Some time in mid-2018, I received a curious private message from a follower on Instagram. This person, who I had never met in person before, said ‘I know you’ve mentioned that if you were ever offered a seat at Kyoaji, you would fly to Japan for it.’ After an intense period of umming and ahhing lasting all of a minute, I jumped online, booked flights, and BAM – half a year later, my 8 day trip to Tokyo last December materialised.
Just like that. And they say I’m predictable…
This was no casual invitation. Kyoaji is an introduction-only restaurant that put the term on the map. This kind of policy, more formally known as ‘ichigen-san okotowari’ (first timers not allowed) fits right in with Japanese mores. The requirement for you to be accompanied by someone who’s visited before makes Kyoaji and restaurants like it exceptionally difficult to get into – without knowing someone, it’s akin to turning a bolt without a wrench: can’t be done. Like landing many coveted jobs, it’s not about who you are or what you have. In Japan, it’s about who trusts you.
But if you can land a coveted spot? The game changes.
My love of Japanese food is no secret. The depth of culture and tradition that expresses ingredients at their absolute best has shaped its cuisine to be one of the world’s greatest. It exudes universal appeal, and to say more is to waste words preaching to the choir. I’ve written on some impressive Japanese dining experiences on this blog, even if coverage of actual meals in Japan itself are under-represented. This is one small step to change that.
Besides, when Kyoaji is unquestionably the best meal I had in 2018 and one of the top 5 in my life, not writing about it is tantamount to gross negligence. And so here we are.
Kyoaji is a kaiseki restaurant in Tokyo whose name means ‘flavour of Kyoto’. It is unquestionably considered one of the best kaiseki restaurants in all of Japan, which by extension makes it one of the best restaurants of any type – such is the pinnacle on which kaiseki rests in washoku (traditional Japanese) cuisine. That said, if you casually walked in, there are no accolades that would clue you into the fact – no awards hanging off the walls, no signs of an expensive renovation. It doesn’t even hold a Michelin star and won’t appear in any official guidebook – though that’s not for Michelin’s lack of trying. Head chef-owner Kenichiro Nishi dislikes media attention, and like many of his compatriots that operate their own outstanding venues in the Land of the Rising Sun, reject international bodies’ attempts to qualify their work. Suffice it to say, it’s not needed – booking windows are capped at 6 months in advance, and it’s chock-a-block.
Already at 80 years of age, Kenichiro Nishi’s presence in the kitchen is rare, even by Japanese standards. But it is vitally important. In Japan, the names of chefs are often what foodies follow – more so than the restaurant itself. In many cases, restaurants in Japan (and France, now that I think about it) are themselves named after their chef-owners. This is just not done in many other countries. Imagine if Quay was renamed to Restaurant Peter Gilmore. We’d be laughing and calling him out for establishing a cult of personality.
And so Nishi’s shadow looms large in Kyoaji’s kitchen, even as he himself doesn’t do much of the actual cooking. In fact, we jokingly observed during our dinner that he spent more time doing the dishes! But in reality, his keen eye was transfixed on his kingdom, a front kitchen of six chefs.
As per Kyoaji’s namesake, the particulars of Kyoto kaiseki are at play with the omakase – and like many high-end restaurants, it is omakase-only – menu which for me stereotypically suggested rigid tradition, impeccable presentation and the occasional overly subtle (read: bland) plate.
I was so wrong.
Kyoaji defied expectations. The presentation was still customarily Japanese – but emphasising a more homely style rather than necessarily creating edible works of art. Ingredients were cooked, combined and fashioned such that flavours and textures were always pronounced, discernible and accentuated by the right amount of seasoning. Any subtlety worked as intended: (actually) subtle, without being lost, into a void of blandness as is what I sometimes find with Kyoto-style kaiseki. And tradition? Sure, many kaiseki tropes were followed (the five fundamentals: raw, simmered, steamed, fried, grilled; plus rice), but with dashes of a free-form kappo-style, where the chefs are free to prepare what they will with a relaxed order, all right in front of the counter-seated diners.
Many restaurants are good, and many bad. A superb (or god forbid, terrible) meal is when there’s a response that goes beyond the palate and provokes unadulterated emotion itself. Additionally, if I can remember most, if not all of the dishes with astounding clarity, to the point of being able to summon the flavours in my mind, then that too is a benchmark of a superior performance. Combine the two and you get close to something that resembles a life-changing experience – in a food context, of course.
There hasn’t really been a restaurant visit in recent years that I would consider life-changing (though some come close). Much like the word ‘awesome’, it’s a term that’s at risk of being overused, dulling its impact. And so I’ve saved it – you know where this is going.
To paraphrase something Kenichiro Otomatsu – Nishi’s father – supposedly said once upon a time: something unique and something good are not the same thing. Kyoaji is good and that is an undersell, though perhaps a reasonable one in order not to inflict the greatest damage on one’s dining experience: our own expectations. But on this, I defy myself: Kyoaji is unquestionably the best kaiseki I’ve had, redefining my standards and expectations about just how good food itself can be. And it does this without a single dollop of caviar, truffle, or A5 wagyu in sight.
But unique? Well, depends on your point of view. Kaiseki is plentiful in Japan. The meal format will be immediately familiar to Japanese gourmands. So too are the ingredients – any expensive restaurant with some repute is able to source high-quality produce: it is a minimum expectation. By this definition, Kyoaji is not unique. But in Tokyo, where high-end kaiseki is especially plentiful and there’s a restaurant at the end of every alley that has the potential to serve you the best meal of your life, that Kyoaji manages to stands out is itself a rare achievement. Somehow, Nishi-san has never let any of this get to his head: he’s one of the humblest chefs I’ve ever met, seeing off every guest with that kind of hospitality I’ve only ever found in Japan. And even at his age, he still remains in the kitchen to oversee the operation day in, day out. Again, quintessentially Japanese.
Not only was my dinner at Kyoaji objectively and subjectively 2018’s best, the circumstances that led to it which depended on the kindness of a stranger-turned-friend, the childlike impulsiveness that had me booking a ten hour flight to Tokyo just to eat here (of course, I made the most of my stay), and the warmth of the staff forged an emotional attachment that is unlikely to be reproduced for a long time.
People fly to other countries to attend concerts. Flying to Japan to effectively change your worldview on what Japanese food can be hardly seems inordinate.
Date Last Visited: 18/Dec/2018
Address: 3 Chome-3-5 Shinbashi, Minato, Tokyo 105-0004, Japan
Price Guide (approx): 46,000 JPY ($578AUD at time of writing), plus drinks
This post is based on an independently-paid visit to Kyoaji. Many thanks to you know who for the priceless invitation.
- I guess someone with a head lice problem would find nits to pick
Would I return: pls pls pls pls pls
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