On the same axis of the Kodai-ji Temple Nishikawa calibrates the balance of traditional ryotei cuisine with a casual and social ballast to the iconic, yet serious three Michelin star Kikunoi kaiseki restaurant in Kyoto. The pentagonal philosophy of traditional Japanese cuisine is adhered to with an unpretentious wink of the chef Masayoshi Nishikawa, who merrily engages in conversations, and above all, during the intimate encounter, he serves his selected sake and locally sourced food with a genuine happiness imprinted on his still youthful face. His – we-are-equals approach reminds of the Tokyo-based three Michelin kaiseki chef Kanda. The sense of humour did not evaporate from the kitchen, just look carefully at the photo bellow.
Entering the privacy of the ryotei through wooden sliding door, snaking along a narrow path, appreciate the minuscule Japanese garden. Then, perhaps wash your hands in the stone basin and contemplate the flower arrangements and art scrolls (a big bellied, bold-headed man with long ear lobes – must be sated, wise and long-living, I thought) while switching your shoes for the provided slippers in the waiting lounge. Clean and neat, your hostess Okami ushers you to your seat.
There are private rooms at Nishikawa, but since the chef-owner Nishikawa-san is very friendly and can speak some English, the more casual counter is best for the first-timers and foreign foodies. The low seats with hand rests provide enough comfort for the long meal. Here also, the counter dining is an open affair. An eye to eye contact with the chef directing his apprentices operating the grill assures delicious, not austere like at Hyotei, another Kyoto kaiseki, nor too contemporary Kichisen‘s style of food.
Behind the counter, chef’s single-edged knives (to glide through sashimi smoothly) proudly nest on a rack bellow two shelves displaying handmade Japanese pottery. The chef’s special sake, like a rare liquor gem pulls your curious eyes in to its container, an engraved crystal carafe with a sapphire blue bringing out an engraved snow flake. From the very broad selection of sake, this was my favourite, balanced and round, like the chef’s palate. First though, we were welcomed by a generous pouring of a yuzu sake stirring our taste buds in a fresh direction.
The most gustatory vibrant time to eat at Nishikawa is spring, when the crisp young bamboo shoots and sensai wild mountain vegetables such as fiddleheads and the slightly tingly kinome (young sansho pepper leaf) or kinako are used. Different colours, flavours, shapes, temperatures and textures are presented in a preset order of the kaiseki form. The Michelin Guide, awarding him two stars, says: “Each dish is made memorable with playfulness and stimulates all five senses”, but there is more to Nishikawa’s cuisine than overthought culinary concepts, we tasted a locally curious soul in his delectable tasting menu.
Starting with a refreshing crab covered by a creamy and sweet saikyo miso sauce, green stem vegetables and leek-like white vegetables, to pair with the yuzu sake. Then moving springly to a katsuoboshi (dried bonito flakes) broth with bamboo, sesame tofu, broccoli and tingly unopened wild buds of kinako served in an amber hued lacquer bowl, known as suimono, a clear broth, tuning our palates to the current season. A third course was mackerel sabazushi with spicy wasabi stems and pickled ginger. The marinated mackerel in its glittering fine scaled coat enveloped its sticky rice base tightly, so your fingers confidently flip the morsel into the mouth. A whiff of vinegar, the bite of the silver blue fish, like a waterfall flowing into a calm lake eases your palate in its mellowing stream of rice.
Followed an assortment of spring sashimi. White-fleshed fish is preferred in Kyoto cuisine, in April the sea bream is called after cherry blossom season sakura dai. A chewy red sea bream (madai) with umeboshi (sour Japanese apricots pickled in salt) vinegar and a duo of green bracken fern (warabi) shoots, a lobster with its intense sauce, and for the final bite escalating to a buttery rich Hokkaido uni. A comforting warm course was on call. The bowl of boiled, crunchy white asparagus shaved over with bottarga (dried and aged fish roe that Nishikawa-san adores) was superb. On the bottarga note a crystal-clear plate of Kekkon clam next to a wasabi topped rich clam liver of a fresh prawn texture and oyster taste looked unappealing but was delectable.
Grilled, yakimono fish course was reassuring the anago fans that Nishikawa shares his craft diligently with his cooks. The perfectly grilled sweet lake eel was served with an oily profiled nodoguro fish and Kyoto scallion (negi). An adorable, glazed earthen cup of hamaguri covered with a lid unveiled a boiled clam with green vegetables simmered in a broth (nimono). The clam felt like an oyster but less briny and more firm. Now, a plate for the adventurous – a fresh, crunchy and firm ark shell (akagai) with boiled octopus in mustard miso sauce and soramame broad beans with green pea zest – was great, worth the sea escapade. Great Japanese chefs know that akagai is at its best if eaten within minutes after removal from its shell, and so it was.
An awe on the plate continued. As if frozen in their death screams, two open-mouthed charcoal grilled ayu swam into our mouths. This freshwater fish is essentially eaten fresh. The crispy skin of the ayu had a firm bite. A bitter taste from the entrails calls for salt so the sweetness comes out on the palate, not for everyone though. A sea cucumber roe laid over the mini fishes was so intense, like uni, but more like a stinky cheese, required guts, yours, to swallow it with joy.
Welcoming then was a thick broth simmering in a smooth Honshu abalone with spring vegetables, herbs, a white fish tempura (agemono) that was just amazing! Multi-course meal is a blessing, sometimes.
Now a smooth, roasted houjicha tea was served with a gohan. Assorted on a tray (oshiki) of beef sukiyaki with raw egg yolk and daikon, Japanese cucumber and ume sunomono (vinegared), a miso soup with tofu and sticky rice that you mix with soy sauce and the egg – lusciously decadent, superb! The assistant inquires if you need more rice, reaching deep into his donabe pot of the steamy hot gohan. Sated, you must feel.
Still, light deserts end the kaiseki on a sweet note. Roasted and starchy warabi powder dusted a gooey mochi completing the spring tasting before a refreshing fanfare: Kyoto strawberries with sorbet and jelly served in a stunning crystal glass.
To drink, a beer, sake, green tea, water, but no wine, since that is not local. For sake, you pick a glass of your liking from the kimono-clad Okami. A rainbow of bottle labels stopped over at our seats, a veritable sake tasting requiring a considerable bravado to toast through with a clear mind. A Junmai Ginjo Karakara Beppin by Tojo Yamada Nishiki, a premium sake brewery since 1636, and a suite of other memory-fogging names followed. My husband did it all, I sniffed and sipped with a feminine restraint. The roasted green houjicha, sencha and at the finale of the savoury kaiseki tasting, served before the desserts, the Kyoto staple of perfectly smooth matcha tea is whisked, with an assistance of his apprentice, by the chef himself.
Away from Kyoto, the engaging chef Masayoshi Nishikawa leads occasional cooking classes and demos at the Tokyo Peninsula.
Still, traveling to the ancient imperial capital rewards with an authentic experience. Unlike at most kaiseki restaurants and despite its location in the gaijin dominated Gion, mostly the Japanese, not many tourists dine at Nishikawa.
Lunch: Tuesday-Saturday 12noon (L.O.); Dinner: 6-8pm (L.O.)
Closed Sundays except before a Public Holiday and Public Holiday Mondays.
Price: Lunch menu: ¥5,400-21,600; Dinner: ¥16,200-32,400 Service charge 10%
473 Shimokawaracho, Shimokawara-dori Yasakatoriimae-sagaru, Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto
+81 (0)75 525 1776