The first time i heard about this restaurant was early in 2008, when Michelin Guide Tokyo firstly published and i was astonished by a restauranteur who rejected Michelin three star – Chef Kenichiro Nishi of Kyoaji (京味). There’s a saying that in the west (which means Kyoto,Kansai) there’s Mizai, in the east (Tokyo) there’s Kyoaji.
As one of the best Kaiseki restaurants in Tokyo, Kyoaji served Kyoto-style kaiseki at its best. However due to the “ichigen-san okotowari” policy, which means ‘introduce only’, it is almost impossible to get in unless someone who have been to Kyoaji introduced you. Luckily a Japanese friend brought me here for lunch on their first working day in 2016. Same as Matsukawa, the best Kaiseki restaurant on Tabelog that the chef doesn’t care about any awards, whereas reservations for new comers are only accepted during lunch. I was told they are actually running a same Omakase menu for both lunch and dinner, it usually coast arounf 40,000 JPY if it is not in Matsutake season, and accept cash only. Sounds pricy though It was indeed one of the best meal i have even had.
While the reason why Chef Kenichiro-san rejected Michelin is simply because a bit misunderstanding of the award, as well as chef himself doesn’t like to be exposure media very much – he just wants to serve the best dining experiences to his guests as his father do. There’s another saying that foreigners are not welcomed but of course not – Kenichiro san is serisouly the most friendly legendary chef i have ever met. But as he is already in his late 70s and he cannot communiate with oversea guests, that’s why foriengers are welcomed to come with Japanese guests.
Visited: Jan.9.2015 (Lunch)
Address: 3-3-5 Shinbashi, Minato, Tokyo 105-0004, Japan
Hours: 12:00~14:00, 18:00~22:00, Closed on Sundays and P.H.
Cost: 43,000 JPY +
The restaurant located on a quiet street in the Shinbashi-crowd, where tons of Izayaka and causual restaurants housed. The interior shows its age (i normally hate this) but gives a very warm and homey feeling. There are about 8 seats at the counter and a private room for 4 people. Counter is always the best seat as i emphasized. Head chef Kenichiro Nishi actually doesn’t cook much but the sous chef as well as 5-6 apprentices.
Ozoni is a white-miso-based soup with mochi (glutinous rice cake) people enjoyed on New Year’s Day in Japan. It was our pleasure to have this on its first opening day after Japanese New Year vacation. The flavors and ingredients of Ozoni are vary by region and household. At Kyoaji, chef prepared the soup with homemade mochi, sato-imo (里芋, taro), red carrot from Kyoto, homemade white miso and topped with some bonito flakes (鰹削り節).
Totally different from the regular savory white and red miso soup we usually have, this white miso soup itself was creamy and incredibly sweet; mochi was chewy, soft, sticky, and smooth; even the sato-imo was amazingly soft. With a umami hint of the bonito flakes, such a wonderful combination.
(Few days later i visited Kohaku 虎白, another Michelin 3 starred Kaiseki restaurant in Kagurazaka, Tokyo. They also serves New Year white miso soup but it was much weaker compare to the one served at Kyoaji. )
Next comes assorted appetizers, consists of: Karasumi (dried mullet roe), prawn, dried silver fish, fish roe, broccoli and sweet black beans. The homemade Karasumi was my favorite – a burst of oceanic flavors. The black bean was cooked with black sugar to give its a mild sweetness, very smooth and balanced the savory flavors.
Stewed taro root is a classcial dish at Kyoaji. Taro root is not often being used for cooking because similar to most other vegetable sterns, it is very hard to cook especially impressive one. I actually had cooked taro root once in China, my parents and i went on a onsen trip to a place call Wu Yi in Zhejiang Province. There is a traditional dish there is sauteed taro root with red fermented tofu. As red fermented tofu is very salty thus the dish has a bold flavor. But of course, simple is the best. I can never imagine cooked taro root could be so simply delicious before i had this, the mildly sweetness of the taro root itself was perfectly bring out, with a zest of yuzu to give it a refreshing twist.
Holy crap. The shell of Matsuba crab (snow crab) was packed with extremely fresh crab roes and ovaries, side with crab legs and crab miso. The crab itself was very juicy and has a sweet twist, both my partner and i prefer to eat it alone without dipping it into the sauce. The best part of the crab course is definitely the crab roes, ovaries and crab miso on the side.
Janurary is probably the best time to eat Shirako, because the size is getting bigger and deeper in flavor. The fugu’s shirako (blowfish’s milt) was wonderfully-grilled, pretty chewy skin and a hot, creamy inside. There was almost no seasoning in this dish – only a pinch of rock salt on the top and a slice of sudachi (Japanese lime) on the bottom, while the simple umami tastes was simply unforgettable.
As mentioned, the next kaiseki restaurant i visited after Kyoaji was Kohaku, whereas i had similar dishes such as the white miso soup as well as grilled fugu’s shirako. It is not good to mention other restaurants here but the two has a sharp comparison. Kyoaji is 100 times better than the three-michelin-starred Kohaku, it is wise of Nishi-san rejected Michelin because three star is not enough for Kyoaji.
Tai (sea bream) sashimi was fresh and clean, but indeed flavorful. While my favorite Tai sashimi by far is still from Ishikawa. Fugu sashimi was rolled with skin inside, as well as some baby leek to balance the flavor. Served with shoyu and ponzu for two kinds of sashimi. Simple and enjoyable.
Another new try in my life – sea cucumber’s ovary. It was salted and dried thus has a strong, savory flavor as well as a slight crunchy texture. Although it sounds weird to have sea cucumber’s ovary but its umami taste can let your worries behind. The sous chef proudly showed us the homemade dried ovary with a big big smile 🙂 I have heard of the no camera policy before i came here, but, seriously?
Followed by the soup dish of Japanese clam dumpling and a sliced of turnip covered on the top. The dumpling was super moist and delicious, with a chewy texture of the diced clams inside. I was astonished by the amazing knife work of the chef when he sliced the turnip in from of us, it was so thin like a layer of paper, and it didn’t even broke when i fold it as the following picture shows. The dashi (soup) itself was clean but wonderfully absorbed the umami and sweet flavors of the clam and the turnip.
Although i don’t like to see the same ingredient being use twice in a meal, the white miso again made it. Same as the miso used in the first dish, the sweet white miso was used to grilled together with the lobster from Ise province. The lobster was succulent and its mildly sweetness works well with the miso paste. The pickled radish with a slice of pepper nicely cleanse the palate.
The last dish, or the meat dish, beforing serving rice was simmered duck with radish and spinach. Duck was medium cooked to its best, the balance of the lean and fat was right to point. Really loved its smooth texture and deep flavor. The turnip on the bottom was sweet and juicy. Well-done.
The most famous dish at Kyoaji is probably the rice dish, and because it is a signature one, this rice dish is served everytime you visit Kyoaji, unless you have special request. When i heard about the salmon belly rice for the first time, i chuckled and told my friend that salmon is the fish i liked the least, and i don’t think i will surprised by a rice dish with grilled salmon belly. But seems i was wrong – it was that good. The salmon was so soft and delicious, the skin is no doubt the highlight – wonderfully grilled to golden, crispy, aromatic. It is already out-of-world but i think it can be out-of-space if the rice itself could be perfect as Matsukawa’s.
Before serving the dessert, chef came and ask us whether we want the Kizukiri or Warabi-mochi for dessert. We both picked the signature Kuzukiri without a second thought. Kuzukiri is a traditional Japanese ‘sweet’ made of Kuzuko (葛粉), powder of the root of Kudzu plant. In Kyoaji, the kuzukiri was freshly made before serving, it was wonderfully cut into thin ‘noodles’ and served with homemade black sugar syrup on the side. Seriously the best Kuzukiri i have ever had!
Kyoaji totally changed my view of Kyo-ryori (Kyoto-style kaiseki), it was indeed one of the best kaiseki meal i have ever had. Every single dish looks simple but the flavors really hit my heart directly. Chef Kenichiro Nishi is possibly the most friendly chef i have met by far, he is already so famous but he is 200% not arrogant. He is already 78 years old this year and can only walk very slowly, but he still trys to walk around to greet his guests at the counter and even those sit at the private room on the side. He kindly uses pretty sliver chains to wear the napkins in front of the chest for every single guest, i tounched his hands unconsciously and his hands were so cold…iced. He told me that a Japanese chef can only have cold hands because otherwise it will destory the original flavors of the ingredients. I was really moved by his persistent spirit, and wish he can always be healthy, long-life, and bring the best dining experience to his guests.