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.