Notes from Japan: Kikunoi, Kyoto

November 16, 2013

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This golden sake cup, almost weightless and just large enough to cup comfortably in your hand, seems like the perfect symbol for the serenely elegant Kikunoi. The restaurant quietly strives for a luxurious and old-fashioned perfection.  Chef Yoshihiro Murata has described himself as trying to "accurately communicate Japanese food to the world."  

A few hours at Kikunoi is very much like going back to another time when women in kimono entered tatami rooms and knelt to serve you a parade of poetic courses. 

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The first offering in this meal for "the season of frost"  arrives wrapped in a scroll of paper, with a gingko leaf adorning the top.  Open it up and this is what your find:

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Poached ankimo with mibuna and shimeji mushrooms

Karasumi (bottarga)

Duck liver pate with white poppy seeds, maple leaf made out of cuttlefish coated with egg yolk and uni in an edible basket woven out of kombu (the pine needles are actually noodles). 

At the very front, sake-glazed gingko nuts.

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 Yuzu tofu inside a hollowed out yuzu with diced yuzu on top.

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 Red snapper, prawn, vinegared chrysanthemum petals.

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 Slices of young tuna with a thick sauce made of egg yolk and excellent soy sauce.

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Tilefish steamed with chestnuts and millet in a chrysanthemum sauce.

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Hiding inside this tiny vessel is an astonishing sorbet made of yuzu and wasabi; it has the same effect as the trou normande in a French meal. The spicy, icy shock completely clears your palate.

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Barracuda grilled in cedar.

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A lovely light salad of persimmon, daikon, carrot, chrysanthemum and mitsuba with sesame dressing and crab. We ate this so gratefully that it left us completely unprepared for the shock of the next course….

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That large curve in the turnip and grilled onion soup is an entire shark fin.  We all looked down at our bowls in dismay.  Shark fin is enormously expensive, and Murata-san was honoring us by offering it in such profusion. But we've all pledged not to eat shark fin, and our soup went back to the kitchen untouched. Our hope: Murata-san will get the message.

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Steamed rice with roe, napa cabbage soup, pickled thistle root.

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A perfectly ripe Daishiro persimmon splashed with Cognac.

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Chef Yoshihiro Murata with Hiro Sone of California's Terra and Ame.

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