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