Saturday, October 30, 2010

Nishiki, Kyoto (嵐山 錦)

This is a nice bridge, isn't it? Someone should write a poem about it. Or paint a picture of it. Eh, I bet someone had that idea already. Never mind.

Kyoto's northwestern temple district, Arashiyama, is also famous for the bamboo groves. Not without reason; it's a really big species of bamboo, and the forests are impressive. In some places it's like walking through a tunnel of bamboo, with the sharks swimming right over your head! Am I getting confused with the acquarium here? For reasons unknown, I left out the picture of all the graffiti that's been carved on the stalks closest to the fence. I actually love stuff like that, including the stickers that tourists put on temples and shrines to indicate they've been there. I should get some 森原純 stickers printed up.
If you're in Kyoto, you're sure to spot geisha as well!!! Actually, don't count on it. What you might spot is girls who have taken advantage of one of the kimono-and-makeup rental services to get themselves made up for the afternoon. How much fun can this be? I wonder.

My goal this weekend was to eat a LOT of kaiseki (mission accomplished, my friends). Within that framework, I knew I wanted to spend most of the day in Arashiyama, and I just got this off Tabelog as the highest-rated kaiseki place there that was not the 3-star, $300-lunch Kitcho (which is also rated quite well, thank you very much). It's in the 'park' facing the river on the south side, and I say 'park' because like a lot of Japanese parks, much of it is open and gravel-paved.

If you ask for table seating, this is probably what you'll get. The private rooms must be nice, but being alone and having no great need to sit on the floor, I figured it was cool. I also figured I'd need a reservation on a Saturday at the beginning of leaf season, but maybe the purported typhoon kept people away?
The typhoon didn't keep away the tanuki. The little garden outside the window I sat next to was filled with them. And their nuts. The nuttal appendages take up over 20% of the volume of any good tanuki statue.
This is a dish of lightly-roasted tanuki nut tofu, pickled in urinary secretions.

I kid, I kid. But honestly, this was one of the best things I ate all weekend. Why are the good things always right at the beginning? This is a block of tofu with a healthy slug of mustard running through the middle, very lightly breaded and fried. Cut, mix the mustard with the dashi, enjoy while still warm. This is a great introduction to Kyoto food too (actually they call it Cherry Blossom Inn food, but that seems to be their own name and not a broader style) because it's gentle and uses ingredients that you know, but the technique and flavor combinations are just that little bit surprising. And it's meatless. I didn't realize until Monday morning that I hadn't eaten meat all weekend.

Mostly because I was eating plenty of fish - the tsukuri here was just snapper, but I'm pretty sure they had aged it in some way because of the texture. On the right is a chunk of miso-preserved garlic, good stuff. All the flowers are edible, or at least I ate them. I believe the wasabi was fake.
Well, the sudachi was real at least. And this teapot was nice too - the first of many, many nice pieces I ate from this weekend. And not for the first time, the bowl turned out to contain
matsutake soup. 'Tis the season. We'll get back to this in a later post, but I'm reminded of what someone said about eating too much kaiseki - since it's seasonal, and also formalized, if you eat more than one course in a short period of time, there's a good chance you'll see some overlap. Every course I ate included this kind of soup.

By the way, it was really delicious. The underlying fish was snapper, and the mushroom flavor, snapper fat, and squeeze of lime all made for a terrific soup course.
Someone more knowledgable than me should weigh in on the relative ordering and naming of dishes in Kyoto vs. Tokyo kaiseki. But I know know that this course, which I think is called the hassun, comes at this point in a Kyoto course, while in Tokyo I think something like it is more usually the starter. On the other hand, this is more substantial because it includes a number of different techniques; this could be a meal in itself if you had a bowl of rice and some soup with it.
From the top, those are cashews and raisins, rehydrated in white wine, with sesame paste. Going clockwise, some kind of grilled sticks of ground fish paste, forgettable. Then a sort of sanshozuke sanma (it's dark in the picture), and in the basket a chestnut, two fried ginko nuts, and two pieces of trout sushi.
You might not have noticed in the top picture, but this was actually a two-layered lacquered box. It was pretty, and too shiny to take a picture of without getting a reflection of the camera. I took notes on what all these things were, and I'm going to ignore them to guess that this was a sub-species of mackerel. The eggplant was delicious. The ginger, refreshing.
Now this is where my notes would really be useful, because there was a special name for the technique of rolling things in crushed mochi rice kernels and then frying them. Now we'll never know, unless I go back and look, and honestly...neither you nor I care that much! Inside these is shrimp potato, and I found that a pleasant surprise since most of the time shrimp potatoes are presented in their entirety. The beans are green, the leaf is fu, and the sauce is miso.
Again, I was please by crockery...enough to trouble you with a picture of it...
And I was only a little troubled by the miso-cured sawara, which was tasty. My notes, blesed be their name, would indicate both the name and the provenance of the brown tangle at the bottom. Like many things in Kyoto food, it has a specific name and consists of 3 or 4 ingredients that you might not have seen sliced and mixed in precisely that combination before.

That sounded crotchety. I didn't mean it to.
The rice course of this lunch was actually zosui, or porridge. The reason it looks brown is because there's a veritable heap of mozuku in it - a thin, slimy seaweed that you often get in a tiny cup as part of, say, a ryokan dinner. It was tasty in a satisfying way, and I was over-full before I finished it. I guess it's just my recent dietary habits, but there was a little more quantity than quality in this lunch. The price was mid-range too though, for a whole course in such a nice location.
There were only two other tables in the room during the time I was there. One couple came in after me for a quick lunch and left after just a few courses. Not acrimoniously or anything; they were saying up front that their time was limited. It's funny to pick a place like this for a quick lunch, isn't it? These folks came in later and were settling in for the same course that I had.
Ordering the yuzu sorbet from the dessert options was a mistake. I didn't finish it either. I liked the leaf jelly though - it was so humble and beautiful, and reminded me that it was Fall.

Like you could forget. Actually this was one of the more colorful leaves I saw all weekend. It was a week or three too early for the main color. At least the near-miss typhoon and attendant rain had made everything super-green.

Wave goodbye! I could see going back here if I was in the neighborhood.
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