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?

Enkouji, Kyoto (園光寺)

I think most travel sites aren't very helpful, and I found an easy way to upload a few pictures per temple. Consider these a teaser to help you decide where to go. Also, they're all on the map.

Funny, I liked being here almost as much as Otagi Nenbutsuji. I know why too - there was no one else, only another solitary guy taking pictures and the gardener sweeping up leaves. The screens are very good, as are the paintings, as are the little exhibits of old letter type that the emperor let the monks use to print things. If you go, don't be like me. Don't use your auto-timer to take pictures of yourself posing in front of the main altar. It's really in bad taste.

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Manshuin, Kyoto (曼殊院)

I think most travel sites aren't very helpful, and I found an easy way to upload a few pictures per temple. Consider these a teaser to help you decide where to go. Also, they're all on the map.

I like to think of this as the 'forbidden temple'. Because you can't enter the secret areas? No, because there are signs every 50 centimeters saying "No photos!" "Don't touch!" "Don't open!"

What's that? You know me too well. You're absolutely right that I took more pictures here than at any other temple. In fact, it's nice. The gardens in particular, as seen from the verandas of the halls, are quite beautiful. Some of the treasure objects are also positively stunning.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Jizake Bar Zen, Kyoto (地酒BAR 膳)

I almost missed Zen, several times. First, the location on the googlemapz is wrong - the owner has moved it four times since it opened, and one of those was recently (from Gion, as shown on the map, to Oike; he said something like he's 'following the foot traffic').  Second, the building is obscure. I knew it was on the 5th floor of a 5-story building. I looked at the exterior from street level, saw the girl's bar on the 4th, and that was it. It was only after I got farther down the street that something clicked in my head about being sure that it was the right building. When I turned around I saw the 5th-floor windows sloping back hard away from the street, and also the rows and rows of big sake bottles lining them.

For an ex-truck driver named after the notoriously declasse hairstyle he used to sport, Punch has put together a heck of a classy sake bar. He must be making a living, but with 4 moves and the low prices, I kinda worry about him. The single room is very moody, with wooden platforms at slightly different heights, pebbles, bamboo, modern furniture, and a laptop humming away on the communal table. Behind the counter is a classical guitar; Punch was taking lessons for a while, but as soon as I evinced interest he passed it right over the counter and didn't complain a bit as I noodled on it for the next hour while we talked.

Here's the setup, and I think this sort of says it all. A nice pottery cup, a glass of water, you know what the bottle is? That's right, he starts every drinker off with a bottle of Japan's favorite hangover prophylactic, turmeric. (If you're already hung over, either that cabbage stuff or else good old fashioned caffeine drinks must be more popular.)  I think this is both kind and demonstrative of serious intent.

Let's dispense with one other thing too - you are NOT here to eat. You are here to drink. There was a small dish of whole dried firefly squid, and then there was as much as you wanted to eat of these pre-wrapped salty snacks - kaki-pi, cheez-kama, little dried fish, wasabi squid. I'm not complaining (and the wasabi dried squid was delicious!). This is what you're in for when you visit - outstanding sake, reasonable prices, no food to speak of. You would be foolish to rule Zen out on the basis of the food.

Here's what I drank. Up-left and down-right are two varieties of Furosen, my new favorite brewer (no, seriously. I drank some a few days later and it was just as good). This is interesting - Punch gets all his sake from stores, just like you and me (one difference is that he buys them and asks them to store them at 0 degrees for him, sometimes for years; a lot of his stuff is aged, but not in a koshu sense). So he hasn't cultivated the special brewery relationships that a lot of people tout. He just focuses on getting awesome sake. He enjoys saying that he's probably the biggest Furosen bar in Japan, and he says it with a laugh that indicates he know just how small a kingdom he lords over.

Up-right, I was talking about the great shop near my apartment and mentioned that Senkin is one of the brands they have (as well as the thing that Mom and Dad really liked last month), so I got this - if I understood correctly, it's so old that it was made by the prior brewer. Punch gave me the label so I could go in and show it to them. Bottom left is a Miyozakura. These were all just great; I'm a little better able to explain what I like now, and I guess an attentive and smart sake guy can line up with that. On the other hand, if Furosen is his favorite, then we're pretty similar taste-wise, so it's easy. It strikes me that the label theory holds true here - you can tell from the attention paid to the logos that they're going to be good.

Since I complain frequently about pricing, let me close with a note on that. I don't even want to tell you how much I paid here, because I think it was so little. When you consider the quality of what he's pouring, especially the aged stuff, and the atmosphere, and the service, this is the real deal. It holds its own with any sake bar in the world.

Of course I can only speak for Japan, but it's well into the top echelon in Japan, and you'll cut me some slack on the generalization, won't you?

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.