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Kyo Aji Tokyo


Bu Pun Su
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I almost forgot the review of arguably my most important meal in Japan; here you go

If you had to name a restaurant in Japan that many people, including famous and highly accomplished chefs, revere the most, it’s likely to be Kyo Aji. This restaurant has been identical with excellence, perfection and ‘ichiban’. Out of my curiosity, during this trip I was talking to a few chefs including Matsukawa and it proved to be correct that when you mentioned this restaurant’s name or asked what the best (kaiseki) restaurant was, generally they concur that Kyo Aji stays at the top or very near to it. As some of you might have known, the master chef/owner Kenichiro Nishi refused the 3-star Michelin award for his restaurant.

My wife and I were very fortunate to have been able to dine here. Our dinner reservation was around 8:30 PM and we arrived 30 min. earlier. It was a windy night, colder than the normal mid-November weather. Since the restaurant was full, we had to wait: about 5 min outside and 10 min in the private room. Then, we were escorted to our seats at the counter; it’s almost in the middle. Located in the Shimbashi neighborhood, Kyo Aji’s building look traditional and simple but very Japanese – it can be mistaken for any regular house except for the kanji sign at the entrance. The decor inside was also quite humble; hardly representing “fine dining” places as I know in Europe/America. One thing caught my eye was a counter made of a single slab of hinoki – it’s still robust and really clean given this restaurant has been around for more than 40 years.

Let’s come to the substance: the food. A typical Japanese kaiseki place, Kyo Aji only served one menu – Chef’s omakase. It’s quite long and I was very pleased with it. The top dishes I ate here easily among the best stuffs I’ve ever had in Japan. Here are my top 3-4 dishes:

- Taiza-gani (snow crab from Kyoto). This crab’s quality was stunning; its meat, with some kani miso, was pristine and delicious. I also enjoyed the succulent egg sacs. Only Matsukawa’s crab dishes could be considered slightly better

- Matsutake. I was told it’s a miracle that by mid Nov this year we were still able to enjoy fresh & top notch (wild) pine mushroom. I love all of the characteristics in this “true” pine mushroom (tricholoma matsutake especially with its cap on): distinctive spicy/intense odor, meaty texture and complex flavor (a mixture of meaty, spicy and slightly sour) – just beware that not everyone would like matsutake especially for those who prefer tamely flavored mushroom. There were 2 matsutake exclusive dishes I liked very much. First, yaki matsutake - The chef managed to fully bring out its flavor in this dish. The lemon and spinach provided nice variation. Secondly, age matsutake - The dish was not greasy/soggy at all and I could still taste the pine mushroom subtle flavor. In addition, it revealed an interesting contrast of 'chewy' matsutake and crisp crust

- Hamo matsutake nabe. This hotpot dish revealed a beautiful marriage of delicious summer and autumn ingredients. It’s among the very best thing I’ve ever had in my life. The flavorful broth was extracted from pike conger eel bones and perfumed by pine mushroom. The fluffy and full body hamo looked like a flower (due to many fine slits cut into it). The matsutake offered entrancing aroma while retaining its firm texture; it's very oishii when cooked in hamo dashi. An amazing and unique delicacy, simply perfect!

There were actually no bad dish at all. Some other very good dishes were:

Shirako - This winter delicacy (Cod’s milt) showcased different textures: dry and chewy on the surface and creamy/milky inside with subtle sweet sensation. I ate many of it in this trip and the one at Kyo Aji top it all except maybe when compared to Fugu shirako.

