Mizai was one of “my dream” restaurants to dine at in Japan and thankfully it became a reality in early October last year. Believe it or not, I scheduled our trip to Japan around this restaurant. Getting a reservation at Mizai was known to be really challenging, but the restaurant is ‘fair’ – you won’t need any introduction from regulars; you could even reserve it more than 4 months in advance. The restaurant is not big: only about a dozen or so chairs at the counter + a small private room. It also served one seat per night; this should explain the difficulties to secure a seat here, even among people who’ve been living in Kyoto and its vicinity.
Writing a (detailed) review of Mizai is very difficult for me. First, taking pictures of the food were strictly prohibited. Second, both chefs and his staffs hardly spoke any English; master chef Hitoshi Ishihara explained his ‘abundant’ cuisine in Japanese (not easy to keep track that much food). Lastly, I was not “lucky” this time to meet locals who could speak decent English. Therefore, the writing was mainly based on my knowledge from the past experience with Japanese cuisine. Despite this challenge, I truly enjoyed my meal here: top quality ingredients, excellent execution, beautiful presentation, thoughtful sequence and passionate chef.
Unlike most other kaiseki restaurants in Japan, the meal at this traditional tea house started together at 6 PM. 15 min prior to this, all guests were present, put at the waiting room in 2 pairs (welcomed with hot towel and tea), and then each ‘couple’ was escorted to their seats. Following the tradition of cha kaiseki, before the first course arrived, the chef poured flower-based sake (aperitif) to every diner. The “tasting menu” had 9-10 courses. I will not dive into each one of them. The one common topic that everybody would often talk about when dine here recently was lots of food (sometimes unnecessary) and lacks ‘perfection’. They probably referred to 2 courses: the seasonal sashimi (mukozuke) as well as small appetizers (hassun).
Normally, one will eat 2-3 different kinds of raw fish/seafood with 2 small slices each (tasting portion). On the contrary, Hitoshi Ishihara would present two ‘giant’ & beautiful china bowls containing lavish fish, condiments and sauce. As far as I can remember, each person was given 7 fish varieties (a total of 14 slices in a la carte portion), a few sauces including tai liver as well as some garnishes such as naga imo, wasabi, daikon etc. The more food you serve, the more “mistakes” you will likely make. While not everything was flawless, most of the fishes were superb – I particularly lithe the aji and shima aji. The sumi ika, tai and maguro were about as good as the ones served at top sushi-ya. The tuna is coming from a whole fish weighed around 105 kg. The good but not so extraordinary item was engawa. My wife and I liked this course a lot and it’s only a second course.
Just as we think the sashimi’s presentation was truly elaborate, the hassun course was even more extravagant. Unlike Kitcho, except for the autumn leaves and food’s ‘holders’, the array of small courses didn’t have any decorative ‘tools’. In my notes, I reckoned there were more than 10 varieties of appetizers. They were of high quality ingredients and meticulously executed especially the ikura (with rice) and braised tako were nearly as delicious as the ones I had at Yoshitake. Again, many of the items served were multiple pieces. The pleasure was the ability to take a small byte here and there to experience different kinds of flavor, texture, and temperature. This whole pleasant experience for this course was simply greater than the sum of its parts
The rest of the dishes were served in a proper tasting portion. The gohan part was quite ‘modest’ and I only ate a small portion of it – though you’re welcome to eat as much as you wish. Mizai prepared Yuto, a bowl containing very fine white rice with cereal/browned rice in a clear broth, with some crunchy pickles. I think the tasting portions of other courses were nicely balanced the feast from sashimi and hassun. Lastly, another dish with lots of items was the “fruit salad” with champagne jelly. The selection was indeed plenty (approximately a dozen) and Mizai was the 2nd restaurant I visited in Japan that served ‘pawpaw’. The fruit quality was comparable to the fruits served at Arashiyama Kitcho. I was not sure who “followed” who in general between Ishihara-san and Tokuoka-san given I had fantastic meal in both places; in fact my best meal in Kyoto took place in these 2 temples of Japanese haute cuisines.
I will not deny that the portion was indeed a lot by Japan’s kaiseki standard. However, I observed that all diners except two executives next to me were unable to ‘clean up’ everything on time (the restaurant allowed some dishes from sashimi/hassun course on the tray while they’re savoring the next dishes) – but I would ‘blame’ it on the alcohol since they consumed sake as well as 2 bottles of French wines throughout the dinner. The service was responsive, pleasant and efficient. Mizai was following the ‘old-school’ kappo kaiseki standard: all the staffs were male. The dining room was clean with the dazzling counter made of an exotic lacquered wood. Given the quality and quantity of food combined with high level of cooking and hospitality, the price that Mizai charged was not unreasonable. Warning: according to Chef Ishihara, he intended to introduce and serve more Kyoto ingredients in the future aka “prepare” for even more food when dining here. No doubt, my meal here was a 3-star by Michelin standard (97 pts); only the likes of Kyo Aji or Matsukawa can ‘beat’ this place
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