When I asked for the menu describing the meal I had just finished at Kichisen, head chef Yoshimi Tanigawa politely chortled – “it’s all up here” he said, as he gently tapped his head with a single finger. A profound demonstration of Kaiseki’s core tenet, where dishes ebb and flow with the seasons, never settling, was the key message I took from this. Welcome to Kichisen – an apogee of Kaiseki and Japanese food in Kyoto.
Kichisen is one of “those restaurants”. There’s an immense level of recognition and respect by the Japanese and international food community alike, with more awards than you could shake chopsticks at (please don’t actually do this anywhere in Japan).
There are two achievements which I find noteworthy. One, it’s part of the coveted 3-Michelin stars club which, for all its foibles and deficiencies, serves as an important barometer of how good an experience one should expect to have at an acclaimed restaurant.
Second, Kichisen’s head chef Yoshimi Tanigawa once appeared on Iron Chef and and defeated Masaharu Morimoto in a contest over hamo (pike conger eel) – haha. Okay, this one’s not all that serious but it did actually happen!
In any case, Kichisen is by many accounts, a world-class restaurant. Unless you speak fluent Japanese (and I mean natively fluent), your only options to score a reservation are to either get your hotel concierge or a native Japanese speaker to book it for you. Fortunately, this was fortunately not too difficult – as long as ample time is given ahead of your desired dates to book. In my case, I did so more than two months in advance – not even considered that long by high-end Japanese restaurant standards..
Kichisen is located near the Shimogamo Shrine, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that at 1400 years of age, is one of the oldest of its kind in Japan. It’s an absolute must-visit when you’re there. The location couldn’t be better – as it’s perfect for a post-meal walk. I’ll cover more about the shrine in a more travel-oriented Kyoto post down the track – look out for it! (post pending)
That digression aside, onto the business of Kichisen’s menu. As you’ve surmised, this is through and through Kaiseki: a melodic progression of heavily seasonal courses that build and reflect on each other. There are multiple menu options ranging from 13,000JPY for a quick lunch fix, to the luxuriant 31,000JPY omakase (chef’s choice) which will take out a good 2.5-3hr chunk of your day. Needless to say, we opted for the bums-on-seats marathon.
Side note: if you’re trying to wrap your head around Kaiseki cuisine, I’ve written a primer here (link). I will make the assumption that you’ve read it, as I’ll be using kaiseki-specific terms in this post.
Most kaiseki experiences start off with a customary drink, and in my experience these have either been a sake-ikken or simply, mizu.
At Kichisen, it turned out to be the latter – a cup of warm, mildly briny water with plum notes, in which floated a single umeboshi-cured sakura flower. I don’t really understand the significance of this drink, much less the austere flavour, however I suspect the intent was a means to welcome us into the meal with a key symbol of spring.
While a cup of lukewarm water might have been an odd and somewhat underwhelming start to any meal, Kichisen’s sakizuke kicked things into gear. Sweet, chewy octopus, young and crunchy broccoli, and young creamy potato, all highlighted the joys of Spring. One special little number was deep fried yuzu – this was surprisingly candy-like and not as acidic or oily as I would have expected. A clean finish from something deep fried? You bet.
Small bites as they were, each was a bundle of flavour, but most of all – it was the freshness of all the ingredients, as if they were just caught/harvested/picked at their optimul level of maturity. In many cases, that’s probably not too far from the truth.
Lidded dishes are often seen in kaiseki cuisine, which not only showcases the symbolically important ceramics used in only the best kaiseki restaurants (an area of academic study in and of itself). They also symbolise the fact that the dish was prepared especially for you the customer, and nobody else – for only you to unlid.
Unlidding the beautifully textured, Jade-coloured lids of our next course revealed a delicately small portion of Kani miso chawanmushi (Japanese egg custard). The chawanmushi, as expected was heavenly soft, with a strong stickiness from the okra that was a little challenging in its viscosity. The flavour was brilliantly earthy and full of umami owing to the Kani miso. This latter ingredient is essentially crab brains – and before you freak out – it’s friggin delicious. If you can’t get over this psychological hump, I’ll be more than happy to take yours.
Following the heat of the chawanmushi was an exercise in juxtaposition with chilly spring peas. Fresh, full and fleshy, these were a treat, even though I’m not convinced that they’re best served chilled.
I must admit, I was slightly taken aback when told that the next course is a turtle soup. Such an ingredient might be considered taboo in Western culture, but it’s a delicacy in Japan in China. At Kichisen, it’s served with glutinous rice cakes, biiiig pieces of scallops, scallions, and an egg of an animal whose name I never quite catched, with a yolk that bursts with creaminess upon contact, with a mouthfeel that lasted almost as long as it took to drink the soup.
Many of Kichisen’s dishes were quite light in flavour, but not so for this course – it was probably the meal’s richest in terms of pure flavour – I could easily have dunked in a handful of noodles and called it a day. It was incredibly balanced too, and was in fact one of my favourite soup courses out of any meal I had on my Japan trip. As for the namesake turtle, I can’t really describe what such a flavour is – my palate failed me this time!
