Kyoaji | Tokyo, Japan

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…

Kyoaji
Like many other high-end Japanese restaurants, you could walk straight past this one…

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.

Kyoaji
Kenichiro Nishi (you can figure it out) with his retinue of master craftsmen

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
Sea cucumber and mochi rice. Lusciously silky and perfectly gummy rice

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.

Kyoaji Tokyo
Kenichiro Nishi

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.

Kyoaji Tokyo
Zuiki (taro stems) & ginger. One of the most mind-blowing things I ate in 2018. I guarantee it does not taste like what you think

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.

Kyoaji Tokyo
Matsubagani (Japanese snow crab) three ways. The vinegar dipping sauce to the side (not pictured) was an exceptional condiment, and I would have bought it by the bottle if I could
Kyoaji Tokyo
Actually not the best crab I’ve had in Japan, but it comes very close and is about as good as this type of crab can get, I think

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.

Kyoaji Tokyo
Fugo shirako-yaki (grilled blowfish sperm sac aka milt). Sperm sacs of certain fish are considered a delicacy in Japan much like caviar and salmon roe is known to the Western world. Fugu shirako is the most expensive and most delicious. Its extremely creamy texture and subtly sea-sweet flavour is unparalleled
Kyoaji Tokyo
Ebiimo (shrimp taro), a variety of taro that’s so-named as it resembles the curl of a shrimp when harvested. This is perhaps the simplest-looking dish: a deep-fried ebiimo. But it is perhaps the definition of perfection.
Kyoaji Tokyo
Otsukuri of fugu & tai (sliced fish dish, blowfish & sea bream). Many kaiseki restaurants do an excellent display of knifework in its sashimi. This was good, though not as earth-shattering as some of the earlier numbers.
Kyoaji Tokyo
Tamatofu (egg tofu) w/suppon dashi (turtle dashi). An umami bomb, an incredible soup. For the easily shocked, you can’t really taste turtle – it’s more that it imparts a sweetness to the dashi that otherwise wouldn’t be there. But yes, real turtle people.
Kyoaji Tokyo
Moroko & miso ofu (gudgeon fish & miso wheat gluten). It’s my first time having this kind of fish and I have to say, being able to eat it in its entirety – head, bones and all – was a novel and delicious experience. The wheat gluten was particularly impressive (it always comes from what you don’t expect!)
Kyoaji Tokyo
Daikon & kamo (radish & duck). I don’t actually like boiled/simmered/soft radish. This dish changed my mind completely. The duck was a little bit tough, but otherwise fine.
Kyoaji Tokyo
Ankimo surimi (monkfish liver paste), fashioned into tofu form. Another serve of umami that blew my head off with its flavour. The thickened dashi added additional volume that by this time, got me feeling quite content – and we haven’t even moved to rice yet!
Kyoaji Tokyo
Kyoaji’s legendary salmon rice. If you think about it, a traditional restaurant in Japan serving salmon is pretty much unheard of, and is one of Kyoaji’s cheeky ways in breaking with tradition. Well, this is one of those times when it’s perfectly fine, for it respects the revered gohan (rice) course that’s mandatory in any kaiseki, while raising the bar with something different. I had 3 bowls of this and would have gone for more, were it not for sheer embarrassment!
Kyoaji Tokyo
Various tsukemono (pickles) accompanying the salmon rice
Kyoaji Tokyo
Warabi mochi, a signature dessert at Kyoaji. I hate to contribute to the groupthink but this is truly the best I’ve had. Perfect texture, perfect flavour. Nishi-san gave a lot so despite it being so good, I was actually fully satisfied! (note the dipping sauce in the background is actually for the next dessert, oops haha)
Kyoaji Tokyo
Kuzukiri (Japanese arrowroot starch noodles), Kyoaji’s most famous dish. Again, the best of its kind, surpassing even ones made by dedicated dessert houses I’ve tried. This is the only dish that Nishi-san makes himself right in front of us, and it’s quite the process, not dissimilar from the method used to make liang pi. The kuzukiri is quite neutral in flavour – it’s meant to be dipped in the kuromitsu (black sugar) pictured earlier.

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.

Kyoaji Tokyo
Thank you for everything.

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.

Ups:

  • Everything

Downs:

  • I guess someone with a head lice problem would find nits to pick

Would I return: pls pls pls pls pls

F9 | S4 | A3
9/10 Caesars

  • Editor Rating

  • Rated 4.5 stars
  • 90%

  • Kyoaji
  • Reviewed by:
  • Published on:
  • Last modified: March 4, 2019

Summary:

Got a thought to share? Leave it here! Entering your email means you can get notified when I reply to your comment!

%d bloggers like this: