This was the splurge dinner of my annual holiday outing with my siblings and Mum at the venerable 3-Michelin-star Kikunoi Honten located in the lovely Gion-Maruyama entertainment district of Kyoto serving fine Kyoto-style kaiseki cuisine.
Kikunoi means “chrysanthemum well”, so named after the legend of a local well sprouting spring water in the pattern of a chrysanthemum in full bloom. The restaurant itself was founded in 1912 and is currently helmed by the third-generation owner-chef Yoshihiro Murata, a world-acclaimed chef who once served on Singapore Airlines’ international culinary panel.
It’s always fully booked; I’d to call upon my well-connected Japanese friend in Tokyo to pulled some strings to get me a reservation. He didn’t disappoint; not only were the staff waiting to greet us at the door as we disembarked from the taxi (the driver called ahead to ask for directions); we were assigned an amazingly elegant private tatami room complete with a footwell as I’d told him that my Mum had bad knees and wouldn’t be able to sit on the floor. The huge room opens up into garden on the edge of a natural forest, where you dine to the chorus of crickets and frogs and relish the fresh air, attended exclusively to by an immaculately-coiffed elderly lady in kimono; she must be nearing 60 but yet so sprightly and cheerful.
We had pre-booked the 12-course Kaiseki dinner. The appetisers were an assortment: smoked saury with saffron rice; chestnut puree; glass shrimp marinated in Shao Xing wine; braised roe-bearing Ayu sweetfish; sake-glazed gingko nuts; gingko-leaf-shaped sweet potato; pine-needle-shaped tea noodles. Mind-boggling to think of the time to put this together, and just to start!
Next came the turnip, walnut miso sauce with crushed walnut – a simple assembly but yet delivering such subtle tastes; the soft plain turnip balancing the richness of the miso and the crunch of the walnuts.
What’s Japanese cuisine without sashimi? We had the seasonal Tai (red sea bream) and rudder-fish, with vinegared chrysanthemum petals, wasabi, mixed sprouts, curled udo stalk and carrot. Very fresh.
Another sashimi, this time an unusual rendition – the Sashimi of koshibi (young bluefin tuna) dotted with wasabi is served with soy-marinated egg yolk sauce. Simple, elegant, heavenly.
To clear our palate, next up was was hot soup-tea: Hamo (pike conger), matsutake pine mushroom, and mitsuba herb steamed in a teapot and served with yellow yuzu citrus. Refreshing.
Then we started again with salmon roe in grated radish and wsabi, served in a lovely cup. Observe the intricate design on the spoon – all cutlery and crockery are specially designed for each course.
It was the season of Ayu – a sweet-fish that’s particular to the region. The roe-bearing fish is salt-grilled over a fire in front of you, watched over by the lady server, and served with candied yuzu and tade (waterpepper) vinegar. Beautifully grilled, the sweetness of the fish contrasted well with the salt.
As intermezzi, we had an assortment: smoked salmon with daikon roll; marinated young Spanish mackerel; salad of fresh cucumber with grilled maitake mushroom and shiso leaf; poached foie gras with chrysanthemum salad; tai sashimi and liver pickled in salt with mountain yam; and cuttlefish pickled in sake lees with crumbled egg yolk – a clever mix of Western and Japanese ingredients.
My brother is a vegetarian and the chef customised a menu for him – I just took a shot of his mixed vegetable tempura that’s presented in a carved box. He said it was delicious.
The star of the evening was the main course of simmered lobster (a whole sizeable half) in yuba (soy milk skin), snow peas and a touch of yuzu citrus zest. I love the bean skin; slippery and a great accompaniment for the firm and sweet lobster meat. Needless to say, the stock was slurp- worthy.
We had a flask of hot sake to g with our meal.
I’m a carb-man, so the end of a Japanese dinner is always exciting for me – noodles or rice begs the question? This time it’s the matsutake mushroom rice cooked with mitsuba herb, and served with pickled radish, turnip and turnip greens, kombu seaweed; fried lotus roots and turnip soup. The entire pot of freshly-cooked piping hot rice is served at the table. We are stuffed but the moist and firm grains of mushroom-infused rice is irresistible. I went for it.
A sweetish citrus drink was served to cleanse our palate before dessert.
We slowly savoured the dessert of chestnut rum-raisin-fig cake with Hojicha (roasted green tea) ice-cream while sipping the strong green tea as the chorus of chirps, trills and croaks of the forest creatures wafted in through the opened shoji doors.
Toothpicks magically appeared at the table – not surprisingly intricately handcrafted crafted from bambo0.
This was one of the most exquisite dinner I ever had. The food is very good, but it’s the entire experience that overwhelms you: the heritage of the restaurant; the beautiful locale and gorgeous traditional Japanese house; the elegant decor and inviting ambience; the ingenuity and experimental daring of the chef; the top-notch quality of the ingredients; the complexity the dishes; the artistry of the plating; the uniquely-designed utensils for every course; the meticulous attention to very single little detail; and not least the stellar and genuine service – all these combine to create a cutting-edge dining experience that yet somehow retains its traditionality. As the dinner ended, a few staff escorted us to the entrance, waited while I bought the cookbook, alerted us once our taxi arrived, and bowed as they watched the black cab pulled away. What an amazing culinary journey!