吉兆 (Kitcho) - Arashiyama, Japan

Dinner - Tuesday, April 9, 2013

West of Kyoto in Arashiyama, the last sakura petals were falling into the river by the Togetsu bridge. As we walked along the riverside, we noticed that a lone weeping cherry tree had somehow kept most of its blossoms intact - this tree marked the front garden of Kitcho, one of Kyoto's most highly-regarded restaurants.

The sun set, and the sky darkened quickly as we presented ourselves to the serious young man waiting outside the imposing front gate. At the mere mention of our name, he broke into a wide smile, gave a deep bow, and proceeded to lead us down a religiously tended gravel path - into a different world.
A gateway to a more refined world
Our room was on the ground floor, one of only six in the old house. It opened into a carefully illuminated garden, highlighting the cherry tree (a scant few feet away) we had seen from the outside. A quiet hush prevailed, punctuated only by the filling and emptying of the shishi-odoshi fountain - one gets the impression that the entire house is there to serve only you. The sliding of a paper screen door signaled the entrance of our waitress, who prostrated herself before us. Menus had been confirmed long before - she merely presented hot towels and bowed low again. This was a sign that the meal would soon commence. Welcome to Kitcho.

An incense burner - the Kitcho "welcome mat"
As the name implies, the umekobucha was a refreshingly savory seaweed broth with a tinge of tartness from the pickled plum. Commonly served at celebrations, this was presented to us in honour of our recent wedding.

Seared ise ebi
Warabi, nanohana, yuzu, ginger, daikon
Red and white are considered an auspicious colour combination for Japanese weddings, thus the serving piece for the dish incorporated these colours as a blessing for our marriage.

The ise ebi was perfectly cooked - very sweet flesh, with a trace of smokiness. The yuzu gelée spooned over it matched well with the succulent lobster meat. The two seasonal Spring greens, warabi (bracken fiddlehead ferns) and nanohana (rapeseed blossoms), had a faint vegetal bitterness that balanced the sweetness of the other ingredients.

Warm sake service
Lacquer bowl with mother-of-pearl inlay cherry blossoms (ca. 1970)
Aburame in clear broth
Black nori, dried mussels
The broths at high-end Asian restaurants are things of splendour - it's always eye-opening how they manage to pack so much tastiness into a clear soup. The one here was no exception. In the broth was a lightly poached hunk of aburame (fat greenling), a soft-fleshed fish with a very clean flavour profile. Here, it was more textural, serving as a second method of conveyance for the broth. We were instructed to try the soup without nori, and then after its addition. It changed the dish completely (not better or worse, but different) - salty/umami notes came to the fore, while the previous tang receded.

Madai sashimi
Iwatake, daikon, fuki sauce
Iwatake (literally translated as rock mushroom) is a rare lichen that is a prized delicacy - the truffle of the East. It is harvested off stony cliff faces by rappelling/abseiling - quite a tricky business, especially in the wet conditions where it is best picked. Here, it was garnished with gold leaf to further highlight its value.

The madai was a very good example of the species, and especially good with the spicy (almost cinnamon-like) sauce of puréed fuki (giant butterbur) - a vegetable that harkens the arrival of Spring in Japan.

A dual-season bowl with cherry blossom and Japanese maple motifs
Otoro and ika sashimi
Ginger, wasabi, soy sauce, ponzu, goma
Another traditional dish served at special occasions, sekihan is rice steamed with azuki beans (the red once again signifying auspiciousness). The preparation here was classic - rice topped with whole azuki and gomashio (a mix of sesame and salt). According to our server, the kitchen served this to wish us good luck for our married life ahead.

Grilled fava beans, kinome, wakame, shaved bonito
The bamboo shoots at Kitcho are exclusively of the mosochiku variety, and are specifically cultivated in Kyoto for consumption. Shoots are only harvested in April and May, with the rest of the year dedicated to tending the fields - the ones served here were picked that morning (apparently, hours can make a big difference as astringency in the shoots increases significantly as more time elapses after harvesting).

This was our first (and best) bite of takenoko on our trip - it completely changed my perspective on bamboo. Parboiled and then simmered in a seasoned kelp stock, the shoots seamlessly expressed flavours of land and sea. All the other ingredients were superb accompaniments to the takenoko, from the mildly numbing kinome (prickly ash leaves) to the freshly shaved bonito (not pictured).

Hassun presentation - lacquer tray with decorative rail (ca. 1970)
Plated hassun
A very traditional hassun course, integrating ingredients from the mountains and the ocean. On the wooden plate, clockwise from the top: (1) braised abalone with vinegar sauce; (2) shrimp cake; (3) fuki stuffed with ume; (4) kuruma ebi with aka miso; (5) shaved daikon; (6) tai sushi flavoured with sakura; (7) mountain vegetables topped with karasumi (mullet roe) (hidden in the clamshell). In the ceramic sazae (turban shellfish) shell: tai with warabi and pine nuts, in an okura dressing. Collectively, the eight bites showcased the diversity of the season - shape, colour, smell, texture, flavour.

