Sunday, October 31, 2010

Sakurada, Kyoto (桜田)

Before we get to the mind-blowing kaiseki finale to this 2-day Kyoto jaunt, can we just see some random shots from the street?

'Vehicle of God' is, I suppose, an OK translation, but more a funny one (as you can see from the picture, it's an omikoshi; koshi seems a little archaic to me, so 'palanquin' might be better? If there's anyone out there who actually speaks Japanese, please, please set me straight.).

I would wear this jacket if I owned it.

But if I was Kitano Takeshi, I would not advertise this little problem. Except his usual half-smirk seems to be implying it's you, not him, that has the problem.

You know how much dividend it can pay, wandering down nondescript alleys.

Because you sometimes come across Michelin 2-star kaiseki places!

Look, there's no way you'd get in here without a reservation - and this is the total of the signage, and it's imposingly clean and bare, so you probably wouldn't wander in either. I didn't realize it was starred when I booked it; this is strictly Tabelog-driven (it's #10 in Kyoto today, but there are 3 non-Japanese places ahead of it - French, Chinese, and sweets).

There's a dining room in the back - this, I imagine, is what many of the fine dining rooms of Japan looked like when they were new 30 years ago. It's really elegant.

If you're wondering why it's so empty after me going on about how you couldn't just walk in, it's because I booked for 1 PM and was the last person to leave. This photo is sort of posthumous, I think that's the term.

But I sat at the counter. Actually it was a pretty meditative counter experience - the chefs work in the back, and while there were 4 kimono-clad servers including okami san here, I didn't see a man the whole time except as an outline through the curtain. I saw a lot of people through the curtain; they kept trying to check unobtrusively if I was done eating, but when you're eating alone and very aware of what's going on, the tiny peek through the tiny crack in the curtain becomes comically obvious. I started waving at them after a few courses.

Everything here is really new and clean, in a timeless Japanese style that's also somehow a level or two up from the timeless Japanese style of many of these places. I asked if the place was new, and okami san said "Well, pretty new. We've only been here since the end of Showa, so that's, let's see, 23 years." Insert standard travel/food writer comment about the pace of life and ancient mysteries of Heian Kyo.

The meditative experience started with a cup of weak tea; very weak genmai, I think, but warm and meant to be stimulative. There was a name for this. There's a name for everything.

Incidentally, can anyone point me to a site talking about the traditional course sequence? What I saw so far on various sites didn't look like my experience in general, especially not Kyoto. And there are a lot of people saying "It follows the traditional sequence of courses," like they have some idea. Let me also sneak in before we get started that this is their most expensive lunch.

It took about 3 seconds for me to go from expectant to overjoyed. Does this bowl excite you? I thought it was awesome - in a store this is the kind of dish that I would love and covet and not buy for price reasons. In the dish is a goopy mix of long potatoes, tofu skin, shrimp and chrysanthemum petals. You might find it texturally challenging, you might find the flavors too subtle, I thought it was great.

The plating didn't stop - I sorta wanted to dump the ice off this one so I could preserve my memory of it. The sashi itself was snapper, bonito and squid; the wasabi was excellent and I had to fend off servers several times who tried to take it away from me when I was slowly picking at it long after the main plate was gone. Real wasabi is so good that I can happily eat it as a drinking snack.

And this soup was soo good that you could also eat it as a drinking snack. Again, it's late-season summer eel with pine mushrooms. I would swear the yellow peel was lemon, which is a bit risque. This is when I got around to asking about the eel - after seeing it several times this weekend, I finally said "Hamo in October? Isn't that for August?" and the waitress said "Ah, it's the very last of the season, and the fattiest, which is the only reason you can serve it with the mushrooms like this." Again, the bowl...

There's a pretty good list of sake; I had a go of Umenishiki but enjoyed the cut glass and decanter and silver bucket. Once I had dithered over the sake menu for a few minutes and ordered, they must have had the idea I was weird, because I got a gift from the kitchen of Koshichijifubuki, a rare sake from Niigata. Ordinarily, well, these days at least, descriptions of rarity make me suspicious, but this one really does seem to be such. And it was great to drink out of that glass, on a saucer with a leaf on it. Little touches, eh?