With the starter fare served, the rhythm palpably transformed when Kichisen’s mukozuke was served. This was an array of expertly-prepared sashimi, which in Spring comprised of hirame (halibut), uni (sea urchin), ise-ebi (spiny lobster), sumi-ika (Japanese cuttlefish), akagai (red arkshell clam), tai (sea bream), and torigai (heart cockle)..
Bloody hell, that was a mouthful to type, but eaten oh so quickly. Every ingredient was in its element, though given my inexperience with several of them (particularly the ise-ebi and torigai), I can’t profess to say if they could be even better. That said, everything was utterly delicious, as long as you follow the quirk rule on whether to dip each piece into the provided soy sauce or ponzu sauce. Listen carefully and don’t mix it up!
While there was a good spread of seafood in Kichisen’s Mukozuke, I’m not ashamed to admit that I missed an old favourite – tuna. And then, as if reading my mind, out comes a large, ice-filled bowl with two delicate pieces of maguro (bluefin tuna) perched on top. From its creamy and buttery texture, it appeared that I was served a toro (belly) piece. Oh, they know the way to my heart <3.
However, things weren’t all as rosy as the colour of the toro – I felt that like the Spring peas, the fish was served too cold such that some of the flavour was lost. Great presentation is valued, but not when it comes at the cost of flavour.
One of my favourite courses of the meal, Tanigawa really flexed his gohan (rice) chops with a version of nakazara (middle course) – a highly fragrant dish of chirashizushi w/ebi & kinshi tamago. Chirashizushi is basically sushi ingredients served in a bowl, and kinshi tamago is a Japanese omelette served as strips. At Kichisen, these are almost less gossamer fine with notes of eggy dashi flavour. The prawn was actually perhaps the underperformer here, in that it was a bit chewy, but that was okay because the rice was truly “amazeballs”.
I have to be careful hyping something as pedestrian as rice, but speak to any Japanese gourmand and you’ll quickly learn just how seriously they take the humble grain. This was a short-grained species that was likely koshihikari or similar. It was cooked absolutely perfectly – the right bitey texture, the right temperature, delivering a perfectly calibrated dose of umami that was a cupid’s match with the kinshi tamago on top.
A self-proclaimed highlight course only availble to those who opt for options more than 22,000JPY was Kichisen’s hassun, a course that’s usually served earlier during the meal. The presentation was certainly impressive, to the point where I couldn’t even figure out where the actual edible components are.
Clearly, I was so taken aback by the beauty of the presentation that I failed to realise that the ceramic birds served as the vessels for the food within.
It might not seem like there’s much that’s edible, but there’s a huge variety of ingredients. It would take me a day to go through it all (and another week to fully understand), but suffice to say that once again I was treated to flavours and ingredients that were new and alien to me, with this course alone opening my eyes more than any other in the meal.
There were a few standouts sansai – bitter, crunchy vegetables proved an enjoyable challenge to the palate. Sea cucumber roe was also a unique experience – gooey, pungent, yet strangely refreshing. All in all, a plethora of experiences that honestly defeated me in my ability to write notes, but suffice to say, it’s as much of an educational course as it was delicious.
And now, we’re at the pointy end of the meal. I don’t need to tell you that you’re looking at some serious beef: Kichisen’s Yakimono course. While you may have heard of Kobe or even Matsuzaka beef (the latter considered the best in the world), Kyoto gyu (beef) may have escaped your radar. Like its Kobe & Matsuzaka cousins, Kyoto beef is rigorously assessed by the Japan Meat Grading Association, provenance is carefully tracked, with multiple tiers of quality. The highest grade is Kyoto Niku, which is regarded by Japanese beef experts as being equivalent to the best Kobe & Matsuzaka has to offer.
And that’s what we got at Kichisen. Sh*t, I wouldn’t be surprised if over 10% of our meal’s price came from the raw cost of obtaining this beef. It’s only available with the most expensive omakase option – did I need to give you more reasons to cough up?
When I took notes for this dish, I literally wrote “no notes needed”. And that really was the case, as I remembered pretty much everything – the entrancing aromas of charred pineapple and rosemary, the sizzle of the beef as it grills on the hot plate to a gorgeous medium rare…
And then there’s the beef itself. I will avoid hyperbole here, but of course I did expect, and thankfully received an excellent serve of Kyoto’s best, with all of the hallmarks of great Japanese beef – insane levels of marbling, exquisite texture and flavour. Definitely up there.
It’s pretty easy to forget about any salad on the side when you get beef this good, and unfortunately, that’s exactly what happened haha! What I do remember is that like many of the vegetables I’ve had on this trip, I couldn’t even recognise a third of them. The family of sansai vegetables is really a field of study unto itself.
In Japan, if Tai (red sea bream) is the sea’s representation of Spring (almost every sit-down meal on my trip featured the fish), then takenoko (bamboo shoot) is the representative from soil. It’s at its freshest this time of the year, and sports a sweet, earthy taste with a texture that’s something between a potato and a radish – a bit of starchiness and a bit of crispness to it, depending on how it’s cooked.
At Kichisen, we received a small cup of takenoko that’s been blanched and served with fragrant wakame dashi and kinome (Japanese pepper leaf), acting as a bit of a savoury palate cleanser following the richness of the beef. The broth was perhaps a little bit too light in flavour, but the wholesome takenoko made up for it – it’s a seriously tasty vegetable that’s on a level of its own when served at its best.
The proper gohan course, Tanigawa’s creation comes in the form of whitebait rice w/yuzu, nori & tsukemono (pickles). Gohan typically showcases the skill of the chef at cooking a basic staple, as demonstrated in the earlier chirashizushi. I also quite enjoyed the whitebait rice – with its sticky softness that similar to a soft risotto. The flavours were a well-balanced mix of citrus, brine, and texture was made quite meaty from the whitebait.
I actually liked the previous chirashizushi dish earlier more, as the grains were more individually defined, but that didn’t stop me from polishing off as many bowls of the rice as I could from the pot – usually the gohan course is meant to fill you up and so some rice is left over. Hah, as if I’d let that happen.
Kichisen’s dessert was a surprisingly Western concoction of sweet crepes w/banana sorbet, matcha, syrup & brandy sauce. As the first sweet course, it brought a very markedly cool and sweet change to my palate, whilst at the same time being a surprisingly large portion of dessert that managed to fill me up a fair bit. The matcha powder actually had less of an impact than I thought it would – being overpowered by the brandy sauce which packed one hell of a bittersweet wallop. It wasn’t unlike bittersweet molasses, actually.
Following the banana crepes, a more traditional dessert option was given – we got to choose between two types of wagashi (Japanese traditional sweet) I landed myself an azuki manjuu, while my dining partner got himself a sakura mochi. I could only speak for my piece: it was well-balanced, chewy and with a strong red bean flavour.
To serve a single piece of fruit to a customer is a big call. But any traveller to Japan knows that fruits are treated as luxury items (I know why, but I won’t go into that here). I’ve seen strawberries that go for nearly $100 for a dozen, so seeing a visually perfect specimen on our counter at Kichisen isn’t really much of a stretch at all.
While I expected an amazing strawberry, I didn’t anticipate just how good a “mere” strawberry could taste. I can’t really describe it – it’s basically a superior strawberry – in taste, in sweetness, in freshness, and in texture. You ever had the pleasure of eating something that’s just incredily sastifying but not quite knowing why? Yeah, that.
A wholly appropriate thing to serve.
The arrival of traditionally-prepared matcha tea signaled the impending end of our meal. Sweet and earthy, it’s hard to imagine a kaiseki experience that doesn’t feature one of the most quintissential Japanse beverages.
The robust matcha was followed by a more delicate and approachable mix of bancha (2nd harvest sencha tea) and rose tea. A little bit sweeter, there was clearly an intention behind the serving order that wound down the meal to a satisfying conclusion – even if I did have to make a couple of toilet visits due to all that soup!
Here’s the thing with dining at many high-end Japanese restaurants. Quite often, the atmosphere is not what I would call warm and inviting. Yes, we got treated well by front of house more often than not, but the actual dining experience is at best described with an air of ‘respect’. “You don’t come here to meet people”, someone once said of top-tier Japanese dining – you come here to be taken on a journey of the senses, and that’s what Yoshimi Tanigawa and Kichisen staff delivered.
It was a journey that, unlike some experiences, was at times challenging. Kyoto kaiseki can be too subtle for palates attuned to Western flavours (and even more so in my case, having come from bold Northern China), and yes, that can be seen as a weakness. However, another lens through which to view our meal at Kichisen was that this is truly authentic Kyo-Kaiseki. You wanted traditional Japanese cuisine? You got it.
There is a remarkable ‘fact or fiction’ tale surrounding Kichisen – about 800 years ago, Tanigawa’s very own ancestors ran a restaurant near the Shimogamo Shrine which – get this – was named Kichisen.
This post is based on an independently-paid visit to Kichisen
Do you have any experiences with kaiseki in Kyoto? Tell me all about it in the comments below!
- A remarkable display of culinary talent across a wide variety of produce.
- It is amazing to see what Tanigawa can make of basic ingredients like rice
- You will learn more about Japanese produce in Spring in one meal at Kichisen than anywhere else.
- Not every dish was a winner
- Service was good, however the atmosphere was very subdued.
- There’s no way to escape it – some dishes were too bland for my palate.
I have a new scoring system! Read all about it here.
Most important takeaway – three separate scores for food, service and ambiance to give the final score. The new system is not compatible with any score given prior to 11/11/2014.
F7.5 | S3 | A2