Fried prawn head
Udo marinated in vinegar
The head of the prawn from the hassun course - it was so sweet and delicate, easily in the top three I've ever eaten. Too often, restaurants serve prawn heads that shouldn't pass muster (too old or hard) - no such oversights here. Paired with the prawn were tender cores of udo (Japanese spikenard), a seasonal mountain vegetable with an asparagus-like texture. The vinegar matched well with the deep-fried crustacean.

Cold sake service
Grilled chi ayu, tade sauce
Fried chi ayu
With the first chi ayu of the season just becoming available, we were served two preparations of the baby sweetfish. First, slowly grilled over binchotan. Tade (water pepper leaves) is a classic pairing with ayu - usually minced as a garnish. Here, the verdant purée was an excellent dip for the fish, eaten from head to tail. The slight bitterness of the innards mirrored the flavour of the tade, and then the succulent flesh left a lingering sweetness.

As soon as we had finished the first dish, fried chi ayu appeared before us, sprinkled with salt. Expectedly crispy, and tasting very much like the grilled variety, but I preferred the delicacy of the first preparation.

Venus clams, negi, ginger
Two pots of rice ready for service
Rice cooked with takenoko
Grilled Kyoto beef, pickles
At the beginning of every Autumn, the entire Kitcho staff (including the front-of-house) conducts a blind tasting of rice samples from esteemed suppliers, in order to select a single rice for the next year - the current crop is a Koshikari from Yamagata prefecture. Here, it was steamed with chunks of tender takenoko, both ingredients melding together with a creamy consistency. Together with the rice, we were each served two cubes of glazed Kyoto beef, which had been browned over coals. Words cannot describe this - the rice with beef was simply amazing. We had seconds, and thirds.

The house-made pickles (all of contrasting colours and textures) were no less impressive, particularly the lightly salted nanohana. Again, refills were generously proffered and accepted. A simple bowl of white rice (not pictured) was also set out for us. Each grain was pillowy and full of flavour - the pinnacle of steamed rice.

Mizumono presentation
Grapefruit custard, musk melon, strawberry, pineapple
Forget every other strawberry you've eaten - this Kyoto strawberry were the best I've ever had. Unexpectedly large, its texture was consistently soft throughout, with the slightest amount of resistance. It's flavour was unlike anything else - not just sweet, but an unimaginably complex melange of esters. I am ruined forever. The prized Shizuoka melon served here was actually better than the ones we tried at the much-vaunted Sembikiya a few days earlier - crisp, with just the right degree of give, and again completely different from your everyday melon in terms of flavour.

Kohaku-kan covered in pink and white wasanbon
Red bean and sweet potato filling
As a final sweet bite, the kitchen fashioned this twist on a traditional wagashi. The agar-like kohaku-kan, filled with mashed azuki and sweet potato, was rolled in pink and white wasanbon sugar, reiterating the red-and-white wedding theme. We were instructed to "hold the sweetness" in our mouths while waiting for the matcha to be prepared.

Frothy and bracing - an awakening after the dream state induced by our meal. Its bitterness is an understandable complement to the sweetness of the wagashi. Much appreciated.

Salted sencha
At the very end, we were served the same sencha that was paired with the rice course above, but with a pinch of salt to wash away the bitterness of the matcha. Nothing is overlooked at Kitcho.

The garden by night
There's been plenty of talk in recent years about tasting menu progressions - seasonality, the ebb and flow of a well-crafted degustation, building to a crescendo before pulling back, the mixing of sweet and savoury. The best kaiseki menus make these seem effortless - not a thought, but an instinctive emotion. I was swept away with the tide tonight.

Dining at Kitcho is a singular experience - one that I doubt can be truly replicated at any of its branch restaurants. The history of the building suffuses the air around you, and it seems like every little thing has been designed to contribute to the enjoyment of your meal. I'm sorry that words alone are not adequate to properly describe our evening.

I would tell you to go now, but I also believe that Kitcho will endure long after we're gone, existing as a window into the old world. And yet, they are not interested in preservation for the sake of history - the food is dynamic, still changing and evolving, incorporating Western ingredients or techniques if it produces better results, always seeking to improve. The Japanese concept of kaizen is ingrained in every person here - that is the magic of kaiseki at Kitcho.

58 Susukinobaba-cho
Saga Tenryuji, Ukyo-ku
Kyoto City, Kyoto 616-8385
Phone: (+81) 75-881-1101