***This is part 10 of my “Fat and Furious” trip report detailing a recent trip to Japan which included stops in Tokyo, Kyoto, and Matsuyama***
2. Star Alliance First Class Lounge at LAX
3. Singapore Airlines Suites Class Los Angeles to Tokyo
4. Conrad Tokyo
5. Eating Tokyo Part 1 – Department Store Hopping in Ginza
6. Funaya Ryokan In Matsuyama
7. Living The Onsen Life In Matsuyama
8. The Ritz-Carlton Kyoto
9. Eating Kyoto – The Search for Matcha and Geisha
10. Kaiseki Dinner at 3-Michelin Star Kikunoi Honten
11. The Peninsula Tokyo
12. Eating Tokyo Part 2 – Maids, Robots, and Cosplay
13. Eating Tokyo Part 3 – Cherry Blossoms and THE BEST STEAK EVER
14. ANA Business Class Lounge at NRT
15. ANA Business Class Tokyo to San Jose
As a food-lover (I’m not a fan of the term “foodie”, but let’s save that discussion for another time), vacations are as much about seeing new places as they are about trying new foods. And as much as I love stuffing my face with street food, for me no trip is complete without also splurging on a fine dining experience. In past trips, a front-runner for that fine dining meal has naturally emerged as we conducted our research, including restaurants such as El Celler De Can Roca near Barcelona, Steirereck in Vienna, and Astrid y Gaston in Lima.
But here’s the problem with Japan – there are simply too many world-class restaurants to choose from, evidenced by the fact that they have the most Michelin-starred restaurants of any country in the world.
Luckily, or unluckily depending on how you look at it, all of the restaurants we were considering in Tokyo didn’t have any reservations available. That allowed us to shift our focus to Kyoto, and after narrowing further to a handful of contenders, we ultimately selected the 3-Michelin Star Kikunoi Honten.
As we arrived we were greeted by the owner’s daughter, and escorted inside to our own private dining room, which even included a private bathroom.
Since we had planned to eat at a fancy 3-Michelin Star restaurant, I had been debating whether or not to pack a suit for the trip. I searched far and wide online, but there was no specified dress code. I ended up ditching the suit at home and simply wore a button-down shirt with jeans. Since you are isolated to your own room, my hunch is that you get away with pretty casual attire, and after all, you’ll be sitting on the floor!
Outside our dining room there was a beautiful Koi pond.
As we got settled in we were introduced to the concept of a kaiseki meal, and given a copy of the restaurant’s cookbook to peruse. We’d be sampling some of the signature dishes from here later on. The book broke down the difference in kaiseki menus by season, which is driven by the types of fish and other ingredients available during that time of year. Our menu would be the Spring version, which is the most popular, at least according to the waitress.
The restaurant offered 5 different levels of kaiseki menus to choose from, ranging from $120-$250 per person for the meal. We were asked to choose prior to arrival, and ended up selecting the 4th highest option. No sample menus were available ahead of time since the menu changed daily based on availability, but were told that the more expensive menus would feature more exotic and higher-quality ingredients, as opposed to more courses.
A copy of our menu was presented, outlining the 12-courses that we were about to devour. I’m a pretty adventurous eater so nothing jumped out at me at first…until I got down to the “shark fin and soft shell turtle soup”. Ethics aside, as a Chinese person I’ve been raised to enjoy shark fin as a delicacy, but the soft shell turtle sounded a bit scary.
And off we went – first up some delicious milky tofu with sea urchin to kick things off.
Next up, one of the restaurant’s signature dishes – an assortment of appetizers including sea bream, grilled squid, fava beans, mountain yam, poached octopus, and abalone. More than anything, I was impressed by the attention to detail in the presentation.
We had been dying to try some amazing sushi, and finally got it in the next course. The tai (red sea bream) sashimi was really good, but the spiny lobster sashimi was OUT OF THIS WORLD.
And the last sashimi dish, some young maguro or bluefin tuna with a dab of hot mustard on top. The spiny lobster was a hard act to follow, but this came pretty close. The fish was so incredibly fresh, like it had been plucked from the sea just minutes before we ate it.
Next up, tilefish with sticky rice in a ginger broth.
I didn’t think that anything could beat the spiny lobster sashimi, until I had a bite of the grilled smoked ocean trout. Ironically, while kaiseki menus focus on local ingredients, this was one of the only things from the meal that wasn’t local and had been imported from Tasmania.
Then some grilled bamboo shoots that had been picked that morning.
This was definitely a unique twist on the traditional palate cleanser – a strawberry sorbet laced with wasabi. I don’t like wasabi at all, but luckily it was mild enough.
One dish that I didn’t care for too much, a salad of udo stalk. GIVE ME MORE MEAT.
And now the shark fin and turtle soup. First of all, damn that’s a huge piece of shark fin. I’m used to getting little slivers of shark fin similar to cellophane noodles mixed in a huge bowl of soup, so this might as well been a shark fin steak. The green rectangle was mugwort tofu which was quite good and had an interesting chewy texture.
That brings me to the turtle…maybe I just couldn’t get over the mental hurdle of eating turtle, so I sort of put it in my mouth and washed it down. It was really, really chewy which didn’t help, and probably not something I’d look to eat again.
The perfect remedy for getting over my ingestion of turtle, a huge pot of bamboo shoot rice and one of the many bowls I had is shown below. While each course looks small and delicate, they add up and even for a big eater like myself, by this point I was absolutely stuffed.
But there’s always room for dessert and especially when it’s an amazing plate of toasted barley ice cream with sponge cake pudding.
And lastly, the kaiseki meal’s version of the petite four, and exactly what my wife was hoping for – matcha mochi with a special green tea.
Our kaiseki meal was absolutely perfect. The food was truly spectacular, both in taste and in presentation, and the deliciousness of the spiny lobster sashimi and smoked trout will forever remain tattooed in my mind (or mouth).
The service was also perfect, and our dedicated waitress’ attention to detail was immaculate. Despite being in our own room with the door closed, she had some sort of “spidey-sense” and knew exactly when we were ready for the next course and thus the pacing of the meal was perfect. Also, every time she came by with the next course, she’d wipe up even the smallest of small drops of food that had spilled off of our plates and onto the tray.
For the food-lovers out there, if you’re planning a trip to Kyoto, your trip simply won’t be complete without experiencing a kaiseki meal and I can’t think of any better place to have it than Kikunoi Honten.