Age ebi imo - It's very delightful, fragrant and tasty. Deceptively simple but required an expert to produce this kind of deep fried taro, which was crispy outside and still soft inside

Along with the ones at Kitcho Arashiyama, the rice dishes here are the most delicious. At the beginning, the restaurant served matsutake gohan - the rice well absorbed the earthy matsutake. Nishi-san didn't do much with it; he simply let the natural smell & taste of matsutake to shine itself. Even the tsukemono was of good quality even by Japanese standard. Then come, sake harasu gohan - The rice had very good texture that went well over carefully broiled salmon. The salmon belly was salty and a bit juicy; I should’ve have asked for another bowl ... sigh

Despite in the Autumn season, I learned that the 2 desserts we ate were more commonly served during summer. I was talking about: kuzukiri with kuromitsu - It's simple and elegant. The kuzukiri, silky with amazing texture and minimal taste, was dipped into fragrant and liquid kuromizu that had the right amount of sweetness. Together, they're producing an ethereal experience. Next, warabi mochi – it’s freshly made from bracken starch and covered in toasted soybean flour. This Kansai specialty was my wife's most favorite dessert. It's very delicate and quickly dissolved in the mouth

If you want to know more about the other dishes not mentioned here, please read the more comprehensive report from the link below. We savored about 16 dishes and surely there were a lot. But then, 3 gentlemen sitting next to us (regular customers) got a chance to eat even more; they received 1-2 extra dishe(s).

It’s a fantastic meal at Kyo Aji that I would certainly cherish for a long time. Chef Kenichiro Nishi, often labeled as "God of kaiseki", consistently brought out the natural and best taste of every ingredient and their beautiful combination. He deeply respected Japan’s produces. His dishes were clean, soothing and delicious; Nishi-san would not mask or manipulate flavor. The cooking method essentially epitomized maturity and simplicity of kaiseki perfection in which everything was in harmony. In order to fully appreciate what Kyo Aji has to offer, it would've been better if you already had (extensive kaiseki) meals elsewhere. It's especially true with my wife's case – for her, something good/delicious has to be flavorful, which is not always the case in Japanese cuisine,such as south east asia dishes that tends to use intense and rich spices. Often, she didn’t get “it” – even occassionally I experienced the same thing. Then I asked the chef/the okami about the idea of the creation of certain dishes

Although Kyo Aji is an exclusive place (introduction-only), the service was far from formal and rigid. Led by the okami - Ms. Makiko (Chef Nishi’s daughter), we felt as if we’re invited to someone’s home. She made sure we feel relaxed and had a good time at the restaurant. As a bonus, Makiko-san spoke fluent English. She patiently answered our questions and explaining every dish presented. The other staffs were also sincere, helpful and friendly. We were “flattered” when the okami was willing to share many things with us ... almost “uncensored” (given that we barely knew each other): her private life, her dad’s younger days and characters, the future of Kyo Aji etc. I decided not to leak further details as they relate to the family’s privacy. Another surprise was the interaction with Kenichiro-san. With the assistance of his daughter, he initiated plenty of conversation. For instance: whether our home/family was not affected by typhoon haiyan, what we would do during our stay in Japan, how we found out about his restaurant and so on. Furthermore, Chef Nishi asked when we intended to return here because he's already old and can be 'gone anytime - though he still looked healthy. I thought it was both funny and a bit sad. I was amazed how lively and energetic Chef Nishi was; even when he would reach 80 years of age in a couple of years (You can see his radiant face and lively spirit from our pictures). He still cooked some dishes himself particularly the ones that used Matsutake.

If there’s such thing as perfection, my first meal at l’Arpege and this one must be the definition of such thing; they reached that pinnacle of gastronomy excellence. Kenichiro-san was a very passionate chef who always gave it all. He cooked with his head, heart and soul. The result was a top kaiseki experience, rooted in tradition, combining hedonism and ritual. In the process we learn to appreciate and apprehend Japan’s seasonality. It has been privileged and great pleasure to dine at Kyo Aji. I hope it would not be my last meal here. Before somebody might ask, I would like to apologize in advance that I could not help any of you make a reservation here. Visited this place once does not make me a regular. Perhaps a concierge from certain (elite) hotels could be connected to this place or just talk to your foodie friends. We received favor from a friend’s friend who kindly reserved for us as our romantic gateway gift. Food and service wise, Kyo Aji was definitely worth above (Michelin) 3-star level.

