Saturday, October 30, 2010

Kinmata, Kyoto (近又)

One kaiseki course in a day just isn't enough. I came down to Kyoto with a simple restaurant strategy: Open Tabelog Kyoto. Call restaurant #1. Call restaurant #2. Et cetera. Of course I got rejected from some very lovely-looking places. But I booked the ones that were #8 and #9 on the day (it changes pretty quickly day-to-day).  Kinmata is a boutique hotel and restaurant...ugh, that sounds so tacky. If I remember their promotional literature correctly, it started as a city base for marketing trips by businesses from neighborhing Shiga prefecture, and was sponsored by the prefecture trade association (or ancient equivalent). It's been here for a loooong time, and now occupies these two machiya just north of the center of Nishiki Market. It is not cheap. Don't ask.

On the other hand, the experience was exactly the way I like it. I was reminded of a vacation to Arizona years ago - in Phoenix and then Tucson, we ate at the best restaurants in the city, in the Ritz Carlton and another massive resort, before retiring to modest lodgings at the EconoLodge. In this case, I had a 6-mat room to myself, rather like I was staying here. There are 7 rooms, if you're interested. Great location, very expensive.

Nothing wrong with the furnishings though. That's the remote for the air conditioner, but there was a phone too. I saw one negative review complaining that they had to call down at the end of dinner to say they were done. Tough titty. Would you rather that the staff bugged you all the time? The phone did give it a cheaper ambience though. As I said, tough titty.

Once I opened the windows to let in the surprisingly warm and not at all typhoon-y night air, the view from the table was like this. The room faced the courtyard, or one of the courtyards, and with the rustling of the trees you would never have known you were in the middle of a dense urban area.

The owner-chef, the 7-th generation of such, introduced himself before the food started. So di his wife. Throughout dinner, the two of them alternated serving with a waitress. The smoothness was a little startling - they obviously pooled information between rounds, so each time they came back it was a little like continuing a conversation with one person.

The food started. This seems to be a signature since it's on the web site, but is also clearly seasonal. The orange, as you might suspect, is persimmon puree (really coming into season now; they're in all the markets, and very early semi-dried ones are also available). The green is spinach-ish. The white is pureed tofu. The brown is a funny sub-species of wheat gluten cake, and the translucent slice peeking out from between the brown ones is a piece of kobashira. I always think of kobashira as 'bay scallops', the little ones that you would get at sushi served on top of a battleship (the rice wrapped with vertical seaweed to make a little tray for toppings is called a 'battleship'. Honest.). I didn't put it together fast enough to ask at the time - why's this so big? - but I'm sure if I called right now they'd be happy to tell me.

After that introductory dish (the dish was nice too, I just didn't get enough picture of it), it was time for the soup. As with lunch, the soup was pine mushroom with eel. I was amused to have a similar thing to lunch (the next day for lunch I was a little perplexed to have the same soup again, and asked why this eel, hamo, was still in dishes considering it's an August thing. We'll answer that with lunch tomorrow.). As with lunch, it was delicate and delicious; the scrap of green yuzu peel floating in the back of the bowl gives it a hint of insouciance. As with many things to come, the bowl was incredible. Look at the lid in the middle picture.

Hmmm, interesting and artistic shots of the snapper, sawara and squid that made up the sashimi course? Plus the plate?

Ooh, ooh, I know - someone forgot to take a picture of the dish as presented.

The snapper is actually amadai, which is called guji in Kyoto. They have a different word for everything down there. This one is lightly salt-cured to improve its texture. Sawara is a soft fish not overly given to sashimi, which is why you see it in the miso-cured-grilled version (saikyo yaki) so often. No special tools though, like there are for anko, which is a really soft fish owing to its deep-sea-ness.

Kinmata has their own relationships with fishermen. The guys drive the fish in to them from the coast every morning. Okami san was telling me something about how they used to have to run the fish from the coast in the old days, which must have tired the hell out of their legs.

A lot of times I think bowls like this look cheap - when the green and red are too bright, it's a turnoff. This doesn't look cheap at all. Inside is snapper steamed in the 'red maple' style, meaning there are salmon eggs on top as well as the thick ankake sauce. I couldn't figure out why something so pale is called 'red maple' and asked. Okami was more than happy to fill me in - the salmon eggs are orange, so it gets that name. She observed wryly that if you put an actual red maple leaf on it, it has a different name...and that the naming conventions are difficult.
The fry on the tenpura was a bit lacking; I may be more of a Tokyo-style tempura fan (darker, thicker, crunchier). But there was no denying the awesomeness of the shrimps. These are called shirasa shrimp, and are huge sweet shrimp that are caught during a limited season in the Seto inland sea. The discoloration in the 3rd picture is where they had rubbed a little paste from the head onto the tail before battering it - this gave it a big, salty, gutsy kick. Everyone should do this, it's delicious. The master concurred and was happy that it was my first time to see the technique. The tsuyu was outstanding. Whatever they used, it tasted like they had sweetened it with honey even though it was just mirin (I asked about that too).

Eh, maybe this isn't the nicest bowl of the night, but I was on a role. The duck was cooked extremely well, and the pale things on the right are shrimp potatoes like at lunch, but more in their natural form. The chef took this opportunity to let me know that he's a 'meister' of Kyoto vegetables (it really says 'meister' on the web site too) and thus, presumably, uniquely qualified to serve shrimp potatoes. I believe these slices of duck were the only meat I ate all weekend.

The grilled course was miso-cured shima aji, and it was still juicy inside. Great job on the grillin. I was more interested in the little green dish. It's a vinegarry thing to cut the fatty miso-sity of the fish, and I would never have guessed the ingredients - can you? Going back to my premise about much of the interest of Kyoto food deriving from unexpected combinations of ordinary ingredients, this is Western pear covered with grated cucumber. What what? It's good.

That course also came with matsutake rice. The rice was boring. Matsutake isn't supposed to have much flavor, and it didn't disappoint.

Geez, the soup. I guess this is made from the saikyo miso that you usually use to preserve fish; either way it was sweet enough to be dessert, and delicious enough to be a whole meal. The rice was perfect when hot. The pickles were super. I didn't ask if they make them; pickle shops are a dime a dozen in that neighborhood.
We can't finish without a humble yet profound dessert, can we? I decided that it's nice to be served matcha in an un-ironic way. Most of the matcha we drink these days is in iced frappucino form, or else ice cream. The real thing is powerful, strong and bitter. It sets you right up for the sweetness of the persimmon slices (remember they were ground up in the sauce of the first dish) and also the white walnut youkan. The baubles in the bottom of the dish are just tiny hard candies. The tiny mountains on the back of the dish are not actual size; real mountains are much bigger.

With that, dinner was over. Not much was left but an astronomical bill, the bitter dregs of the matcha, and an equally bitter feeling about the cost performance.

I don't mean that, I've just been waiting to write it ever since I looked at the bottom of the cup and took that picture. It's a bit lonely to dine alone, but I have to say that in this context paying for only one dinner very much makes up for it.

I paid and sat around the room for a while, just soaking it in and waiting for them to come and escort me out. Eventually I started wondering where they were and made my way downstairs alone, past this small garden courtyard.

The front hallway was as abandoned as the rest of the building; there was just a sous-chef sitting in the Western style dining room looking at receipts and plans.

This was because the owner and his wife were outside waiting for me to come out while I was poking around inside the restaurant wondering where they were.

Sorry about that.

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