Yagenbori (Kyoto, Japan) – Kaiseki on a Budget
I thought Yangebori would be an “intermediate” kaiseki meal, sandwiched between the rustic Takasebune and revered Hyotei reservations. Yagenbori is billed as a cheaper alternative to the Kikunoi and Hyotei’s – a concept that reduces cost by eliminating, or down-scaling, the expensive pottery, geisha-like servers, and high-end ingredients that most customers (re: tourists?) won’t necessarily appreciate.1 There are obviously ritual and symbolic components that would be sacrificed with this approach (that, admittedly, would probably fly over my head anyways); but, based on the food itself, I thought this could be a very solid meal given Kyoto’s food reputation.
Sometimes, I am shocked by my naivety.
This meal was not as good as the previous day’s kaiseki meal at Takasebune. It wasn’t a bad meal, and it probably wasn’t over-priced at $100/pp, but the terrible sashimi course hung over me like a very dark cloud for the remainder of the meal.
Yagenbori is located in the geisha district on the east side of Kyoto. Young women do not scurry about but the dark streets have a sinister quality to them at night. There are few, if any, women walking around, save for the random tourist. Groups of men could be drunken marauders. The store-fronts/clubs are mostly anonymous, peppered with neon kanji at all levels, and the few English signs evoke a Sadeian spirit. Yagenbori sits in the midst of this impenetrable mystery.
The Beast Chucky 666 (my favorite – no matter what transpires inside!)
There’s an eight-person bar with four exposed rooms behind. Two chefs work at the long counter with a supplementary kitchen, and staff, in back. Our waitress spoke enough English to explain the dishes – she was very charming. Pictures can be found at this Flickr set three rows from the bottom (for I did not take any of the interior for some reason.)
Shirasu cracker, Egg with fish, Marinated eel, Shrimp sushi – Beginnings, nothing remarkable, but a wide variety of tastes and textures. It was clear that the dishes would be more in-line with the home cooking of Takasebune than the rigidity of Koju.
Matsutake broth with Hamo (Pike Conger Eel) and lime - The soup had a slight earthiness with hints of lime but it still lacked much dimension. Unfortunately, as if often the case, the eel was completely over-cooked by the time it was served.
Sashimi platter – Bonito & Snapper – A lesson in something I already knew – when bad raw fish is served, I get upset and the rest of the meal goes downhill. This was, even by American standards, fishy and poor. The searing of the bonito could not hide the taste and its color was anemic.
Hamo paste w/ citrus jelly – This was a valiant follow-up. The slightly acidic jelly proved a nice foil to the hearty, comforting paste. In a nod to fulfilling the owner’s concept, the wasabi came from a tube instead of being grated fresh. Nevertheless, this was my favorite dish of the night.
Skewered Ayu w/ roe – The fish were kept in a tank, plucked out, and skewered on demand. The chef made an incision on the stomach and the roe would immediately balloon out and slowly continue expanding over the next few minutes. The fish was tasty, thanks to its decent char, but the “meat” of the dish was roe – lots of it – its texture, once grilled, dry and crackly. The Ayu with roe is a late fall specialty of Kyoto, usually only available during a few weeks of the year.2
Tempura – Yuba, Sama tempura, Ginko nut – This was a clumsy dish where the coating completely overpowered the ingredients. It could be a style I am not familiar with, and thus can’t appreciate, but it just tasted like eating chips. To their credit, there was no grease.
Squid w/ Miso paste – The miso paste was applied a little too liberally for my tastes, as well as being a touch cloying, but this was a solid dish. The squid quality was by no means exemplary but it was a well conceived dish.
Rice, Shirasu, miso soup, pickles – The shirasu was a great (salty) addition for the rice – lots of umami. Pickles in Kyoto are an art form and, despite generally disliking pickles, I learned to devour them at the ends of my meals.
Apple pear & peeled grape – Fantastic fruit, the grape was something else, the only ingredients of the meal that truly shined.
This was only my 3rd major meal in Japan but, already, I could sense there were clear divisions between good, great, and excellent. While it would not be fair to judge this experience against Koju, considering it is a proper kaiseki meal, the food was just not as careful nor were the ingredients as pristine. It could be compared to Takasebune, but that meal just felt more honest and careful, a mom & pop fulfilling the promises of Kyoto’s food culture.
Yagenbori confirmed there would be misses in Japan, much like France and the US. Considering the number of possibilities in Kyoto, my recommendation would be to skip Yagenbori and shoot for something else, perhaps The Beast Chucky 666!
1 – As luck would have it, I can not find the article that originally stated this. I picked Yagenbori from Diane Durston’s Old Kyoto, a book that, despite recommending this restaurant, I still whole-heartedly recommend for any travels to Kyoto.
2 – Per the beautiful Kikunoi cookbook by Yoshihiro Murata and Masashi Kuma.