A more detailed review can be found here: http://zhangyuqisfoodjourneys.blogspot.com/2014/01/kyo-aji-kenichiro-nishi.html

For the pictures, please open this link: https://picasaweb.google.com/118237905546308956881/KyoAjiTokyoJapan

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I cannot help but do this. Just for fun, based on personal experience - Compare and contrast of Kyo Aji vs l’Ambroisie (3 visits). Many perceive these places as the ultimate gastronomy restaurants for traditional Japanese cuisine as well as classical French respectively

Similarities

- They’re (the restaurants) known to be exclusive and expensive. Both chefs-owners were not really concerned about any awards. If there’s any big event among top chefs in France or Europe, it’s very likely that Bernard Pacaud would not show up including Ducasse celebration for Paul Bocuse or Le Louis XV 25th anniverssary. I barely saw his picture at Paul Bocuse (in Auberge du Pont de Collonges, you could see lots of (old) pictures about events attended by Europe elite chefs – but no Pacaud’s face).

- Both Nishi-san and B. Pacaud were always at the kitchen. Pacaud walked past the dining room twice during my 3 meals there; Chef Nishi will be working at the counter all the time

- Led by legendary and very capable/perfectionist Chefs. Both kitchen’s equipment was quite traditional (not that updated by today’s standard)

Differences

- Kenichiro Nishi made an effort to interact with his guests even despite language barrier; whereas Pacaud hardly smile or made an eye contact with his guests – not that he’s too arrogant, I think he’s just a very shy man.

- The service at l’Ambroisie was formal and rather stiff (gets better at my subsequent visits); they would not engage in any conversation (unless you asked for something) even when you eat alone. The nicest and most sincere person there was probably monsieur Pierre LeMoullac (former manager and sommelier). Kyo Aji, on the other hand, rendered impeccable service. Everybody was friendly and helpful, even chefs behind the counter would smile and at least make eye contact with each diner. The okami Ms. Makiko made sure each guest was well taken care of

- Kyo Aji’s decor was simple, but I felt at home throughout my meal – customer was “king”. At l’Ambroisie (with luxurious neo-venetian style setting), sometimes I didn’t feel very welcome as if they’re doing me a favor by allowing me to dine there in particular during the 1st visit. I became much more comfortable in the 2nd and 3rd visits, but the hospitality (among Parisian places) was nowhere near the level of Ducasse Plaza (D. Courtiade), Ledoyen (P. Simiand) or l’Arpege (H. Cousin & N. Socheleau)

With this, I officially completed the writings for my entire Japan’s trip (Nov ‘13). Hope a few of them has been useful to some people/readers in this forum

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  • 1 year later...

A few days ago ”La Liste” from France released its 1000 world best restaurants and ranked 3rd (and also implied as the best in Japan) was the legendary kaiseki restaurant – Kyo Aji. On the one hand, I was surprised because Kyo Aji has never really showed up in any list among top international restaurants, possibly due to the nature of being an introduction-only place; on the other hand, I was really happy that Kyo Aji finally received some well-deserved respect and (a long due) highly recognition outside Japan – though I’m sure chef-owner Kenichiro Nishi could not care less about it such as when some ‘misunderstanding’ made him refuse the Tokyo Michelin 3-star award.    

 

After having had a fantastic meal in autumn 2013, 2 months ago my wife and I were fortunate to be able to have another opportunity to return to Kyo Aji. I was very pleased upon knowing that this year, the Matsutake season came ‘early’ – meaning near the end of Sep & early Oct was pretty much the peak season of Pine mushrooms. Consequently, the dishes that we had this time were very similar to what we had a couple years ago. For instance, we had the trio Matsutake dishes at Kyo Aji:

-grilled Matsutake (aromatic & meaty with its unique flavor)

-soup made of Hamo’s bone served with Matsutake and fluffy Pike conger (the finest soup in the world with its deep flavor and very savory; so good that I did not use the sudachi and ponzu sauce this time)

-deep fried Matsutake (great texture, crisp, a bit sweet yet not greasy)

 

Many people would be familiar with Kyo Aji’s timeless dishes served towards the end of the meal: salmon belly rice, warabi mocha with abundant roasted soybean flour as well as kuzukiri with brown sugar syrup – they’re as wonderful as before. The execution and its consistency were simply amazing and this time I had another extra portion for the sake gohan and mochi. There’re only a few places where I don’t mind repeating some dishes every time I visit that restaurant. So far, I just don’t get tired of these dishes prepared here. Oh, almost forgot; we also had shirako and steamed chestnut with tilefish. I think I appreciate these dishes more this time around and believed that they tasted even better (more flavorful but always balanced).

