Most people say a trip to Kyoto is nothing without doing two things. That is visiting a shrine or temple and the other is eating Kyoto ryori. Ryori is the Japanese word for ”cuisine.” Kaiseki is a special style of ryori famous for being born in Kyoto and is primarily when a meal is served as a series of small dishes that keep with seasonal ingredients.
Wagokoro Izumi is a Michelin starred restaurant that specializes in Kyoto kaiseki. Fall is a great time to visit for this. There are particularly special components of the meal that peak in autumn, just like the leaves around Kyoto. These include matsutake mushrooms, conger eel and new rice. Many of these ingredients do not make it out of the Kansai region let alone Japan they are so fragile and so high in demand. So you must travel to them.
Once again, we used the hotel concierge to help book our meal, and to communicate my food allergies. The restaurant was fairly easy to find. It lacks the pizazz that many kaiseki restaurants have – many have private gardens for contemplating while you dine. This was a simple affair. During the day it could have doubled as a doctor’s office or licence/registry office back home in Canada. When we arrived we were shown to a small private room, and waited for service to begin.
Although there was most definitely a language barrier, the hostess (chef Izumi`s wife) did her best to engage and entertain us. That is very much a part of the experience. We could hear her gently laughing and interacting with the table next to us, and I honestly felt bad that I could not have a conversation with her. I am certain her social skills were second to none.
In the privacy of a closed off room, I was given an opportunity to shoot each course as it came in. I will go in order here. Forgive the lighting; it was really odd. (n.b., comment about doctor’s office earlier)
There are two things to learn from this dinner; presentation and seasonality. It was beyond shocking to eat a meal of this calibre, with this much thought behind it. It is not an overstatement to say that nearly everything had a meaning during the meal, from the dishes used to the look of ingredients to the way they were placed.
We were at first given a small cup of light yellow tea. It was savoury and slightly fragrant; smelling something like popcorn. Which is fitting as it turned out to be genmaicha tea, which is sometimes called “popcorn tea.” Genmaicha means brown rice tea, in the most direct of translations. It is also known as the “people`s tea” because it was originally served in lieu of dinner to stretch out rice supplies. It is made by roasting rice kernels, giving them a toasted scent, and imparting the flavour to the tea. The kernels are very puffy and light and a bit chewy when you eat them.
I am embarassed to say that I am not sure if Wagokoro Izumi follows traditional kaiseki dish order, but it seems to fit, so I will try to slot dishes into the courses I think they are meant to be.
Sakizuke course (a starter, meant to awaken the palate): Ginko nut with a piece of soft shelled turtle, wasabi, yuzu and dashi aspic gelee
Ginkgo nuts are strange. The night before at a small izakaya we got a bar snack of roasted ginkgo nuts and were hooked. If you have ever had boiled peanuts, the texture is somewhat like that. Chewy, very nutty. They have a very starchy texture and are surprisingly filling. They were a nice counter to the gelee.
When I was looking at these photos, I told Mike I could not remember what fish this was. He said he thought Izumi-san said it was suppon, or soft shelled turtle. I was sure he was wrong, and wanted him to be, but when I looked up photos of the meat it seemed he was right. It was so tender that it could pass for a whitefish to be honest.
Along with the dish, we got a small saucer of Niigata nihon-shu, or sake. Niigata rice is said to be some of the best in Japan, so it makes sense that the sake made from it is delicious.
However, we also got a decanter of some local sake, and it came in this beautiful bottle. It seemed almost Turkish in style. Normally when dishware does not match, it drives me crazy, but I really appreciated every single piece that came out at Wagokoro Izumi. Probably because I knew the thought that went behind the choosing of each piece.
Futamono: (lidded soup course) matsutake mushrooms, yuzu and hamo eel
Next up was a soup made with matsutake mushrooms, piercingly clean tasting yuzu peel and a piece of hamo, or the locally famous pike eel which was just on its last seasonal legs – it is a very summery food here. Hamo is a very complex dish to serve, as it is riddled with coarse, thick bones and it takes skill to slice around them. The meat arrives like a puffy cloud of eel that blooms in the broth and is very beautiful. Matsutakes are almost meaty in their texture. Very dense, tasting and even when simmered in broth, smelling vaguely of pine. It is no wonder they sell for upwards of $2000 a kilo.
The broth itself was earthy and savoury, the very dictionary definition (if dictionaries were taste indexes!) of umami. The chef is said to think broth is very important and makes it a big component of his cooking.
Normally I am not a fan of laquerware, but if all my own personal dishes came inlaid with mother of pearl, I am sure I could come to love them. The dishes arrive closed, so that when you are ready, you open them and are enveloped in a cloud of scents and warmth, and get to see the elaborately decorated inside of the bowl lid. It is a delightful way to take in a soup.