The inclusion of rice, or more properly starch, at various points in the course is a matter of confusion to me, but I was used to it by now. The first was this steamed sticky rice with chestnuts and ginko nuts, and its normal appearance belies its awesomeness. It's hard to take pictures of this stuff in a way that does it justice.

This, I think, it not hard to take pictures of at all. It's the hassun course, and it was here that I realized why it's called that. While perusing knives this year, I learned that fundamentalist Christian and master knife maker Murray Carter measures all his knives in units of 'sun'. That's about 3 cm. This course of assorted bits always comes in a square box...which I guess is traditionally 8 sun square, 八寸, and Microsoft knows exactly what I mean when I type that, probably in reference to the course. Anyhoo, you have a good piece of miso-grilled sawara (it's funny that people in Kyoto never say it's 'saikyo yaki', but I guess that makes sense, like you just say 'cheesesteak' in Philadelphia.), some fresh black beans still in the shell, a crosswise slice of late-season sweetfish with the eggs inside, fish paste 'castella' (which is usually a dreadfully dull sponge cake-like dessert), spinach in white sesame, and ikura in a sudachi shell. Sure, it was all good.

Again, I was surprised to get soba at this point, but again, what do I know? The bowl was incredible, again. These are new-season noodles, with a barely-set quail egg, fried seaweed and long onions mixed with grated long potato. Once you get used to the sensation of raw egg on your noodles, there may not be any going back (again). Yum.

The bowl was awesome - very old, I think - while this boiled course was maybe the weakest of the lot. New potatoes, boiled myoga (I can't even make up a funny name for myoga), yuzu peel, and tofu mixed with ginko nuts.

Looking back, this must rank as the most special and delicious rice-and-soup course I've ever had. I think it's indicative of the Michelin level of service that the waitress was happy for me to take a picture, and when I said something about an 'action shot', she immediately put the pot up on the counter, tilted it up, and posed with it. This course though...the brown rounds in the rice that look like new potatoes were actually mukago, sprouts of mountain potatoes. You've never had a potato that tasted like this, I promise. Almost like they were mustard-infused. It occurs to me that people got more excited about this stuff before they could, I dunno, buy cheap potatoes and roast them with mustard, but they were incredible. And it occurs to me that they're about $20  / pound at retail. You're going to think I'm an idiot, but the pickled daikon were also incredible. It was the soup that really got me though. It's very, very rare that something is so incomprehensible that I just sit and look at it and think 'what the hell?' but this was that. The bowl was nice too... I asked if I could have more of the soup, and they were reticent, but brought a different bowl shortly after. Good lord and butter, that was something else.

Eh, what can I say to finish after that? Grapes in jelly, persimmon slices, pear slices, pomegranate seeds. A chestnut confection. Matcha.

A closing cup of tea.


Phew! The plan for the rest of the afternoon was pottery shopping around the base of Kiyomizudera. I had the taxi drop me off at the end of the car-accessible roads (this is a highly-advised technique) and started down Sannenzaka (about which I like to joke that that's the time you'll be in traction if you fall here). It's pretty touristy, but there are also a lot of very serious pottery shops. I got into an English conversation, the first of the weekend, with an elaborately made-up woman who soon told me she lived in Monzen Nakacho for 30 years.

This is a touristy cafe, not a pottery shop, but it reminded me of the tempura shop Victorious and I tried to enter in Asakusa a few weeks ago, the one where the master shouted "NO!!!" as soon as he saw us. The reason it reminds me is that the English says "WE HAVE ONLY TATAMI FLOOR", while the Japanese more or less says "Please honorably relax on our tatami floor!"

On the other hand, I like to know that kind of thing, and I would probably not go in if I knew it was only zashiki. So what am I saying, really?

I'm saying it was raining hard, and my bag was heavy (I couldn't find an empty locker at the station), and around this time I just gave in to the sweet, sweet embrace of a lace-covered taxi seat and a one-way trip to the station. (Don't be afraid to take taxis in Kyoto - especially for medium-length trips like the train station or between some temples.)  Sitting back on the shinkansen is the ideal way to start or finish a trip. Domestic travel - the tranquility and high prices aren't for everyone, but they're for me. Well, the tranquility at least.

Kyoto - see you soon. Anyone want to go?

1 comment:

  1. sakurada: wow! thanks for the hunger inducing reportage from kyoto. are you sure you were only there for 2 days?