Australia’s favourite chef Tetsuya Wakuda named Kikunoi as one of the top kaiseki restaurants, so I kept his recommendation in mind when going through the Osaka-Kyoto Michelin guide. To my pleasant surprise, I discovered that there were two branches of this venerable restaurant in Kyoto – the 3-star restaurant Kikunoi Honten and slightly more accessible Kikunoi Roan (2 stars), and both offered reasonably priced lunch kaiseki.
I settled on Roan as the line “the prices are set reasonably low so as ot make Japanese ciusine more accessible to young people” promised a less formal environment.
We arrived in Kyoto on a crisp, sunny morning of November 30th. Last day of autumn! That meant that we again would be dining on the dishes that would highlight autmun flavours. Now I keep thinking, how different the next day would hav been?
Nevertheless, we arrived in the restaurant slightly late as the taxi driver did not know the location and simply dropped us off on the main road. Luckily, his rudeness was immediately balanced out by an exceedingly helpful gentleman who walked a good ten minutes with us straight to Kikunoi door.
At Kikunoi, we were shown to our seats without much fuss (our luggage was taken by a hostess) and the first dish arrived shortly:
1. Amuse of tofu, Maitake mushroom, Shiitake mushroom, Yuzu.
The silky, quivering chawan mushi was an absolute delight. In fact, this photo makes me hungry – and I just had dinner!
2. Hassun (appetisers) of chestnut chips, Karasumi (dried mullet roe), Matukaze (duck liver pate with white poppy seeds), maple leaf-shaped squid coated with egg yolk and sea urchin, anglerfish liver, Mibuna, Shimeji mashroom, pine needle-shaped tea noodles, Sake-glazed gingko nuts.
This dish was an unquestionable success. Chestnut chips scattered like folliage, squid shaped into a maple leaf, crunchy ‘pine needle’ – working our way through that plate was like foraging through the autumn forest. It was exquisitely beautiful and I happily collected a double portion of fish row and liver – things my die-hard fisherman husband just cannot stomach.
3. Sahimi – first course: Tak (red sea bream), Tsubasu (young amberjack), chrysenthemum petals, Wasabi.
I already recounted my red bream sashimi experience at the Osaka kaiseki place - the chewiness was unusual and not really to my taste. However, here I was presented with a double challenge – the red bream and amberjack. It was the first time I sampled amberjack and it was even chewier! Faced with chefs casting glances at my laborious jaw workout, I felt horribly exposed and terrified of chocking. I just could not chew through it. This time, it was my husband’ turn to help me out and he graciously ate all the fish on my behalf. Phew.
4. Koshibi (baby tuna), egg yolk sauce.
Now, this was much better. The tender pale tuna melted in our mouth. This is how we like our sashimi! However, talking to one of the chefs, we came to know that it is red bream which is the ‘king of sahimi’ in Kansai.
5. Steamed course – Guji (red Wakasa tilefish) steamed with millet, baby daikon radish, yuzu peel and chrysanthmum sauce.
This was a beautiful steamed fish wrapped around millet filling, swimming in delicately scented, gelatonous broth. It was at that point that I was beginning to feel very full. Trying not to repeat my Osaka mistakes, I skipped breakfast that day. Still, I could tell that was not going to help – kaiseki restaurants are way too generous with their portions!
6. Grilled dish – miso-marinated flatfish wrapped in cedar, Japanese taro, miso.
This dish was clearly meant to be the centrepiece of the lunch. A vessel filled with smoldering coals and maple leaves held two singed bamboo clams. Suddenly, I was transported to a countryside where smoke rose from burning fields and fallen twigs crunched under gumboots. It was a triumph of seasonal cooking.
7. Rice course – Rice with salmon row, chinese cabbage soup, Japanese pickles.
Mmmm….Japanese pickles! Delicious – crunchy, salty, sweet, sour, the full umami range of flavours. Again, I was getting desperately full, just when this divine salmon roe rice was presented to us:
Sigh. Why or why my stomach so small? If there ever was a rice to stuff oneself silly with, that was it. The chinese cabbage soup was smoky and had a thicker texture than miso shiru, reminiscent of pea-and-ham soup.
8. Dessert – caramel ice cream, buckwheat flour sponge cake.
The dessert was nice – but I was a poor judge of taste as at that point, I realised I could not eat anymore. You know that feeling when all food becomes tasteless, once full satiation is reached? Well, I was well past that point. My husband cleared the plate for me, and slowly we raised from our seats.
It was a wonderful, delicious lunch and I felt nurtured by food, hospitality and atmosphere of Kikunoi Roan. As far as 2 Michelin star Kaiseki restaurants go, lunch at Kikunoi offers amazing value and experience. Don’t miss it!
118 Saitomachi, Kiyamachi Shijo Sagaru, Shimogyo-ku Kyoto
Tel. 075-361-5580, fax 075-351-2431