Address: 570-265 Gionmachi Minamigawa, Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto
Since it was my boyfriend’s first time in Kyoto (and Japan), naturally we had to have kaiseki. After a lot of research and discussion with my friend, Gion Owatari was at the top of our list, and I was informed that it has one of the greatest values as well. They were fully booked for the night we were going to be in Kyoto but lucky for us, my friend is a friend of his :p So even though they do not typically do lunch, Chef Oowatari was nice enough to open for lunch! We felt bad to have him open just for three of us so six of us went (he has eight seats in total).
Eating kaiseki in Kyoto can be a somewhat intimidating affair but Chef Oowatari was so friendly and funny (he is actually originally from Osaka) that he can put anybody at ease. He was the main man behind the counter for the whole meal, and two apprentices would come and go as they brought out the cooked components and helped with the plating sometimes.
The first course was (I think) one of his specialty dishes- an amazingly smooth gomadofu (sesame tofu) with uni. I loved the texture of the gomadofu. He said he mixed it really well to obtain that beautiful texture. Sort of glutinous, sort of bouncy…
Next up was a perfectly tender abalone with junsai (an aquatic plant with a… pardon my language… mucus-like substance surrounding it). This was the tiniest okra I have ever seen (very beautiful too).
The next dish was one of my favorites. Anago (sea or conger eel) over mochigome (glutinous rice), topped with a tiny bit of fermented soybean and yuzu zest. Yuzu is now available in the US but the real stuff from Japan is way more fragrant. The flavors of this dish were so subtle yet so concentrated.
I love ayu. I usually have only eaten them grilled (or fried as tempura), and this was the first time I had them breaded and fried. I asked him why they were so bent and he explained that it’s because they were alive when he fried them! He also told us that he chooses not to bread the whole body.
The sashimi that was served next had an insane texture. It was an ainame (not sure of the English name) and apparently it was caught carefully by hand to minimize stress on the fish…???
The next dish was also one of my favorites and the dashi was amazing. Inside was tamagodofu (egg tofu) with bits of suppon (snapping turtle) in it. My mouth is drooling just thinking about it right now!
Next was tako no nimono (braised octopus). We asked him the secret behind the tenderness and he said that he freezes the octopus in a super freezer. That seems to be a popular method for tenderizing octopus as freezing breaks down the cell structures.
The next course was amadai (tilefish) cooked with its scales, which was something we had at La Cime. But here, Chef Owatari grilled the fish over binchotan (white charcoal) so the fish was more fragrant, fluffy and juicy. He brushed the scales with oil so it crisped up nicely (amazing texture!).
I hadn’t eaten shark fin in years because of ethical reasons, but I couldn’t decline this next dish that came out. The shark fin was cooked in a chicken soup thickened with kuzu, and the bamboo shoot that was served with it was called ma-dake, apparently only available for two weeks during the whole year. The broth was incredible.
Amazingly by the time we got to the rice course, I was not that full! This is what I love about Japanese food. You can enjoy a chefs tasting without feeling sick. The rice was cooked in the red claypot and it was served with sansho jyako (small sardines seasoned with sansho peppercorns), house made tsukemono (pickles) and this amazing smoked trout. He instructed us to smear the trout on our rice until it starts to melt slightly. I had two servings of rice and he also gave us a bite of the okoge (crispy rice sticking at the bottom of the pot).
For dessert, we had kuzu mochi (unlike any kuzu mochi I have ever had before), which is made with arrow root and topped with roasted soy bean powder. We were then served some matcha, which concluded our amazing lunch at Gion Owatari.
Eating at a restaurant with only eight seats, with a chef who constantly communicates with you as he cooks, really makes you feel like you have been invited to eat at somebody’s house. This is the kind of feeling that you often get at small, intimate (not only high end) restaurants in Japan, and you almost never get in New York City. The smallest restaurant in New York City I’ve been to is Blanca, but even that place (with 12 seats I believe…) is no way near as intimate as Gion Owatari and many other restaurants in Japan. On top of that, a restaurant like Blanca has about 2-3 cooks besides the Chef, and an additional two people working front of the house (with 1-2 dishwashers I assume). I have always felt that Japanese restaurants run more efficiently than restaurants here in New York City. Apparently he was working by himself (no apprentices) when he first received the one Michelin star!
Lunch here was around US$150 each, including beer and sake. An amazing deal indeed!