Archive for japan – kyoto

Komameya (Kyoto, Japan) – Yuba Tasting Menu

Kyoto was a playground for new cuisine and ideas – purposely spanning the strata of price and styles of dining. It seemed necessary to try tofu in Kyoto where they have purportedly taken the ingredient to an art, despite personal prejudices against what passes for tofu dishes in the US. Serendipity played its usual role and, despite looking for something interesting, I chanced upon Exile Kiss’s review of Komameya – home of the yuba tasting menu. What could be more fascinating than taking the infinitely gratifying textural qualities of yuba and coaxing an entire menu out of their variations?

Komameya (“little bean shop” per Kyoto Foodie) specializes in their own house-made yuba. Like many restaurants in Japan, it is a chain, with three locations throughout Kyoto. Each location offers a la carte or a “kaiseki” (re: tasting) menu. This location (near Karasuma-dori) was casual but it had an under-stated modern elegance – clean geometric lines. The waitress spoke admirable English but your experience may vary. Lunch and dinner are available.

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A Few Kyoto Sweets – Kasagi-Ya & Kagizen Yoshifusa

Kyoto might be most famous for kaiseki in culinary circles but the diminutive wagashi and namagashi, Japanese confections, might best tell the story of the entire city, rather than just the privileged upper classes. The candies themselves take on the same symbolic importance as any dish from a kaiseki meal – color and shape make reference to history, season, and legend1 – living poetry. Their quality ranges from fresh hand-made (“nama” translates to raw) to industrial production, the latter seemingly more prevalent in the simulacras2 of Kyoto.3 It is this mix of old and new, estuaries of old traditions and new practicalities that seem to define the character of the city.

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Hyotei (Kyoto, Japan) – Regal Kaiseki

For many Westerners, the kaiseki meal retains a mythical, and impossible, romanticism – an unwavering reverence for tradition, to-the-day ingredient selection, choreographed service, and a physical proximity with nature 1 – where every piece fits into a symbolic whole. The dearth of English reviews or literature further compounds the legend.2 Hyotei and Kikunoi appear most frequently in the readily accessible Kyoto guides, seemingly straddling two sides of Kyoto cuisine – the traditional and modern3, respectively. There was only time for one supreme kaiseki meal – Exile Kiss’s excellent review4 of Hyotei persuaded me to try it over Luxeat’s uncertain experience at Kikunoi.

The location could be nowhere but Kyoto. Busloads of tourists, temples, hustle, and bustle surround the area but Hyotei is located on a quiet dark street. It has stood there for over three hundred years. Our servers for the evening stood outside waiting, beacons of gustatory delight, reinforcing the restaurant’s reputation for hospitality and welcoming. After entering, you are led down a stone pathway, ducking trees and bushes, amid a Japanese garden. A ninja could jump out at any given moment.5 The tatami room, your ultimate destination, sits on a small creek, where a panel can be opened to reveal the garden. (Exile Kiss’s Hyotei review has day-time photos of the same room and the tranquil setting outside.)

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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.

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Takasebune (Kyoto, Japan) – Home Cooking

Where Tokyo fulfilled the promises of Neuromancer or Bladerunner (and these blog reports will return to that world shortly), Kyoto is a city pulled in two directions – its past and probable future. Kyoto was the first major Japanese city to enact restoration reforms in an attempt to preserve its heritage; surprisingly, it was only enacted in the early 90s. Temples and parks are still pervasive across the city but urban sprawl encroaches everywhere. The restored areas of town are incongruous with their past; while they may be historically accurate, their newness, shininess, and cleanliness come off as facsimile. But everywhere one looks, the future and past are vying for attention and control.

The Entrance – the oar, on the very left, is the tell-tale sign that you’ve arrived.

Takasebune was billed as “affordable tempura”, located behind the Takasegawa canal. A quiet, dark alley splinters off and hosts old merchant houses, including Takasebune. One feels as if one has accidentally wandered into a forgotten street lost by city planners. But the future is only a step away in Kyoto. Directly behind and above it all is a giant department store, the hustle and bustle a scant minute away. It is possible to time travel in Kyoto, where a quick turn down an alley can lead to an escape from, or return to, the 21st century. The city has a charm, as well as a history, that is missing in Tokyo.

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