmered gently in sake and lightly salted. The whole show came under a little wooden cricket cage (some sort of cage, anyway); again, if you want to see it that way, look at Murata’s book. (Actually, he’s written several, but I mean the one that’s been translated as Kaiseki: The Exquisite Cuisine of Kyoto’s Kikunoi Restaurant.) The entrails thing didn't sound great when I read the recipe some months ago, but it was terrific, sort of like mildly fish-flavored tofu or yuba with a more complex texture, and the trout roe (which was like firmer salmon roe) really set it off, as did the intense floral aroma of the yuzu. I would never have expected that of all the things in this course that one would be my favorite, but it was spectacular.

3) Mukozuke (sashimi): tai 鯛 (sea bream) and baby hamachi (not katsuo!), garnished with chrysanthemum leaf, pickled chrysanthemum petals, and corkscrews of shaved cucumber and carrot. The tai was much firmer than I’m used to, which gave it a distinctiveness that I often find ordinary sashimi lacks.

Sea bream is one of those things that the Japanese get very worked up about. Tai is sort of the ultimate fish here. I've never really gotten this, and to be honest, I still don't. It was lovely, yes, but I confess that I didn't see why it deserved the big deal people make of it. I do think that I'm starting to develop some sense of a palate for sashimi, which is probably unfortunate, given that when I get home I'm almost never going to have the good stuff.

4) Yakimono (grilled dish): katsuo (bonito) tataki, which means it’s beaten to soften it up, then marinated and grilled very hot and left raw on the inside. Served with ponzu (citrus-soy) and red grated dashi. I’ve had this dish before, here in Kyoto, and I found myself thinking that this was a completely different dish, just utterly unlike what I’d had. I had thought it a bit fishy and with a somewhat problematic texture: flaky outside, raw inside. I have also long thought ponzu overrated. But this was fabulous. If you've ever had katsuo you now see why I identified it so easily: this triangular shape with the deep red is what it invariably looks like. It's meaty and in some ways more interesting than tuna, I think. I'm not sure why I don't see this at US sushi places, because given how popular tuna is -- and how much cheaper katsuo is -- you'd think it would be perfect. Maybe it doesn't keep well? In any event, really good ponzu, really good katsuo, the latter perfectly treated -- yum!

5) [not sure -- maybe a sort of palate-refresher like naka-choko?] : hamo eel-bone crackers. Very lightly salted, served with no sauce or anything. Crunchy and delicious, a great light thing after the meaty katsuo.

Eel-bone crackers I've heard about a lot of times, and I've seen pictures in which you get an entire eel backbone fried in a sort of coil. I've always thought it looked pretty but also rather unappetizing, even in the pictures I've seen from Nobu: it looks like what it is, in fact, i.e. a fish skeleton. These little crunchy nibbles were like nothing so much as cracklings: sort of the most ultimately high-end pork rinds ever. What's more, they make you sit up straight, because they're all calcium! I can't get over how these little munchies were such a great thing, so homey and everyday and yet totally unfamiliar.

6) Futamono (substantial soup, usually nimono): harvest soup with hamo covered in toasted rice, egg “tofu” cut in a moon shape for moon-viewing season, and Tamba shimeji mushrooms. You really taste the dashi in this, and it’s quite true what they say: it offsets and elevates everything, providing an almost silken background. We joked with Murata about the fact that he sometimes serves this dish with matsutake mushrooms instead, which cost a fortune; he ruefully laughed with us. (When I say they cost a fortune, I mean that, for instance, I recently saw some very nice ones at Nishiki market, priced at 38000 yen for a box of 8 fat ones. That's about $40 US per mushroom. And you can go well up-market from that if you want to. They're the truffles of Japan, at base.) These Tamba shimeji (i.e. from Tamba) were terrific, though: I don't know whether it was just the mushrooms or something in the preparation, but whereas I usually find shimeji just fine but a little bland, these were earthy and rich and intense.

7) Shiizakana (assorted dish with multiple elements): grilled or broiled suzuki (Japanese sea bass) with some finely-grated green herb we couldn’t identify, which was also in the daikon “dip” on the left. I liked this fine, but I found the herb too mystifying to make sense of the whole dish; suzuki also doesn't have any particular associations for me -- it's just mild white fish, a lot like good sea bass from the Atlantic. Given how excited people in Boston get about bass, though, I'm guessing this is something pretty meaningful for the locals.

If anyone out there has any guesses what this green stuff might be, I'd be grateful for an explanation. It had a light, grassy sort of flavor, and somehow the whole dish, although it came together, just didn't seem to me to stand out very well. Maybe it's also that I am not the biggest fan of grated daikon (I don't hate it or anything, but I don't really get the fascination with it. Now boiled daikon, boiled until mushy -- that one I can't stand.)

8) Gohan, konomono, tome-wan (rice, pickles, and soup): grated lotus-root soup (what they call here a vegetable potage -- that's the French term) with a kind of mochi ball (pounded glutinous rice, in this case not sweet); pickled daikon, eggplant, and kombu; and uni rice. See those chunks of orange? That’s sea urchin: uni 海栗. Lots of uni. Really a lot of uni. Did I mention there was uni? What’s more, the young chef who presented this one tossed it in a kaman 釜 pot right there, and they made enough that we could have seconds. We did: my wife joked that I should know how to say “okawari,” which means “more please,” because we’ve taught Sam to say it at his nursery school — the chef who dished up the seconds thought that was pretty funny (my impression is he has kids). There was some more left, too, so he made it into nigiri balls and wrapped it so we could take it home. Now that’s my idea of a good late-night snack: uni rice nigiri made by one of the finest kitchens in Kyoto. Oh -- the soup was great, as were the pickles. But... did I mention about the uni rice?

9) Mizumono (sweet): sorry the picture is blurry, but I was a little dazed after the uni rice. Walnut ice cream and a creamy caramel flan sort of thing — a little different from the usual Western version, but in subtle ways I can’t explain coherently. As we were finishing up, the chef chatted with my wife about where we were from and so on; his judgment was, “Boston? Good fish there.” They also discussed lobster.

We staggered out, replete, to find Chef Murata waiting. He said polite things, thanked us for coming, and saw us to the door with lots of bowing. I mean, yes, they’re supposed to do that, but it’s pretty cool to have a super high-end chef seeing you off in classic formal style.

For the next hour or so, we just wandered around the general area, because we couldn’t face doing anything else. The only problem was, you’d pass restaurants with all these appetizing photos of their food outside, and think, “you’ve got to be kidding: I’m not eating that.”

The last thing the other chatty chef (the one who talked about Boston and lobster) said to us was that a lot of nice fish is just starting to come in around the Japan Sea, which was a polite way of suggesting that maybe we should come back again in October. I think we will. And maybe the next month too....

So now I’m wondering: what would have happened if we’d had the top-level lunch at Kikunoi, rather than the mid-level lunch at Roan Kikunoi (which is cheaper). Would it have been as stunning? Would it have been as much fun? What about dinner (which starts at about $300 US per person — ouch)? Right now, I find it hard to imagine. That was one of the best meals I have ever eaten, not just because the food was stunningly terrific (which it absolutely was) but also because of a wonderful atmosphere that actually made me feel welcome: they all genuinely seemed to care if I liked what I was eating, every step of the way.

Technically, it was still my birthday, at home on the East Coast anyway. A nice way to turn 38!

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