Pi­quant pro­gres­sion through kaiseki clas­sics

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Indulgence - Alis­tair Jones

DON’T try to do too much. Just let it all wash over you. And make sure you have at least one good lunch. It’s not ex­actly a su­tra, more part­ing words from a friend that come back to me af­ter a morn­ing spent traips­ing around the tem­ples of Ky­oto.

As luck would have it, the ex­change rate is favourable and my river­side ho­tel is barely half a block from Ganko Nijo-en, a toney restau­rant of­fer­ing kaiseki cui­sine.

Kaiseki is the full nine yards when it comes to haute Ja­panese din­ing. Its up­lift­ing approach to food has evolved through cen­turies, al­legedly from veg­e­tar­ian snacks used to perk up Zen tea cer­e­monies.

In mod­ern prac­tice, fish and meat are in­cluded in a de­gus­ta­tion of exquisitely light dishes, each dressed beau­ti­fully on plates cho­sen to match the food, not each other, and de­liv­ered in an or­der de­ter­mined by cook­ing method. The at­mos­phere and rit­ual of the meal should en­hance this cel­e­bra­tion of sea­sonal bounty.

Kaiseki din­ners are usu­ally booked in ad­vance but cut-down ver­sions are of­ten avail­able at lunchtime. So I front up unan­nounced to Ganko Nijo-en, leav­ing my shoes at the door of this ram­bling, for­mer mer­chant’s villa from the Meiji era. There’s some­thing stern about the well­groomed wo­man who greets me and I swing into po­lite ges­tur­ing and nod­ding, hop­ing she can fit me in. I’m dis­guis­ing a self­con­scious­ness com­mon to for­eign­ers en­ter­ing for­mal Ja­panese spa­ces. Par­tic­u­larly if they haven’t rung ahead.

Grace and gen­tle­ness pre­vail. She can tell the glass-walled tatami room, shim­mer­ing with sun­light from the gar­den, is not my speed and leads me to a Western­style salon, car­peted and co­or­di­nated in mush­room pink, with dark wood trim, bev­elled glass and hang­ing lights burst­ing with tulip shapes. An en­closed veranda with more ta­bles sur­rounds the room.

To my right, 17 Ja­panese ladies are lunch­ing with a some­what re­laxed com­po­sure at the main ta­ble, all in ex­pen­sive West­ern dress, some of ven­er­a­ble age. They ap­pear to have knocked off a few bot­tles of sake. Young women in pale ki­monos and full make-up glide about on stockinged feet, serv­ing with dis­creet ef­fi­ciency.

A warm tow­elette and a pic­ture menu are pro­duced and I point to a lunch set that skips the cus­tom­ary ap­pe­tiser with sake fol­lowed by a clear soup and be­gins at the raw course, sashimi. I’m given a tiny ap­pe­tiser of veg­etable sliv­ers when she brings my Asahi beer. The sashimi ar­rives, whip-sliced with a samu­rai sword’s edge, gen­tly list­ing across the plate in a nearper­fect wave. Curved be­fore it like a beach is a raw prawn, quiv­er­ingly fresh and peeled from the neck down. Gar­nish forms a del­i­cate un­der­growth. Both the wasabi and soy sauce taste more pi­quant than usual and the pick­led ginger is the mel­low, pale yel­low variety, not the com­mon pink sug­ary stuff. Is that prawn star­ing at me? One gulp would be enough, but I bite into it and dis­cover a new tex­ture, al­most savour­ing it. I may have grown as a gour­mand. A sim­mered dish would prob­a­bly come next, then per­haps some­thing baked, in a pro­gres­sion to the steamed and grilled. I jump to the fried course with tem­pura, its thin pale bat­ter both crisp and fluffy. A doll’s house pot of pureed daikon with a tiny plop of some­thing as­trin­gent ac­com­pa­nies the light dip­ping sauce. De­tail with­out clut­ter.

Plain white rice, pick­led veg­eta­bles, miso soup and lash­ings of green tea round out the meal. I skip dessert.

A gar­den to con­tem­plate is part of the kaiseki tra­di­tion and Ganko Nijo-en’s cov­ers an area the size of three or four ten­nis courts, though you might not sus­pect it was there when walk­ing past its out­side walls. Well-placed stones, paths, a wa­ter­fall, even a plas­ter duck in the stream fea­ture among green­ery that is re­fresh­ingly un­clipped by Ky­oto stan­dards.

I start to ex­plore it, then stop. Bet­ter to just sit in the sun in one spot and en­joy the mo­ment: let the ex­pe­ri­ence of the meal and the flour­ish of na­ture wash gen­tly over me.

Ganko Nijo-en is near the Ni­jokiya­machi river cross­ing and is marked on Lonely Planet maps. Clos­est sub­way sta­tion is Shiyakusho-mae. Phone: +81 75 223 3456.

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