Kikunoi Honten, Kyoto
May 9, 2010
When I read that René Redzepi, the celebrated chef at noma, had answered Steve’s question about his best meal of 2009: Kikunoi in Kyoto, I quickly arranged a reservation for Linda and me to dine there on April 16, 2010. I had originally thought that we would limit our Michelin three-star experience in Japan to Hyotei, but then couldn’t resist adding the three-star Kikunoi Honten.
On this rainy night, three greeters with umbrellas met our taxi at the front door. After we removed our shoes, we were escorted through a series of corridors and steps to the very last of the eleven rooms. It had the obligatory scroll and flower in a niche, but we were too far at the end to have a view of the floodlight garden. (I took the photo leaning out the window.) The other walls of the room seemed strangely unfinished. The good news was that there was a heated well for our legs under the low table.
A cup of light tea was served.
The cookbook of the chef, Yoshihiro Murata, with its forward by Ferran Adrià, was put on the table. To our pleased surprise, we were each given a detailed printout in English of the evening’s menu. In Luxeat’s amusing blogpost of her meal at Kikunoi, she describes trying to look up all the dishes in the cookbook because they did not have the printout. Neither her server nor ours spoke any English.
When we had made our reservation, we had chosen the next to most expensive of the four price levels.
The first course was
Tai (red sea bream) milt tofu, white bait, ponzu jelly, spring orchid
Exotic, interesting flavors. The red saucer was used to serve an aperitif cherry blossom sake.
The sake for the rest of the meal followed. It was the “Kikinoi Special Brewed Sake” and was good.
The second was an elaborate serving of appetizers in a wooden box.
There were well defined flavors here: nice.
Sashimi of prawn and tai (red sea bream), Suizenji seaweed jelly, needle-cut daikon radish and ginger bud, curled udo stalk and carrot, wasabi
The tai was very thinly sliced, which is aesthetically nice and avoided chewiness, but made the fish seem bland. The prawn was good.
Sashimi of young maguro (bluefin tuna), mustard, soy-marinated egg yolk sauce
The maguro was excellent. The dab of mustard on top was very hot and needed to be used carefully. The egg yolk soy sauce was thick and clingy, which has advantages for dipping.
Here you can see that Linda is still eating her tai and the maguro has already been put in front of her. The pace was like this all evening, with many courses brought in while we were still eating the previous one.
Steamed Wakasa tilefish, cherry blossom petals, cherry leaf, warabi fern heads, toasted rice crackers, ginger juice
The soup was served quite hot; it became even more gelatinous as it cooled. This dish for the cherry blossom season was okay, but nothing special.
Grilled bamboo shoot, mustard and vinegar soy sauce, salt and sudachi citrus
I don’t understand why a restaurant in this category is using such a big piece of bamboo shoot. The smaller, fresher pieces have more and better flavor. The grilling served no purpose; one ate only the inner part, which had been cut into bite-sized pieces. Even the sauces were uninteresting.
Ocean trout basted in hot oil
The trout was fresh and good. The hot oil bath worked well as did the grated daikon on top. The square of fried fish skin was flavorful and a good texture contrast. Bravo.
The jelly dressing was nice, but what seemed to be octopus was tough and uninteresting.
Beef braised Yamato-style, miso and mustard sauce, bamboo shoot, rapini, needle-cut white onion
The beef was okay, but not as good as Japan’s best. The miso sauce was cloying and a bad match. The bamboo shoot was braised in a good dashi this time, but that didn’t make it interesting or a good match with beef.
The finishing kaiseki course was
Bamboo shoots and kinome again! Boring. But the spinach and white miso soup was unusual and good.
Pistachio ice cream, mango soup
Imaginative and good.
“la la bean mochi”
This fresh confection of sticky rice was very good.
Despite some good dishes, the meal was very disappointing considering the category, reputation and price of Kikunoi. We did not enjoy it nearly as much as the meal the previous night at Zeniya in Kanazawa or the following night at Akai in Kyoto. I don’t think that chef Murata would have served René Redzepi or Ferran Adrià three courses with bland bamboo shoots, even if they were in season. We have learned that small, young, fresh bamboo shoots can have a lovely flavor. And so we left hoping that Hyotei would not also be a disappointment. Stay tuned.
Kikunoi‘s English website: