Warning! There’s a photo overload in this post, but I couldn’t leave out a single course, you’ll see why.
The word Kaiseki has a history. The Japanese kanji characters that make up the word literally mean ‘stone to the bosom’. This refers to the warm stones that monks-in-training held inside their robes to stave off hunger, but it eventually became known to refer to the elaborate degustation-style multiple course meal served at formal tea ceremonies.
These days Kaiseki is an art form that balances the taste, texture, appearance and colours of the dishes served. Kaiseki chefs will only ever use fresh seasonal or local ingredients and pay very close attention to presentation. The most interesting part for me, is that the dishes are served on carefully selected plates and bowls chosen to enhance the appearance and seasonal theme of the meal.
Roan Kikunoi restaurant in Kyoto is famous for three generations of owners. The current owner, Yoshihiro Murata, is extremely loved in Japan and has written several successful cookbooks. He has two Kaiseki restaurants in Kyoto and one in Tokyo. On the day I went to Roan Kikunoi in Kyoto he was there, which I was pretty pleased about.
We sat at the bar and watched some of the 8 courses get prepared. Our chef described most ingredients but I couldn’t quite catch it all – I didn’t want to look nerdy with a notebook! Sorry if I can’t tell you what everything is, please just enjoy the mystery.
First Course, pictured above. There’s so many little parts to this dish but they all worked together beautifully as a seafood theme. The grilled prawns were tiny and crispy. I ate them whole, head and all, delicious.
Front left is egg yolk marinated in white miso. It had the most amazing soft yet slightly chewy texture and of course a wonderful umami miso flavour. Behind it is a flat disc made of octopus and octopus roe which was surprisingly dry and it sounds bad, but furry, and with a mild fishy flavour. That’s the best explanation I can give.
Far right is taro root topped with a type of roe that was very smooth and complimented the almost chalky taro root ball. In the front is a miniature flowering cucumber with some sort of salty paste.
In the back on the right is a square of grilled squid with a crispy top and soft melting squid underneath. Tucked behind the edamame pods is a peeled and steamed Japanese eggplant segment. You can see just a tiny bit of green poking out to the side. It was as silky as a perfectly steamed eggplant can get.
The first sashimi course was a sight to behold! Four perfect slices of fish sitting in a pretty dish on top of crushed ice.
There were two slices each of Leatherjacket and Sea Perch with freshly grated wasabi and cubes of ponzu jelly. Ponzu is usually a delicious dipping sauce but when made into chilled jelly it seriously reaches another gastronomic dimension.
The fish had a surprising but very pleasing firm and chewy texture due to the way they were sliced. It was intriguing.
The second sashimi course was pure alchemy. Possibly the best thing I’ve ever eaten. The three flavours absolutely sung together.
Tuna belly, wasabi / mustard paste and egg yolk dipping sauce. Unlike the other sashimi course, the tuna was lusciously soft and tender, practically sliding down my throat. The best bit was the egg yolk sauce – fantastically silky. I wished there were more slices of tuna so I could mop up every last bit.
It saddened me to have to give it back without finishing it all. If I wasn’t in a posh restaurant I would have drunk it!
Close up of the silk egg yolk sauce. Divine.
This looks very unassuming, but oh my goodness, that broth was soooo good. I wanted to bathe in it. Luckily it was perfect etiquette to slurp it all up – bowl to the lips and down it went!
It was a steamed tofu ball filled with mushrooms and smoked eel. Those little leaves on top tasted like kaffir lime leaves, but I don’t have clarification on that.
The star of the show? That moreish and supremely savoury umami broth. When I lifted the lid it was still bubbling and the smell was absolutely intoxicating.
Also, I love the golden bowl that it was served in. It perfectly captures and enhances the mood of the dish.
View inside the steamed tofu ball.
When this came out we were a little sad. Dessert already? That was quick.
Luckily it was just a palate cleanser and a great one at that. A small Japanese poached plum with a scoop of lemon sorbet on top. Very refreshing and when the next course is served we realise why we needed a palate cleanser.
Hooray! It’s another version of that gorgeous savoury broth. This time with pieces of fried eel, strips of cucumber, roasted Japanese chilli peppers (very mild), red peppers and eggplant.
We were struggling by this point but were sure to eat up every last bit. Slowly savouring it.
We finally make it to the last savoury course. Ginger rice, sweet onion soup and house made pickles; cucumber, daikon and black sesame.
I love the way Japanese people end their meal with a bowl of rice and / or eat rice separately. It’s a very cleansing experience to savour the individual flavour and complexities of well-made rice.
I’m not a dessert person, but this was wonderful. Subtle coffee flavoured ice cream drizzled with super sweet maple syrup is a very good combination. Accompanying it were sweet red beans, cubes of watermelon and chewy glutinous rice balls.
Lots of gorgeous flavours, textures, colours and temperatures. The perfect end to a truly unforgettable meal.
Our chef preparing some freshly grated wasabi.
On the right, the famous Yoshihiro Murata, concentrating.
One of the chefs preparing a daikon radish. He cut it all in one sheet! Very clever.
We got to take home the leftover rice. They wrapped it up in a gorgeous wooden box like a present.
If you’re ever in Kyoto, please go to Roan Kiunoi, you will not be disappointed.