Mukōzuke (sashimi): squid, young salmon, toro (fatty tuna)
A large ceramic “basket” was delivered next, full of crushed ice with pieces of sashimi sitting on top, hovering on a wire basket to keep the pieces from falling into melting ice. Fresh wasabi root and a fine salt accompanied the pieces, which were delicate and delectable. We were told to either combine wasabi and salt or wasabi and soy with the fish. Both had equally pleasing flavour enhancing qualities, but I think I prefered the salt and wasabi combination.
Hassun (seasonal main, means “Of the sea and mountains”, combines a variety of items): Kyoto style pressed mackerel oshisushi, salmon roe, chestnuts, seasonal vegetables, egg custard, fresh edamame, persimmon leaves
The pinnacle of the meal was the hassun course, which was the most autumnal dish, I thought. It consisted of pressed sushi, salty Hokkaido salmon roe in carved out young yuzu fruits, chestnuts, little pots of seasonal vegetables topped with bonito shavings, fresh edamame in their furry pods, and two pieces of baked (for 6 hours!), orangey eggy castella sponge cake (of Portugese influence) set amongst imperfect persimmon leaves. Pressed sushi is very much a Kansai-region style dish. This was mackerel layered onto rice and pressed.
When going through the photos I said to Mike, “I cannot believe they picked such ratty looking leaves to plate,” but then he reminded me of the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi. This is that imperfect things provide greater contemplation when meditating and are more visually interesting than perfect things.
From Wikipedia: “Characteristics of the wabi-sabi aesthetic include asymmetry, asperity, simplicity, modesty, intimacy and the suggestion of natural processes.”
In this case, I believe the leaves were chosen to highlight the changing of the seasons, which was very apparent during our visit to Kyoto, and is a very important part of the city’s identity.
Yakimono (broiled seasonal fish): Broiled ayu fish, locally harvested from Lake Biwa
The most fantastically presented dish, I thought, was the ayu fish “swimming upstream.” Like the sushi, they also came on a large ceramic basket, which was painted to look like waves were on it. The fish themselves were skewered and grilled in a swimming position and placed amongst pine. They came with a simple vinegar based seaweed sauce for dipping, and were eaten whole.
Unfortunately I thought this dish was the most disappointing in terms of flavours and textures. Crunchy and salty, sure, but I kept dipping and redipping the fish in the vinegar hoping to glean some more flavour from these little guys.
Naka-choko (palate cleanser): yuba with a dollop of ginger and shiso blossoms
Yuba, or curd of soybean, is a precursor to tofu and is best described as the “soymilk skin.” It is kind of slippery, like a thin yogurt. Very fresh and light. This was topped with tiny shiso blossoms and ginger.
Takiawase (vegetables with fish): abalone with leafy greens, yuzu peel and red pepper.
Gohan (“rice” course), Kō no mono (pickles) and Tome-wan (miso soup): Fine rice, roast beef, pickles, miso soup and mochi
Finally, our last dish was rice, served with a delicate roast beef and tsukemono, or pickles. The rice was really fantastic, and they left the entire “pot” with us to eat until we were full. We also got another lidded soup, with miso and mochi balls in it.
Mizumono (dessert): Seasonal fruits with sesame pudding
Dessert was a simple presentation of fruits, including three kinds of figs, melon and pear with a piece of sesame pudding. It had a great texture, somewhere between soft pudding, gummi candies and tofu.
And finally, the culmination of the meal, and supposedly the reason kaiseki exists; to be able to take in the strong matcha tea, which can be difficult on an empty stomach (so I am told.) Kaiseki was a way to help fill the stomach to consume the tea.
The tea service consisted of whisked thick matcha tea along side a matcha dusted okashi, or sweet. The matcha we got was some of the best tea I have had. I suspect this is because it was actually koicha; matcha made with more than normal amounts of powder to thicken it and also made with a higher grade, older matcha.
The sweet was a custard style filling, rolled in matcha. Sort of a petit fours service to close off the evening.
Shortly after we finished, Chef Izumi came in to visit and we said “gochisosamadeshita” many times or “thank you for the feast.” He was very humble. His wife and him followed us out into the street as we strolled away into the Kyoto night. We looked back one last time, and the couple bowed in unison, thanking us for taking part in their evening.
Here are some non food details, mostly pottery and serving ware photos
A rather stark arrangement in our dining room.
Individually wrapped toothpicks
Serving ware for the gohan course
Pine plate for the ayu fish course
Adorable dancing man on the matcha tea cup
Beautiful tea pot for our mid dinner tea service; one of three kinds of tea we took in that evening.
The lampshade reflected on the table.
A scroll in the room we were seated in.
京都府 京都市下京区四条新町下ル四条町366 四条敷島ビル 1F
Closed Wednesdays, open for lunch (11:30～14:30, last order at 13:00) and dinner (17:30 ~ 21:30, last order at 19:30)
They do take credit cards