 

However, similar to other elite Japanese restaurants – Kyo Aji also serves plenty of seasonal dishes. Some new dishes we had were:

-roasted Kamo Nasu with sweet miso and aka uni: The eggplant was sublime with delicate texture; it surprisingly tasted even better than the creamy red sea urchin but both ingredients complemented each other. The dish was enhanced by the sweet but light miso paste. A classic & unpretentious Kyoto-style dish that was executed meticulously

-herring fish and eggplant with snow peas: This was a hearty dish often eaten by common people in Kyoto. A good example of humble and rustic dish that was phenomenal, perfectly executed and full of umami flavor. The nishin was tender and somewhat salty; it helped bring out the optimal flavor of the juicy nasu. In contrast to the soft eggplant were the fresh and firm snow peas

 

Not so seasonal, perhaps more like “celebration” items

-the Tai sashimi here was arguably one of the best we’ve ever had even by Japan’s standard. It had a wonderful natural flavor and firm flesh  

-rice with adzuki beans (solid texture but minimal flavor) + white miso soup (deep and concentrated, about the same level as Nakamura’s miso soup that’s served with mochi)

-grilled Tai head served with ‘green’ sauce (vinegar + herbs) to enhance the sea bream’s flavor. The most delicious part was the part below the fish’s eye (eye muscle?). The white flesh was generally delicate and inherently sweet but it had plenty of bones around the cheek and jaw.

 

In addition to serve outstanding food, Kyo Aji also delivered an exceptional service. It was personal and heartwarming despite the fact that there’s some communication gap between us and the master chef Kenichiro Nishi (mainly due to our limited Japanese). However, action spoke lauder than words. Wearing geta and supported by his cane, Nishi-san himself greeted us in the beginning, escorted us to the counter and even push our chairs. At the end of our meal, in the windy and chilled weather, again Nishi-san, accompanied by his daughter, bid us farewell with smile and stood there until we’re not in his sight anymore. Such a gracious host and chef! And he’s still doing this when he’s nearly 80 years of age.

 

Makiko Nishi, the okami, also did a fantastic job. She explained the dishes clearly and became the ‘bridge’ between us and her father. Like in previous visits, mostly with my spouse, we’re talking about many different things – kind of like longtime friends that came from afar. For this special occasion, Makiko-san kindly allowed us to drink the restaurant’s kokuryu junmai ginjo from Nishi-san’s personal collection. It was rich, smooth and balanced with a quick finish. This time, Ms. Makiko dressed in modern clothes. She was not around in the restaurant until we arrived (the other 6 guests were locals) so we guessed that she came to work during that lunch because of us. We felt very grateful and honored.      

    

I also had a chance talked to her about Kyo Aji’s restaurant policy. It was not too complicated actually for foreigners. In summary, non-regulars could call the restaurant and speak directly to her – she speaks fluent English. They can reserve without any introduction, most likely for lunch (sometimes be seated at the private room) given there’s any empty seats. The only challenge: she’s not always available to pick up the phone and hope that Kyo Aji is not fully booked on your requested date. So, be patient and be flexible, you will be rewarded to have an (elusive) experience to dine at this great institution. Again, in my notes, the overall score for this dining experience was 98 or 99 pts – the closest to perfection, if there’s such thing.

 

For more detailed reviews: http://zhangyuqisfoodjourneys.blogspot.co.id/2015/12/kyo-aji-kenichiro-nishi-2nd-visit.html

For pictures: https://picasaweb.google.com/118237905546308956881/KyoAjiTokyoJapan2ndVisit

     

Edited by Bu Pun Su
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